Do You Have a Head Elder?

I’m not talking about the elder of the month—the one who leads opening prayer, sets the agenda, and goes around the table asking, “Do you have anything to bring up?”. I’m asking: are you aware of a leader of your leaders? Have you considered the effect he has on your group. Is it healthy or harmful? How did he gain his leadership? Is he leading with the group’s permission or with the group’s resentment?

As I’ve observed this dynamic, there are toxic head elders and benevolent head elders. Consider each.

Toxic Head Elders

  • Controlling. When the meeting isn’t going his way, he says, “Well, it’s about time to go out and greet the brethren.” The group arises and follows him out the door to Wednesday night Bible study as if a log chain were attached to him and the other men in the room. If the discussion is contrary to his thinking earlier in the meeting, there’s a line for that, “When you boys get as old as I am, you’ll know you can’t do things that way.” And that’s the last time this topic is introduced.
  • Blaming.
  • Inducing guilt if you don’t agree with him. “That leads in a progressive, liberal, or legalistic direction,” rather than, “This is how I see it. What am I missing? I hadn’t considered that. You made a good point. I still don’t see it your way, but I’ll think about it. I don’t believe you’ve commented. What do you think?”
  • Speaking more than the rest of the group combined…or…
  • Waiting until everyone else has spoken, gives his judgment, everyone agrees, and the meeting is over.
  • Loud proclamations, at times with anger, expressed by words, volume, eyes, red face, glare…or…
  • Super-sweet, overly complying, clearly hurt and crushed when you don’t agree with him (Ecclesiastes 7:16; Proverbs 25:16).
  • The frequent reminder of wealth, position, past service, heroic exploits, education, and experience.

Benevolent Head Elders

  • Leader of leaders.
  • Kind.
  • Active in shepherding.
  • Strong convictions.
  • Compassionate.
  • Willing to serve.
  • Encouraging.
  • Freely dispensing grace and mercy (I’m thinking of an elder who led me for years as I write this description of a benevolent head elder).

Discouraging the Development of a Toxic Head Elder

  • Be aware of the natural tendency for a leader to emerge in a group.
  • Discuss this. One eldership asked me how they could prevent a toxic head elder since they’d experienced it in their congregation. As I recall, this is the only time in the history of the world I’ve been asked this question. My suggestion:
    • At the end of each quarter, select by vote a Head Elder of the Quarter.
    • Prepare a nice, large plaque:

This plaque is given to you in recognition of being selected by vote of this eldership as the Head Elder of the Quarter
This is probably an aberration that will not persist
Thank you for considering this observation from your fellow elders
We love you and value you as a fellow shepherd

  • Additional guidelines:
    • The elder gets to keep the plaque for three months.
    • Take a vote at the end of the next quarter.
    • Take a vote after the third quarter.
    • If the same person gets the vote as Head Elder of the Quarter for three quarters in succession, it’s time to talk about relationships. It’s not to blame and accuse the head elder because of his dysfunction. It’s time to discuss why the group permits and encourages this dynamic. If a condition is toxic in any group, it’s because “everybody likes it the way it is better than what it would take to change it.”
  • This eldership didn’t take my advice. They used the handy wastebasket. But, they didn’t produce a toxic head elder. I think their early discussion kept their awareness active. They also practiced shepherding of shepherds which can be a vaccination for the development of a toxic head elder. I’ve found it helpful to remember: “Hurt people, hurt people.” When there’s healthy ministry to others, their hurt isn’t as likely to come out in unhealthy ways.
  • If you know you tend toward toxic,
    • When you become aware of your domination, ask others to comment, and plead for their honest, helpful response.
    • Abstain from blaming, controlling, and producing guilt. Have you ever changed your mind about your understanding of God’s word or your wisdom in applying it? Were you liberal or legalist when you held a different view from your understanding now? Is it possible others are as sincere as you are when their understanding is different from yours?
    • Go on a voluntary fast from commenting during a meeting at least once a quarter. Others may not ruin the church without your ideas while practicing self-control.
  • Consider—if this domination has been going on for a long time, everyone in the group knows it although they don’t talk about it. Not only does everyone in leadership know it, but most of the church is also aware of this dynamic. It oozes out in conversations, personality, announcements, prayers, and other interactions.

The solution isn’t to eliminate the toxic head elder. If you do, another moves in to take his place. The solution is to realize everyone in the group, and ultimately the congregation is participating and perpetuating dysfunction. The group has to change to encourage and practice Biblical servant leadership (Matthew 20:25-28).

While reading this post, if you’re thinking about a certain person or persons, perhaps it’s time to “go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.  But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’ ” (Matthew 18:15, 16).

What have you found helpful in preventing a leader of leaders from becoming harmful to the group he’s leading?


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Jerrie Barber
Servant of Jesus, husband to Gail, father to Jerrie Wayne Barber, II and Christi Parsons, grandfather, great-grandfather, Interim Preacher, Shepherd coach, Ventriloquist, barefoot runner, ride a cruiser bicycle

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