How Mark Dever Passes Out Authority

Over the years Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., has seen plenty of opportunities to accrue authority, some of which he keeps, many of which he passes out. And the way he passes out authority has shaped the culture of our church in countless ways.

Here are 20 ways he distributes authority, followed by 10 ways this shapes our church culture. Some apply just to lead pastors; many apply to all of us.

Ways to Distribute Authority

1. Build the church on the gospel. No matter who’s teaching, the gospel must be front and center. Mark has established this pattern. When relationships and power structures are grounded in the gospel, people use their authority not to lord it over one another, but to serve one another (Matt. 20:25-28).

2. Establish a plurality of staff and non-staff elders. On an elder board composed exclusively of staff elders, each man may possess one vote, but the staffing structure imposes a hierarchy. Adding non-staff elders to the board disrupts and flattens that hierarchy.

3. Limit the percentage of main-slot preaching. Mark, with the elders’ agreement, limits himself to preaching 50 percent to 65 percent of Sunday mornings. That way, other voices have the chance to grow and gain authority. And the congregation depends more on the Word than on one man.

4. Create many other opportunities to teach. Our church has about 80 teaching slots for adult Sunday school classes over the course of the year (each slot consists of a 7- to 13-week class), as well as 52 chances to preach a Sunday evening devotional, as well as a couple dozen chances to teach a Wednesday night Bible study. All told, there are around 150 chances for other men to teach the congregation, and I haven’t even mentioned small groups. When men prove proficient in teaching, they accrue authority.

5. Seldom (or never) preach the Sunday evening service. Mark never preaches in our church’s Sunday evening service. Instead the church hears from an elder or a would-be elder.

6. Give young teachers the chance to make mistakes. I can think of one or two instances where a teacher or preacher said something so inappropriate that he wasn’t asked to teach again. But generally speaking, young teachers have a lot of leeway in our church to be boring and to make mistakes. Since the church depends more on the Word than on Mark, they have much patience for the young men.

7. Let others steal your ideas. Mark freely lets other teachers inside the church adapt his anecdotes, borrow his best lines, and mimic his messages.

8. Be willing to lose elder votes. I’ve heard of other senior pastors who “never lose votes.” When that’s the case, you almost might as well get rid of your elders. Talk about undermining their leadership!

9. Be slow to speak and speak sparingly in elders’ meetings. Three times a year, the elders welcome a number of pastors from other churches to observe our meetings. These pastors often mention their surprise at how little Mark speaks, and how willing other elders are to disagree with him.

10. Don’t be the chairman in elders’ meetings or members’ meetings. Giving another man the chance to be the chairman who both sets the agenda and also leads the meeting is an easy way to distribute authority.

11. Let other elders lead the congregation through difficult issues in members’ meetings. When it comes to leading the church through discipline cases, big financial decisions, or other tough topics, the elder who’s been most involved may be the best one to lead the church publicly.

12. Use an “invitations committee.” If you’re a pastor who receives regular invitations to speak outside your church, use a committee of staff members and/or elders to help you review those invitations. And be willing to let them guide and even determine the decision.

13. Be devoted to one thing in the church and give freedom elsewhere. Mark is largely devoted to preparing sermons and keeps a loose grip on most everything else. So if you want to see the church doing more in some area, he’ll let you do it and keep his hands off. This process “outs” other natural leaders.

14. Don’t micromanage. There are a few areas Mark micromanages, like making sure his staff are present at meetings and services on time. But in just about everything else, he gives free rein. Micromanagement not only exhausts a leader, it also undermines the initiative of others.

15. Review weekly services. Structuring a time into a church leadership’s weekly schedule for giving and receiving feedback over Sunday’s services teaches men to evaluate, to think, and to love the congregation better. It grows them as leaders. Plus . . .

16. Be willing to receive criticism. Mark sets the example by inviting criticism. This gives other would-be leaders room to spread their wings. If you never invite criticism, you’re teaching everyone around you that they must conform to your preferences or be punished. Leaders don’t grow in this kind of environment. They whither or leave.

17. Invite lay elders to give feedback on services. Mark doesn’t require lay elders to attend the weekly service review times, but he always invites them to attend and give feedback.

18. Pray for other churches and other denominations. Publicly praying for other churches and denominations helps to defeat tribalism and focuses us on the gospel instead of the church leader. This prayer in turn engenders further gospel initiative among other budding leaders in the church.

19. Be quick to forgive. Mark is one of the most quickly forgiving people I know. Alternatively, it’s hard for a fault-finder to give away authority. If you only see faults, you won’t trust or entrust. But if you’re quick to forgive, you’ll find it easier to entrust and empower others.

