How Do Churches Choose Its Leaders?


This is a guest post by Ty Grigg, co-pastor at Life on the Vine.  

Recently at Life on the Vine, we sensed that we needed to call more people as shepherds (or elders) who could bring their gifts into leading us to follow after our Lord faithfully.  But we are still a relatively young church and we have not done this a lot and so we were faced with questions:

‘How do we choose leaders?’  and ‘Who chooses?’

Geoff, Cyd, and I (the three co-pastors) could have sat down and looked over our membership and handpicked some people based upon who we know, who we get along with, what gifts we have seen exercised, etc.

We could have done the same process and shared the decision with a larger group (i.e. the current shepherds).

We could have let the congregation nominate new shepherds and then we could have picked who was nominated the most or who we think would be the best suited to serve based upon those nominations.

We could have made a ballot of those who were nominated and then put it to a congregational vote.  Okay, you get the idea… we didn’t do ANY of those things.

Instead, we tried something new (to us), mostly ripping off a process outlined in Selecting Church Leaders by Charles M. Olsen and Ellen Morseth.  At the heart of the process is a belief that the Holy Spirit can and will lead us in discerning leadership among us.

Briefly, here are the steps we followed:

  1. Ask the congregation to nominate shepherds who were qualified and gifted.
  2. If someone was nominated more than once, we asked them if they would be open to discerning serving as a shepherd.
  3. If they were, then they were given a discernment packet as a guide in prayer, reflection, Scripture reading, and discussion with others.
  4. After a few weeks, all of the pastors, shepherds, and discernmentarians (yes, that’s a word) met together for a time of worship, listening, and discernment.  There was 12 people discerning, and 25 of us total.
    • We worshipped and read Scripture
    • Each discernmentarian (I love that word!) privately wrote on a slip of paper a gift that they bring to the body and offered it on the communion table.
    • Each discernme person answered 3 questions that they were all given in advance.  They had five minutes to answer all three.
    • All 25 of us wrote the names of 3 people on a slip of paper (and we could write our own name down as well).
    • Several shepherds looked at the tally.  There were looking for those names who had an overwhelming majority.  Two names emerged.
    • We did it again, removing those two names from consideration.  There were two more clear names that emerged.
    • A few days later, the shepherds met to discuss what we sensed from the meeting and what we heard – we decided to put two more names forward – bringing our total up to 6.
    • We closed praying the Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology.

What I liked about this process:

  1. We included those who were nominated to participate with us in the discernment process.  The decision was made much more transparently and I think this not only eased any resulting tensions about outcomes, but also built a sense of unity and energy among us.
  2. How often do 25 people from a church get together and share what they are passionate about?  Forget selecting church leaders!  This was a powerful experience.  Why don’t we do this more often?  Regardless, of who was selected to be shepherds, as a church we need to hear and encourage these passions among all of our members.
  3. I was somewhat surprised by the results which led to me wondering, “Where are you leading us Lord?” – and as a co-pastor, that is the question I want to be asking!

What could have been better?  I think the process was a little rushed.  We needed more time to discuss what we heard collectively or in small groups after everyone answered the three questions.  I am convinced that is a key step.  Listening to the Spirit cannot be rushed.

I offer our little experiment as an alternative model to the pastors making the decision model or the congregational vote model.  The church is not a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy – but we strive to be led by the Spirit as a pneumatocracy (I love that word!).

I would love to hear what other churches do to discern and select church leaders.  Offer your ideas and stories in the comments.

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12 comments on “How Do Churches Choose Its Leaders?
  1. What our community often practices in the midst of never-fading leadership vacuums is well represented by the image you posted at the top of this post. The Ring (the need) is intentionally placed before the community (public and personal communication by current leadership). Who feels the burden? Who will stand in the gap? Who wants to serve in the advancement of the kingdom? Often, a Frodo arises to take on the burden. This is probably true for many of our small group leaders (shepherds).

    What I appreciate about the conversation you’ve engaged in here, Ty, is that you’ve invited us into a communal, Spirit-driven decision-making process. I like the emphasis on listening and multiple-stages of “torture testing” the nominations and responses of the discernmentarians. For those who were not selected, what did they think about this process? What does a communal, Spirit-illuminated evaluation of the leadership choices look like (e.g. 6 months from now?) – or is it more organic and relational as situations arise? Is this a process you are engaging in for elder-type leaders?

