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“Vital Churches: Elder Responsibility for Their Pastors and Congregational Planning” by Wendell Faris McBurney

Engaged ruling elders bring vitality to a congregation. Like life in a city without the infrastructure of roads, water, and power lines, church life without active ruling elders grinds to a halt and pastors, however talented, find themselves drained.

Enter Vital Churches: Elder Responsibility for Their Pastors and Congregational Planning [1] by Wendell Faris McBurney, a longtime ruling elder in a NAPARC denomination. With clear love for Christ’s church, McBurney pleads for “elders to take seriously their responsibility to provide opportunities for their pastors to develop, use and maintain their skills, remain focused on their ministries and to be strengthened in their personal lives” (v). In other words, not only do ruling elders need pastors—pastors need involved ruling elders. McBurney writes, “This book is a challenge to elders, encouraging them to draw up plans of how they will help their pastors with personal needs, the needs of their families and of their congregations” (vi).

Clearly written for current and aspiring church leaders, Vital Churches inspires elders to care for their pastors. While the book does not dwell on it, one can sense the influence of Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” There is a reciprocal benefit in church leadership: vital elders help keep pastors vital, which in turn leads to vital churches in which the elders flourish. Elders not sharing the load of congregational planning and care is “akin to being missing in action—a dereliction of duty” (9).

How do elders contribute to the vitality of their churches and pastors? In addition to the regular spiritual shepherding duties of elders, Vital Churches begins with a reminder that elders make plans with their pastor for their congregation. Thankfully, McBurney makes his case without the common misinterpretation of Proverbs 29:18 (KJV: “Where there is no vision the people perish”), which is about the need for divine instruction, not planning. Rather, among other examples, McBurney uses Luke 14:28-31, where Jesus exhorted spiritual forethought by pressing disciples to consider the cost of discipleship:

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?

Similarly, elders make plans and objectives for their congregations. And, as W. Robert Godfrey writes in the foreword, “the Lord is a planner” (ii; see Ps. 33:11).

McBurney provides helpful and challenging examples of proper congregational planning, such as setting down objectives and then marking actions that will bring about those objectives. “There are three questions that need to be asked when preparing a plan,” he explains, “what needs to be changed; what results are desired; and what will bring about the change?” (39) This sounds elementary, but experience suggests that often church activities can seem arbitrary; church leadership invests time and money in activities that are simply expected because “this is what churches do.” These chapters alone should prompt much thought.

The elder’s care for his pastor is another major thrust of Vital Churches. As a pastor, I found McBurney’s burden for pastors refreshing. Elders see more of the hidden weight of ministry than congregants, and McBurney invites them to share that load. After exhorting elders to protect their pastor’s time, he writes, “I will even go so far as to suggest that an elder should make every effort to become a good personal friend of the pastor” (68). This can be facilitated by, for example, a “no-agenda lunch” on a regular basis (68).

More formally, McBurney suggests pastors submit monthly written reports to their elder board (83). While this sounds like a burden, McBurney’s intent is for elders to be able to take things off their pastor’s plate, where appropriate. A monthly report can be “an unobtrusive way” for the elders and pastor to bring up issues and needs (84). However, “There is a trap,” writes McBurney: “this report can become burdensome…It must not be allowed to become a daily dairy…of every activity…There is also the danger of the focus becoming job performance rather than ministry effectiveness…The pastor must be counseled to view the monthly report as an opportunity, not an inquisition” (85).

After the initial sections of the book, “Elder Responsibility,” “Planning in the Church,” “Planning with the Pastor,” and “Planning for the Pastor,” McBurney ends with a call for robust pastoral internship programs. This section rightly exhorts churches to sacrificially train up the next generation of pastors, even though it will require “less obvious things like a new tolerance for the preaching of an inexperienced intern; a person with whom members may not be acquainted accompany the pastor during a home visit…” (180) He adds that “An internship must not become a burden on the pastor” (181).

As a kind of appendix, Vital Churches includes two testimonials – one from a pastor who benefited from a sabbatical, and a second from a pastor’s wife expressing her thankfulness for solid local elders. These confirm that vital elders are a treasure to the church, and, as redeemed sinners united to the great Shepherd of the sheep, are a model, albeit imperfectly, of the Messiah’s rule over his people: “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth” (2 Sam. 23:3-4; see also Heb. 13:20).

Vital Churches provides much wisdom for elders and pastors, and I can see it being used in officer training. I plan to share highlights from the book with my session in the regular devotional and development portion of our monthly meetings. Its short chapters can be read quickly and will prompt lengthy meditations on how to implement its wisdom in one’s own setting.

This bookalso has some shortcomings. In some ways it does not say enough. For example, McBurney devotes considerable space to how a pastor should prepare a sabbatical funding request—but does not give examples of bodies that give such funding. Where should a pastor look to find a list of endowments that might provide sabbatical funding? This would have made these chapters more helpful.

Additionally, the book would have profited from a chapter on how the pastor can support and train vital elders. An elder reading Vital Churches might find the work daunting—as a layperson, he has his own job and his own family to spend time with, alongside the time required for church leadership. Though directed towards spiritual health, Vital Churches has a business-like feel to it, and it might have benefited from more personal testimony from McBurney’s decades of experience as a ruling elder. What biblical truths reinvigorated him to press on in the difficult work of under-shepherding? How did he manage his own time so as to promote the vitality of his church?

Finally, Vital Churches missed an opportunity to clarify the confusing issue of church mission statements. McBurney exhorts: “A clear statement of congregational mission is of much greater value than any goal or objective…It is the most essential element of planning. The congregation’s mission statement is its ‘North Star,’ something to be consulted as a guide every time a plan or other related decision is being made” (33). He also acknowledges that we have “many clear examples of the mission of the Christian Church found throughout the Scripture (e.g., Matthew 28:18-20; 1 Corinthians 1:2)” (37). Here it would have been helpful to provide guidance as to why a particular local congregation would have a statement distinct from that mission. How does a church’s particular mission differ from the church’s overarching mandate given in Scripture of witness, worship, and discipleship (as Edmund Clowney [2] outlined it)? Given the danger of our churches putting “second things” first and missing the true “first things,” as C.S. Lewis [3] warned, we cannot afford to get the church’s mission wrong and become agenda-driven churches.

These concerns aside, Vital Churches gives a needed call to action to elders to lead, plan, and assist their pastor, and therefore should be read widely with the prayer that God would make all faithful churches vital churches with vital elders and pastors!

Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) [4] in Fredericksburg, VA and a graduate of Grove City College and Westminster Seminary California.