CALLED TO SERVE: OVERSEERS
More than a dozen stakeholders have been nominated by two or more of their peers to serve as an overseer at Mountain View Church. Their peers see something in them they want to follow. Now the overseers will work with them to discern whether or not they are being called to this role. There are up to three available positions. The instruction below is what I have written for them to help them understand the role and the process. It seemed helpful enough to share publicly as well. It’s longer than my usual posts.
“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1 Timothy 3:1, NIV)
Calling has an internal part and an external part.
Internally, you must feel called by God to this role. You must believe that God wants you to do this. The role is too significant and will require too much of you to do it half heartedly. Initially, you may simply be willing to serve. That is a great starting point! But this process is designed to help you move from willingness to clarity and from clarity to conviction.
Externally, you must be called by the leadership of our church to serve in this role. With many more qualified candidates than available positions, this will take discernment by those already called to be overseers. You can be assured that God is calling you to this if the overseers sense the same call and the body of stakeholders agrees.
If you are not called to this role at this time, you can rest in the assurance that God has another part for you to play in the body. Every part is needed.
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Corinthians 12:12–20, NIV)
Trust the Spirit-guided community process.
Discerning this calling is a process that happens in community as the body listens together to the Holy Spirit. The process begins and ends with our stakeholders.
As our stakeholders listen to the Holy Spirit, God leads them to nominate those stakeholders who are the kind of leaders people want to follow.
When a new leadership position was needed in the early church to oversee practical aspects of the ministry so the apostles could stick to their calling, the church body selected from among themselves people full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit.
“Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”” (Acts 6:3–4, NIV)
Between nomination and ratification by the stakeholders, the discernment work moves to the candidates and the overseers. Those candidates who believe God is calling them to serve as an overseer spend time in prayer and reflection around the role and their readiness for it. They fill out a leadership application designed to help them process their calling, character and circumstances. Then candidates meet with a small group of overseers for an interview. The overseers then have the responsibility to prayerfully discern which of the candidates to formally call to the role.
The main criteria for this decision are (1) Godly character, (2) alignment with church values and mission and (3) diversity of gifts and perspectives that are lacking on the current team. Discerning these things is the purpose of the questions and interviews.
Those candidates who are called are presented to the body in advance of the annual meeting so other stakeholders have a chance to express their concerns (if any) and then vote at the annual meeting to confirm their appointment to represent them in this important office.
“They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve . . . (1 Timothy 3:10, NIV)
A good tree bears good fruit.
The general qualification of “full of the Spirit and wisdom” is made more explicit in Paul’s letter to Timothy. The fruit of wisdom should be evident in their marriage and family relationships, their relationship to money, alcohol, sex and anger. The fruit of the Spirit should be evident and their reputation should be above reproach. They should have a good track record of following Jesus over time.
“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.” (1 Timothy 3:1–7, NIV)
These standards, taken strictly as requirements would seem to disqualify anyone who is not a perfect, married male with children (which even disqualifies Jesus since he had neither wife nor family!). But the intention of the passage and others like it is clearly that we select leaders who are the kind of people we aspire to be like. We don’t need leaders that are perfect, but they should be making progress toward Christlikeness. They should be able to say with the apostle Paul,
“Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV)
Though the doors of the church are wide open to all, those we call to leadership should be already leading the way to where we want to go. They should be women and men of character living authentically with themselves, in intimacy with God and love for each person as they pursue the restoration of all things.
Women are needed too.
I mention women explicitly because there are many who take the male examples given in these scriptures as prescriptive rather than descriptive. Combined with some of the Apostle Paul’s specific advice in particular situations about women being silent in church and not usurping authority over men, they deduce different church roles for men and women as normative. (see 1 Corinthians 11 & 1 Timothy 2)
But the same apostle who said these things said women should cover their heads when they preach or prophesy and that in Christ the old gender, class and ethnic distinctions are irrelevant. He also had women in leadership on his team and called some of them apostles. (see Romans 16) Clearly, there are cultural and contextual reasons for limiting our own freedom in some cases like those described in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, but normalizing sexism, racism and class distinctions is never Christian.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:26–29, NIV)
I have taught on this and my own progressive journey to this understanding on several occasions and I don’t have the space to do that here. But for further study, please start with these resources. If you come from a more traditional patriarchal perspective as I did, I think you will find these messages helpful to broaden your understanding of scripture and the importance of context in interpretation. Men and women bear the image of God equally and we are better when we are together in partnership.