    I also wonder if this process might aid in affirming a new shepherd’s sense of call.

  2. Ty Grigg says:

    Hey Jonathan,
    It was certainly a risk to bring all that were nominated into the process knowing that not all would be selected. Disappointment is inevitable at times. If someone feels hurt or disappointed privately, rather than publicly, is it really any better? It leads to the question, “Can we, as the church, hold public disappointment with tenderness, honor, and appreciation?” We also tried to be explicit that the process would yield fruit for each person who participated and we would seek to nurture the gifts that each person brings – being selected as a shepherd would just be a subset of discerning gift and its place in our body. I’m sure there were some questions, self-doubts, etc. but the mood of the group at the end seemed celebratory.

    We have tried a similar but not quite as comprehensive a process for those who want to lead us in worship and preaching during the summer months as well. I think the process could be used for many different situations where discerning roles is required.

    For our shepherd/elder board, the expectation is that the shepherds would serve for at least 3 years and then communally discern whether to stay on as shepherd or to move away. So I anticipate that this will be a once every three year practice for shepherds/elders.

    Thanks for commenting Jonathan!

  3. Tim says:

    Your ideas are refreshing and a huge step out of the top dog option or the democracy option.
    If everyone nominated was deemed qualified, why were some rejected? Did you have a predetermined number and no more? If so, why? Were you open to the possibility that God wanted you to have more shepherds than you did?

    • Ty says:

      Great questions! Yes, past experience and social dynamics of groups greater then twelve led us to cap it there. Of course, this was all worked out through conversations and reflections. But we were open to going with fewer than the cap as well.

      That is always the challenge though.. Always remaining open toward God but at times moving forward and making decisions in spite of not being 100% sure.

  4. Paul says:

    ty … thanks for sharing this. Curious what were the three questions you asked the discernmentarian (tough to spell!). Thanks. Grace to you all tonight!

    • Ty Grigg says:

      Hi Paul,
      The questions were:

      1. What gifts do you bring?
      2. How can you help lead our body into greater faithfulness??
      3. What one thing would be difficult for which you would ask for the group’s help?

      If you (or anyone) wants the whole order of service, feel free to email me.

  5. A. Amos Love says:


    Was Wondering…
    How come there is nothing in the Bible about…
    “How Do Churches Choose Its Leaders?”

    And with all the instructios Paul gives to The Ekklesia of God – He never mentions…
    “‘How do we choose leaders?’ and ‘Who chooses?’”

    Paul did mention qualifications for elder/overseer in 1 Tim 3, and Titus, that are so difficult to meet, that most congregations, most wanna-be elder/overseers “Ignore” or “Twist.”

    Could Paul have been following Jesus’ commands to His Disciples…
    Do NOT to be called “Leaders” – for “ONE” is your “Leader?”

    Mat 23:10-12 NASB – New American Standard Bible.
    Do NOT be called leaders; for “ONE” is your Leader, that is, Christ.
    But the greatest among you shall be your “Servant.”
    Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled;
    and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

    Mat 23:10-12 TM – The Message.
    And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them.
    There is only “ONE” Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.
    **Do you want to stand out? – Then step down. – Be a servant.**
    If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you.
    But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

    Jesus instructed **His Disciples** NOT to be called **Leaders** and NONE did.
    If Jesus also instructed His Disciples to – Go Make Disciples? – He also told them how…
    **teaching them to “observe” all things that I have commanded you** – Mat 28:20 NKJV

    Jesus commanded His Disciples – NOT to be called Leaders – There is “ONE” Leader.

    So – How can you “Go Make Disciples” – If you are choosing “Leaders?”
    And NOT teaching what Jesus taught? NOT to be called Leaders?

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    **their shepherds** have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    I’m Blest… I’ve returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of my soul…

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    • Ty Grigg says:

      Hi Amos,
      I think an important picture for us was Acts 13:

      13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia; and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

      We believed that the Holy Spirit was choosing and we wanted to choose in agreement with the Holy Spirit those who were being set aside for a particular work. Hope that helps.

  6. Stuart Blythe says:

    I am grateful that you have been willing to put down a description of your process. As I have reflected on it I have wondered how I might feel if I were a member of the congregation. My participation in the process would be extremely limited – nominating a name. I agree that ‘democracy’ is not the goal but at least if I vote I have to accept some responsibility and thus accountability for choices that I make. In the end this seems like albeit a wider form of leaders choosing leaders. If this is the choice this seems a good way of doing it. If the goal is involving the congregation actively in the discernment process – I am less sure.

