Shepherding Together: An Exploration of the Relationship Between the Senior Pastor and the Board of Elders in Large Presbyterian Churches

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The relationship between the senior pastor and the board of elders is critical to the flourishing of any congregation, but its importance is amplified by the size dynamics and collective governance polity of large Presbyterian churches. When the board of elders (session) either matches the pastor’s passivity or micromanages the congregation, or when the session either rubber-stamps or resents the pastor’s authoritarian leadership, the senior pastor’s tenure can become tenuous and the congregation will be hindered from carrying out its mission. It may even suffer significant harm. How can a congregation wisely order this relationship so that the senior pastor and the session can jointly pursue God’s vision in a way that enables empowered pastoral leadership, ensures pastoral accountability, and values corporate spiritual discernment? Rooted in real congregational dynamics, this thesis suggests a two-pronged solution to help large, Presbyterian churches better realize this ideal.

First, the Policy Governance model, which is widely utilized by corporate and non-profit boards, can clarify the roles of the senior pastor and the session to help them better lead together. In the words of John and Miriam Carver, who pioneered the model, it’s an approach to governance that “enables extensive empowerment to staff while preserving controls necessary for accountability.” When adapted to the uniqueness of Presbyterian polity, the Policy Governance model can create a framework in which the session truly governs and in which the senior pastor and the session discern and pursue God’s vision for the congregation together.

Second, in order for the elders confidently to discern God’s vision alongside the senior pastor within the framework that Policy Governance creates, a session must also commit themselves to spiritual shepherding. Samuel Miller, an early 19th century professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, provides a learned historical perspective from American Presbyterianism from which we can reimagine the role of the ruling elder not merely as an institutional administrator but as a spiritual shepherd. Miller envisions elders as men and women trained and ordained for an office that differs from the senior pastor’s in job description but not in divine sanction. He expects that an elder’s work of governing and guiding the sheep during session meetings will only be enhanced because of her work feeding the sheep between session meetings. Only if ruling elders possess the training and qualifications concomitant with their high spiritual calling, and only if elders engage in both governing and feeding shepherding, will they grow the spiritual muscles to lead competently and confidently alongside the senior pastor.

Each congregation must determine how best to apply these solutions in light of its own culture and current senior pastor-session dynamic. But the concluding examples of two congregations and one denominational program further illuminate how to put these solutions into practice. They can inspire congregations who also want to experience the benefits of Policy Governance and spiritual shepherding.


Doctor of Ministry




Dunn, Charles Edward (2018). Shepherding Together: An Exploration of the Relationship Between the Senior Pastor and the Board of Elders in Large Presbyterian Churches. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.