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Decision Making in the Family of God

Ideas for church leaders to make decisions like the family of God rather than like a competition or our government.

Every once in a while, thoughts will pop into my head. I’m not sure where they come from or what stimulated them to suddenly show up, but they do. When they do, I often write them on a note pad that I am almost always in possession of for such a moment. Occasionally I need to capture them on a random scrap of paper. Usually, after a day or two, I cross them off my list or throw the scrap of paper away – but occasionally the idea sticks and won’t go away. This article, as has been true with many that preceded it, is the result of a thought that won’t go away.

If we are the family of God, how should we make family decisions?

EFCA’s local church polity always seems a bit weird to me.[1] I don’t disagree with it at all, but it seems weird. We believe that the local church is a Christocracy, not a democracy. The members are under Christ but are the highest governing authority under Christ. Yet the members, after selecting or appointing the “principal governing board (elders, deacons, etc.)” are to entrust “much of the decision-making to godly leaders who are trained, trusted and allowed to lead.” And scripture teaches us to submit to and follow our leaders.

So, if I get this right, Jesus is the head of the church followed by the collective members who appoint various leaders that the members choose to follow. It seems a bit like what we see in our system of government where a constitution is the highest authority, the voters elect “leaders” to do governance for them, and we agree to follow them until we don’t want to do that anymore at which time we do what is right in our own minds. Sounds like the book of Judges. 

One can see how a local church could find itself drifting toward behaving more like a democratic republic than the family of God. We may have more experience with and knowledge of secular governance than church governance.

In my ministry with EFCA West and in my own church family, I have come across many churches and leaders dealing with church governance issues. As I thought about this topic more, I came up with five concepts that may help church leaders and members better grasp the difference between leadership in a democratic republic and how we make decisions and lead in the family of God. I hope the list is worth talking about with your leadership team and even the congregation. The conversations could be lively, fun, and illuminating. How we lead is something to talk about.

The primary focus in decision making is not “What do I want” but “What has God created us to do and called us to do in this situation?”

We live in a society that highly values individual preferences over submission to authority, and this oftentimes bleeds over into the church where God is our authority, and our preferences don’t really matter all that much. Leaders need to ensure that we don’t imply that God has spoken where He has not (“The Lord led me to paint the kitchen light blue.”); but where He has spoken in the Bible, we are required to obey. This is where the “be strong and courageous” encouragement is needed. Note that God told Joshua to be strong and courageous three times as he became Israel’s leader, but only once did He say, “be strong and very courageous.” That was when he said, “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you…”[2]

We leaders need to be “very courageous” when tempted to not do what God has commanded us to do. How does your team handle pressure from others to do something that is other than what commanded? How do we address those that tell us what God’s will is when God hasn’t shared that message with us?

Create an atmosphere of mutual inquiry in our deliberations rather than winners and losers.

I know of stories of team and board members that more closely resembled a jousting arena than an assembly of godly leaders seeking God’s guidance on a matter – I’ve experienced it, too. When we move to deciding or voting on an issue too quickly, whether because of time pressures (“We need to get to the end of this meeting”) or by setting an arbitrary time limit on discussion on the agenda (“We need to move on because we scheduled only 10 minutes for this item”) we can inadvertently create a culture of winning/losing or of voting on issues we don’t really understand rather than a culture of inquiry and learning. 

Robert’s Rules of Order are a very poor substitute for acting like the family of God.

I wonder whether the Apostle Paul had Robert’s Rules of Order in mind when he wrote to the church in Corinth that “all things should be done decently and in order.” [3] Robert’s Rules, first written in 1876, were an adaptation of governmental parliamentary procedures for use in public meetings.[4] How did the family of God decide things before 1876? If the church is the family of God, should we model our “rules” for meeting together after those of the government or those of scripture? Granted, there is oftentimes sin in the camp resulting in behavior that is not in keeping with God’s standards of conduct for His children that can cause dissention and disorder. But do we really want to be in or to lead a meeting by Robert’s Rules or by God’s rules?

How do we maintain “order” in our church and leadership meetings? Is it like the family elders gathering to decide an issue or is it a parliamentary competition for persuasion and managing disagreements and divergent opinions rather than resolving them? Something else?

Unity is a great outcome but a terrible goal.

Over my past 10 years with EFCA West, I have worked with many churches that fell prey to the outcome of pursuing unity or unanimity in their decisions. Usually, their crisis was preceded by group think or the desire on the part of one or more people who understood that the decision should be other than what the majority wanted, but was unwilling to say anything because their goal was unity and he/she didn’t want to be the one to spoil that unity. Sadly, the person(s) that shrunk from expressing their concerning thoughts were the ones that needed to do so to prevent the poor outcomes that ensued.

Unity is the outcome of a good decision-making process. So, what is a good decision-making process? Let me suggest that our goal in making decisions is to determine the best decision possible under the circumstances and then to unite around it. A unanimous vote should not be required as they cause dissenters to vote against their own best judgment on the matter. I have been the odd man out on a few decisions at my own church. I was thankful that I was able to vote with integrity rather than feigning unanimity. I was more thankful that the decisions I was against proved to be good decisions.

What is your team’s goal in decision making? How do you determine the best decision possible under the circumstances?

The essence of shared leadership and leadership teams is the wisdom of the group, not the strongest voices winning. 

I am a proponent of shared leadership and multiple voices in church leadership. The pastor is not “king” with the board in place to “support the pastor.” Rather, a plurality of leaders speaking individually toward a joint decision generally supports better leadership outcomes. It also serves to check misconduct whenever a more prominent leader goes off the track. “Multiple voices” is simply having people other than the lead pastor preaching on occasion – the concept of trusting other teachers to join in the instruction and equipping of the congregation. One of the concepts I recommend is that each leader, including the pastor, be expected to lead in the areas in which he/she is gifted. It is comforting to not be expected to be an expert on a topic or situation in which we have no expertise.

Is your church’s leadership shared? If so, how? And, if not, why not? Who are the voices that give the congregation instruction and encouragement?

I sometimes have the strongest voice in the group. A technique I have found effective in having other team members speak to a topic is for me (and other strong voices) to speak last. Ensuring that everyone else has the opportunity to speak about a matter before I do ensures that others are heard and that I don’t dominate.

How do you manage the strengths of the various voices on your team? How do you ensure that all are heard?

Pen and notebook

What would you add to the list of things to do to ensure that there is decency and order in our deliberative meetings? How do we structure our deliberations to ensure that the Fruit of the Spirit is evident in our meetings? These are important topics and, most definitely, something to talk about.

Let us know if we can help and how your conversation goes. Contact Bob Osborne by e-mail at bob.osborne@efca.org

This is one of a series of articles intended to facilitate and guide church leaders’ conversations about significant issues that often are not talked about among pastors, boards, and church leadership teams. Visit the EFCA West website to see prior Something to Talk About articles.


Evangelical Convictions, second edition, appendix two, pages 243-245.


Joshua 1:7 (NIV)


I Corinthians 14:40 (ESV)

Bob Osborne

Bob Osborne is the director of church health for EFCA West. He is passionate about equipping, encouraging and strengthening church leaders: “Our good intentions are not enough; we actually need to implement them.”

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