What is the role of an overseer?
While the Bible uses different terms sometimes interchangeably though with different nuances, none of the roles in the Bible correspond exactly to any positions in the modern church. But the principles of Christian leadership are the same across the board whether they describe elders, overseers, bishops, shepherds, deacons or leaders. The point is not the title, it’s the calling to serve, oversee and care for the church.
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28, NIV)
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:1–4, NIV)
Notice how both Paul and Peter use the terms elder, overseer and shepherd interchangeably. Elder is more about the kind of person who does the job – older, respected members of the community. Shepherd is a common metaphor for any type of leadership, but especially recognizing that you are entrusted with someone else’s sheep! And overseer is a general term for the job of care and oversight.
1. In our context, what they oversee and care for first of all is me in my role as the lead pastor.
Overseers help carry the weight of responsibility for decisions and for the direction of the church. I love the men and women I serve with on this team and they love and support me. The different perspectives they offer and their insight into the needs of the congregation help us make better decisions and make me a better pastor. I would never lead a church without wise people, full of the Holy Spirit walking with me.
2. The second thing they oversee is the spiritual welfare of the congregation.
Overseers need to be in touch with the people and bring the needs of the people before each other and God in prayer. They oversee the spiritual welfare of the congregation through recommending programs, ministries and teaching that would be helpful. Time is given to studying together to understand and represent the positions of our church family on crucial topics in our church and culture. Preserving the unity of the church and keeping the main thing the main thing is an important part of their role. Overseers must have the maturity to bring balanced and gentle instruction and correction to the people. They must be able to see multiple points of view and gently lead people to grow. Agenda or issue driven people are necessary to the life, progress and thinking of the church, but they do not make good overseers.
3. Finally, they oversee the business affairs of the organization.
This team reviews our budget regularly and keeps us on track. They determine what ministries and initiatives we will pursue and what causes we will give to. They approve policies and major staffing decisions and generally oversee the direction of the church ensuring that we stay on mission and financially sound. As a team, we regularly evaluate church strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from a “30,000 foot level” and do long term strategic planning. Overseers don’t “get down in the weeds” of the day to day operations of the church. Their role is to keep us on track with the big picture of our vision, values and long term goals.
Our executive pastors (Cheryl Klem and Brandon Brickley) regularly attend overseer meetings as the non-voting participants who are executing the ministry objectives under my direction as the lead pastor in concert with the overseers. This diversity of roles and responsibilities working together in unity is the core of what keeps our church healthy and growing. Teamwork makes the dream work!
OK, I think that is enough for now.
Hopefully, this information about how things work behind the scenes at MVC is helpful for you as you seek to discern your calling. If you are willing to serve and believe you meet the character qualifications I encourage you to take the next step. Read through the bylaws. Fill out the leadership application. Write out your answers to the questions. Do all of this prayerfully asking God for guidance and being willing to accept the guidance he will give through the process and through your leaders. They have all been in the position you are in and they are solid people committed to help you discern God’s call.
Please know that you are free to jump out of this process at any point. Don’t pursue this role out of obligation or just because someone else thinks you should. Do this because you feel and believe you are called to it. I know that involves risk, because what if you are not chosen by the current overseers? Whatever you do will take faith: Faith to trust the process to God. Faith to say no believing God will put the right people in place. Faith to say yes, willing to risk being wrong. It’s faith from beginning to end.
Trust God. Trust the process. And trust that I am praying for you as you seek to discern God’s calling. Feel free to reach out to me or to the overseer who contacted you with any questions you may have. May God bless you and grow your faith through this process! It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.