The Surprising Way Decisions Are Made At Pioneer Memorial Church

Rodlie Ortiz —  March 3, 2014 — 8 Comments

As a pastor, I always felt that the holy grail of church leadership was to develop a staff-led church. (I give a full analysis and review of the model here.) In this model, the pastor is essentially a CEO. I’ve heard of churches that have changed huge systems in their church as a result of an edict from their CEO-type pastor. No oversight. No discussion. Only implementation. I’ve done quite a bit of research on this model and was convinced that this was the way to go.

I also assumed that any large church used this model. I thought this was the only way to lead a large church.

As I accepted the call to come to Pioneer Memorial Church in 2011, a church with over 3,800 members, I was keenly interested to learn how things work at this level.

So how are  decisions made at PMC?

1. Staff Level

Our senior pastor is Dwight Nelson.

There are 8 senior leaders who sit around the table our weekly staff meetings, and also the executive secretary of the church.

Ideas may be brought to the table through the senior pastor or one of the staff members where they are discussed thoroughly. Some issues may be brought to an informal vote among the staff, or pastor Dwight might make a decision himself on some issues after they’ve been discussed. Some operational decisions are decided and implemented at this level.

If it is a large decision, it is brought to the next level.

2. Elder Level

In 2012 we had been discussing moving to a new small group structure. As a staff, we had read some books and discussed them at length, but now felt we needed more perspective. So we invited our head elder to read one of the books and to join us at the next staff meeting. This gave him an opportunity to hear our hearts and to ask questions. Our head elder thoroughly endorsed the new direction, and so we decided to bring this to a meeting of all the elders of the church for a vote.

The ideas were presented and they had an opportunity to ask questions and get more information.

By the end of this evening meeting, it was recommended we take this to the next level.

3. Church Board Level

We facilitated a similar process as before with the elders.

Information.

Discussion.

Vote.

And a recommendation to move to the final level.

4. Church Business Meeting Level

In terms of polity, a church business session is the highest administrative level in a local Seventh-day Adventist Church. Here, all members of the church can attend, have a say, and vote on a particular issue.

Again, a similar process as before was facilitated–information, discussion, and an opportunity to vote on this new direction.

So is there anything surprising about this process?

If you’re a leader in a Seventh-day Adventist church, you’ll recognize this process as the way  large decisions are usually processed in a local church.

What was surprising was seeing something like this done, even in a large church. I had assumed that a large church like this was basically staff led and decisions didn’t need to involve other leadership levels of the church. Wisely, though, they do.

Allow me to give a little more perspective.

This church trusts and loves its senior pastor. Trust takes time to develop. This makes a good case as to why pastors should stay in their churches longer than just a few years. After you’ve been in a church for some good years, you earn the respect and trust.

This church trusts and loves the church staff. If a decision is made at this level, they trust and believe that we’ve spent a lot of time praying and analyzing the situation at hand. The church knows that it’s not a recommendation we’re making lightly.

And if the decision has the blessing of the elders of the church, I’ve only seen the decisions pass easily through the other levels.

By the way, we recently went through this process as we analyzed and voted through a “new member orientation process.”

I confess that seeing this process being used in a church like this has given me a greater amount of respect for church administrative structures and polity. I think there is a lot of wisdom in having a system through which buy-in can be created and space allowed for discussion and discernment.

Like I said earlier, not every decision is brought through a process like this, but we certainly follow this process for any large decision.

So what do you think? How are decisions made in your church? To leave a comment click here

[image by wafer board]

Rodlie Ortiz

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On the pastoral team at Pioneer Memorial Church on the campus of Andrews University. Tech geek.

8 responses to The Surprising Way Decisions Are Made At Pioneer Memorial Church

  1. This works in churches of all sizes and is the way I prefer. I just eliminates level 1 and it is pastor to elders to board to business meeting. Each decision may not need to go to the next level and those need to be defined by the body in business session. I had it in one church so far and that was one if the most effective churches I have served.

  2. Rodlie I appreciate the insight into PMC’s process. My question is what do you define as a “large decision”?

    • Hey Seth. I suppose this is a subjective question, of course. So far, for us, it has meant decisions that change the way we do things as we church. So since I’ve been here, a few of the things we’ve brought through the whole process have been: a) our vision statement b) introduction of new small group structure c)new member orientation. There might be a few other things that I’ve forgotten, but that gives you an idea. What about you guys? What does a “large decision” mean for you guys?

  3. Madeline Johnston March 4, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    A few responses:

    The more you involve the general membership, the more they will “own” and get involved in implementing the plan. I have seen some fairly large plans at PMC brought by the staff to the elders and membership without really giving much chance to drop them–technically, yes, the process could be called what you have described, but the plans really were being presented more for approval than for discussion. The special speaker had already been arranged for, the mission trip planned, etc.

    This still, then, is in many ways a top-down form of management. Granted, though, as Winston Churchill once observed, true democracy can be very messy and take a very long time, with little being accomplished in the meantime. But I think that the more we aim for it, the better the results will be.

    Also, the staff at PMC needs to remember that we do not have “a” or “the” head elder, singular. We have a husband-wife team who are co- or joint head elders.

    • Madeline, you’re right! Sorry. I forgot about the team elder concept we have. (I’m still a little wet behind the ears, here). I appreciate hearing your perspective on things that you felt could have been processed more in those meetings and other levels. Indeed, in a church this size, I think there are some decisions that have to be made about what we hold off on and bring to business meetings and what do we move forward with because of time. Like you referenced–democracy can be a messy process–a process I’m still trying to figure out. What would you recommend to better include and hear more from others?

      • Madeline Johnston March 11, 2014 at 1:51 pm

        I wasn’t referring so much to business meetings as to board meetings. It might be nice if some things (evangelistic meetings, special speakers for weeks of spiritual emphasis, etc.), were brought to the board for discussion rather than mere ratification. But I also recognize that we might not want longer and more frequent board meetings. :-)

        • Madeline Johnston March 11, 2014 at 1:52 pm

          I meant to add that this is especially true when board members are expected to fully support all t hese initiatives.

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