  7. A. Amos Love says:


    Are you agreeing with me? When I write…
    “How come there is nothing in the Bible about – “How Do Churches Choose Its Leaders?”

    Because, when reading Acts 13, I noticed. “the Holy Spirit said, Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul.” And neither Paul nor Barnabus ever called themselves Leaders or Shepherds. And Acts 13, never mentions “Shepherds” or “Leaders?”

    How do you reconcile Believers, potential Disciples of Jesus, being recognized as, being called, Shepherd/Leader? When Jesus never asked any of His Disciples to take the “Title/Position” Pastor/Leader?” And, as far as I can tell, NOT one of His Disciples, in the Bible, ever took, or had, the “Title/Position” Pastor/Leader? And, NOT?one of His Disciples ever called them self “Shepherd” or “Leader”

    Ty – Have you ever wondered why?
    In the Bible, the only one with the “Title/Position” Shepherd/Leader is…

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

    Could today’s “Shepherd/Leaders” be “taking” the Name of the Lord thy God?
    And “taking” His Name in Vain?

    Ex 20:7
    Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain;
    for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall “hear My voice; “
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Voice – One Fold – One Shepherd – One Leader

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  8. Tim says:

    A. Amos Love
    These brothers look at the church through a lens that has been handed down to us by godly men for hundreds of years. Even our Bibles have words added in or translated with a slant towards a chain-of-command relationship system. You can quote all the scripture which is all true, but they have some that are adjusted to accommodate positioned and titled leaders. The word office is often added in. Some new translations remove it but they will still quote it as if it’s all there. “Elders who rule…” and “obey those that have the rule over you…” or “submit to their authority…”. It seems obvious to you and I that “rule” is an out of context translation because it directly contradicts the “no lording” texts. Ruling and lording are the same english function. They all agree no lording but when they need a little authority boost they will pull out the “ruling and “authority” verses. They are told this is what is involved in being a “strong leader”. I learned this whole system and did it. It is very difficult to see the errors that are very cleverly interwoven and wrapped into a finely woven garment that leaves behind Jesus own instructions “you are all brothers”.

    They have heard men in this system say it is wise to only have about 12 men on your elder board to make decision making go faster. They don’t realize that elders or overseers are for spiritual relationship building, not institutional management with budgets, staffing, buildings, and programs. They are content with a form of shepherding that involves very little intimate mutuality. If you want this included, then you need lots of shepherds. If you are expecting God to bring in new believers, you would want more shepherds ready to disciple them heart to heart. The chief shepherd always connects heart to heart. From what they have seen and heard, the crowd in pews approach is the main way to do church. This is the majority approach. I used to feel this way. It’s all I had seen or heard.

    I believe there are leaders, but only the kind that do not wear titles to hold a position with authority to leave other believers passive or needing to be bonked to get back in the pew and do what I propose they do. Making disciples is leading others through teaching and correcting so they grow up to lead others who are new in the faith. Leading is a simple english word that gives meaning to the greek words the apostles gave us. We have to be sure we don’t give it meanings that are forbidden in the Word that our culture or human nature want to add in. Maybe you should suggest a better english word to use where translators use the word lead if you don’t like it.

  9. A. Amos Love says:


    Much agreemen when you write…
    “They all agree no lording but when they need a little authority boost they will pull out the “ruling and “authority” verses.”

    I have seen the dangers of “Titles,” of “Pastors,” and of “Leaders.”
    Spiritual Abuse – for both the “leader” and those “being led.”
    IMO – The “Title/Position” “pastor/leader” is very, very, dangerous for both.

    And Jesus, is the only one, in the Bible, with the “Title/Position” – Pastor/Leader.
    Could Today’s “Pastor/Leaders” being taking the Name of the Lord thy God?
    And taking that Name in Vain? Exodus 20:7.

    In my experience with *Today’s*“Pastor/Leaders” and having been ordained…
    No matter how loving… eventually…
    No matter how humble… eventually…
    No matter how much a servant… eventually…

    The Pastor/Leader will “Exercise Authority” like the Gentiles. A No, No. Mark 10:42-43.
    The Pastor/Leader will “Lord it over” God’s heritage. A No, No. 1 Pet 5:3.

    “Pastor/Leader” = exercise authority = lord it over = abuse = always

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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