20. Rejoice in the victories of others. Do you have to be the one to make the shot, or are you happy to make the assist? Mark rejoices in the victories of others as much as his own. If someone else can do the job, he would prefer it. This leaves him free to do something else.

How Giving Away Authority Shapes a Church Culture

When the leader “on top” is characterized by generously giving authority to his lay elders and others in the church, he shapes the church’s culture in wonderful ways.

1. It helps to keep the gospel uppermost. Giving away authority focuses the church’s eyes on their gospel purposes rather than on the leader.

2. It promotes “real” relationships. In an environment where authority is jealously guarded, relationships are characterized by politics and strategy. Guards remain up, vulnerabilities aren’t exposed, and transparency diminishes. But when people feel empowered they’re more likely to be open and honest.

3. It keeps a church from being tribalistic. A man who continually gives away authority teaches those around him that he’s most interested in the success of the gospel, regardless of who’s leading (see Phil. 1:12ff).

4. It encourages church members to share resources. When I see the leader is not out for himself, I too become inclined to give to others.

5. It destroys natural social hierarchies. Our church is filled with people with “impressive” jobs, the kind that create social hierarchies. So it’s striking that members interact as equals. Why? Because the gospel is kept in the center. We’re all sinners saved by grace. Also, Mark doesn’t use any of his stature to lord it over others. This sets a pattern.

6. It cultivates trust. When I see the leader isn’t out for himself, it’s easier to trust his motives, even when he’s asking me to make a sacrifice.

7. It cultivates teachability and the willingness to receive criticism. Again, if I trust the man, I become more willing to listen to his criticisms of me. I trust they’re rooted in love rather than oneupmanship.

8. It promotes a willingness to forgive. When the leader is quick to forgive others’ faults, he’ll be more willing to entrust others with authority. That in turn will help others to do the same.

9. It encourages the church to be training-minded. A church that sees a pastor continually work to train and empower others will have a hard time not catching the vision and sharing it. They will see all the fruit.

10. It helps a church to be outward focused. The process of raising up and sending out leaders helps a church realize its goal isn’t just to make our own house the best it can be, but to help other houses become happier and healthier, too.

At the same time, delegation can be done poorly or lazily. Wisdom is required to delegate well. I’ve heard Mark say he assumes God has given everyone some instrument in the orchestra to play, and part of his job is helping people figure out which instrument is theirs.

The question comes down to heart posture: are we happy to see others gain authority, or do we jealously guard it, afraid people might surpass us? If the former, what are we doing to spread it?

Editors’ note: This article originally appeared on the 9Marks website.

  • David

    How often do the lay elders and staff elders meet together? Does the frequency with which staff is together versus the frequency with which the other elders come together present any challenges?

    • Jonathan Leeman

      We have elder meetings approximately twice a month (except in summer–once a month). The staff elders are together more often, and, yes, this can present challenges. They have time to think and process issues together through the week, so that when the elders meetings come, they’re a couple steps further along in their thinking, processing, and sometimes unity over an issue. We attempt to ameliorate the problems this can raise by following an “elder packet” with agenda and various memos that’s distributed to all the elders 4 or 5 days before the meeting. That gives everyone a chance to prepare, discuss, and pray over topics on the agenda before the meeting.

      • Mike

        Hey Jonathan,
        Just wondering, if you guys met 2x a month and once a month in the Summer… do you go over the service flow during that time. Such as who/what text will be read, songs, order… or do you simply structure, and assign those areas and allow each man to provide this info prior to Sunday?

  • Owen

    Spectacular. A theology of the local church in one short article. Dripping with wisdom.

    If many of us see the weaknesses of personality-driven ministry, and want to change the culture in our churches, this is a major help in that direction. Interesting to think about Jesus in light of these arguments; the Lord of heaven and earth drafted twelve apostles to do his work after his Ascension. These apostles were responsible for setting up churches that would give tangible demonstration that Christians are a kingdom of priests.

    You can’t get much more anti-personality-driven ministry than Christ raising up leaders, fallen and imperfect, to lead churches in the proclamation of the gospel.

    This short piece should be expanded into a book. It’s that good, and that needed.

    • Matt Smethurst

      Amen, Owen. Thank you for this comment.

  • David

    Thank you so much for the thoughtful reply. That is very helpful to know.

  • Trevor Minyard

    This article wins the Christian internet.

  • EMBG

    Many of these are very helpful ideas. To ask another question, how does the church invite the leadership of those who are not elders? I see a couple examples here but they are only for men. In what ways is female leadership and service equally valued in areas on the first list which are not elder exclusive, like #4, #6, #16 or #18?

    • julie

      I used to be a member of this church. There are women deacons. Women teach in children’s ministry and there is a women’s only Sunday School class, as well as a women’s retreat. There are also many other women led service projects and ministries that formed organically and are encouraged. Really, the only men-only stuff are the actual elder meetings and the preaching that happens on Sunday mornings and evenings.

  • Nate Collins

    LOVED this, Jonathan. Thanks for sharing!

  • Matthew Abate

    My favorite part of the article is where the writer quotes Mark Dever as saying that his job is to help church members figure out their instrument within the orchestra. I love that image: very encouraging and helpful.

  • Bryan

    Greatly appreciate this article. Encouraging and empowering.

    What is your process for having non-elders teach? What would it take for a would be elder to preach on a Sunday morning?

  • Colleen Chao

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! Whenever I fly out to D.C. to visit my friend Karen Race, I have the joy of visiting Capitol Hill as well, and even as a guest I can attest to the truth of this article. You can feel the shared authority/responsibilities in the fiber of your church! I love that so much! Also, as one who was a part of a very hierarchical church for three years, where it was difficult for my husband to get involved and use his spiritual gifts, where there was such a white-knuckling of so many ministries and issues, I especially appreciate this. It is immobilizing and discouraging to live on the sidelines in the Body of Christ. We now are members of a church that beautifully illustrates your article, and it is life-giving! My husband is using his gifts and being set free to minister alongside others very different from him. Praise the Lord!

  • Kris Burns

    Something I’ve always considered a measure of a church’s health is the answer to these questions, “If, God forbid, something were to happen to the Lead Pastor tomorrow, would this church keep praying for and seeking Gospel advancement?” and “Would the Word still be preached by faithful men who are already leading.” I’m happy to say that at my current congregation the answer is an unreserved, “Yes.” Much of that comes from the leadership seeking to practice much of what was described above.

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  • lauren

    Where does the Bible explicitly describe a role of “lead” pastor? If it does not explicitly describe such a role, should we give any one man full authority to pass out “his” authority? Do we want to create unquestioned church polity and policy upon implied meanings, with regard to church leadership and perhaps, membership?

    • Greg


      Though the phrase “passes out authority” may imply that our brother Mark views it as his own, I think it’s clear from his actions that he does not view it so, and wants to take every effort to make sure that people to not view it that way either.

      The Bible doesn’t “explicitly describe” a “lead” pastor, but examples of influential men among church elders, of equal standing among them, are easily seen in James and Peter. The problem is with someone like Diotrephes, who *loved* to be first – the very opposite of what this article encourages and demonstrates.

      Hope that’s helpful!

      • Joe

        I would agree with Lauren. In action, Mark seems to strike a good balance, but his title communicates otherwise. If there was a title change, that would line up better with the article presented. We all know, titles carry weight and retaining a title of superiority is a loud action…IMHO ;)

  • joe

    Great advice, at the end of the day the perspective on who leads is always going to fall in two primary categories.

    1 – The authority in front of the congregation will always be associated to the one that delivers the Sunday sermon.
    2 – If the primary preaching pastor leads/assembles the elders meetings, he will automatically present the perspective that he is over them (intended or not).

    Here is the 10,000 question, how can you change the above 2 points if they are taking place?

    • lauren

      Joe, to answer the $10,000 question: From the time the NT church gravitated from Apostolic guidelines to the more pronounced hierocracy, neither clergy nor layman seem to want the change the two points.

      • Joe


        Can you expound on “neither clergy nor layman seem to want the change the two points.” Do you think this is a matter of pride for “clergy” to relinquish authority and unwillingness for non-paid staff (“layman”) to take on the weight of things they are not compensated for? I personally think a non-paid/paid structure has its advantages.

        However, when others are paid, and a non-paid elder begins to take on the same load, I could see where it would make it difficult for an non-paid person to want to take on those responsibilities although they are willing to serve. Seems like a lot to ask from someone who already works a FT job, is that kind of what you were getting at with your post?

        • lauren

          Joe – I was not thinking of paid/non-paid. Humans find comfort in elevating a man and some men like being elevated. Even though the body of Christ, by design, consists of body parts, we are inclined to replace the Head, Christ, with the “head” pastor. I see equality of elders in the Bible, but we seem to love our hierarchy.

  • Byron

    Thanks, Jonathan, for putting this together. So readable and easy to share.

  • Ron Furgerson

    Thanks for this insightful article, Jonathan. I work with a church-planting organization and wonder if you have any thoughts on the applicability of this “model,” to new congregations. I.e., should a church planter go into this mode right from the start or are there areas where a lack of organizational maturity may mitigate against this sharing of authority. Or, do you have any advice for the situation where elders are not yet developed or in place?

  • Carl

    I think these are wise words that we can use in our lives as well.

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