When I was first asked to join the Area Eldership team for Youth with a Mission (YWAM) Central Europe, I did not know all that it would entail. It was back in 2015 when our mission was transitioning from having a hierarchical structure with Regions and Directors to having a more flattened structure with Areas and Area Circle Teams (ACTs).
These are some of the lessons I have learnt along the way about Eldership Teams in YWAM and how authority and responsibility function. As I have the most experience working in an Eldership Circle in an Area, I will be writing about Eldership Teams from this perspective, but many of these principles will also work at the national and local level as well.
In Central Europe, we were moving from having just one “Regional Director” with an advisory team, to a team-based ACT. I was invited to join the new Circle that was being formed, but soon after that the person leading the team transitioned out, so I became the “Convener” of our newly formed ACT of 5 people in 2016.
Each Area in YWAM is very different, and as such each needed to figure out what suited them best. We realised that a team of only 4-5 people would not be able to fully serve an Area of 16 countries. So, we decided to expand in 2018, and in our current formation we have a circle of 23 members and then 5 of those form a “Core Circle” who have some added responsibilities.
What does Eldership look like? How does it function in our Area?
Being a mission that has three of our values being “be decentralised”1, “function in teams”2 and “servant leadership”3 means that YWAM does not look like other organisations, nor do we function like them.
Many people think that since there is no legal framework above campus or national level that there is no leadership either, but this is not the case. As it states in our 7th value, each ministry “has the privilege and the spiritual responsibility to develop and maintain healthy relationships with appropriate authorities and circles of elders.” I love that it says that we have the privilege to develop and maintain good relationships with those in authority – as it really is a privilege for us to be able to learn from those who have gone before us.
A vital ingredient for our success as a mission is to ensure that we are guided by our values. I am going to state it quite strongly: If you do not have someone in YWAM leadership above you who can tell you “no”, then you are not maintaining a healthy relationship with someone in authority over you. Whatever that appropriate authority is, be it your local leadership, your national leadership, or the eldership in your Area, you need to ensure that you are in good standing with them.
Our ACT realised that although we may rely on some of the same principles used in leading a YWAM ministry location or a DTS staff team, eldership is exercised very differently. Eldership is not about a position, but rather functions out of influence and relationship. For that reason, deliberate building of relationships is key from both sides.
Elders need to have knowledge, ability, and wisdom to be able to influence others. Our YWAM value, “Do first then teach”4 captures this point – if the leader is one who has experience in a certain area, then they will have authority to speak into that area out of their experiences.
Elders are also the stewards of legacy: they carry much of our storyline. It is crucial to remember where we have been to know how to move forward. As Jeff Fountain, former YWAM Europe Director and founder of the Schuman Centre for European Studies, puts it: “Rooted in the past, focused on the future, so we can be effectively engaged in the present”.
We as the ACT value that legacy and “institutional memory” and want to steward it well. This is the idea of the elders sitting at the city gate, waiting to tell of their experiences and stories to the next generation.
But that does NOT mean that eldership is only about looking back – when we met as ACT elders from across YWAM in Thailand in 2018, YWAM’s founder, Loren Cunningham, was asked, “What is the main function of the ACTs?” His response? Looking across the room of international leaders, all responsible for different geographical Areas in YWAM, he simply stated, “VISION!”
It is essential for Eldership teams to keep focusing on the future as well as the past, so YWAM can be effectively engaged in what is going on today.
How does authority and responsibility function?
There is no one stock answer to that question. Different teams, situations and circumstances require different kinds of eldership. We as elders need wisdom to discern what is needed and what to offer. If we use the analogy of a family – different family members need different kinds of support. Some will need to be told what to do, others will be fine just being coached along the way. The key is in our value of servant leadership: using our authority with humility, endeavouring to serve the best interests of individuals, teams, and the Area.
It is also important to remember that responsibility and authority go hand in hand. If someone is responsible for the outcome of a situation, then they need to have the authority to be able to deal with it as needed. If someone asks, “Who has the final authority in such and such a situation?”, then the answer is, “The one who has the final responsibility.” This means that when our ACT is responsible for the outcome of a crisis or conflict situation, we have the authority to make decisions and deal with it.
Practically, if a conflict or crisis comes up, that cannot be dealt with at local or national level, we try to find the person with the closest relationship who is available to help give input. Sometimes that person is not on the ACT or even in YWAM. We have learnt it is best not to go alone but rather send in more than one person. They are supported by and in communication with our ACT. Responsibility is not just on one person anymore.
We already have other Circles in our Area who are closely linked to our ACT which focus on Member Care, Discipleship Training Schools, and Communication. If there are other areas that need looking at, then we put together a temporary circle (we call them “pop-up circles”) of people to investigate it and get back to the ACT. As an ACT we also make sure that we gather of our YWAM staff regularly. During Covid we did this online, but now we can go back to in-person gatherings!
Having a plurality of leaders, rather than one “Director” has had other benefits. We meet regularly and we have discovered that the best reason to be part of the ACT are the relationships. The fellowship and community are important benefit for everyone in the team. We have also seen how the synergy and dynamism that comes out of these relationships has had an overall positive impact on our Area.
- Eldership is Influence/Relationship NOT Position
- Eldership is Legacy AND Vision
- Eldership authority is determined by responsibility
All this is not possible if an Eldership Circle is not connected to the Lord and to each other, ensuring that they are ready to respond to any needs and constantly seeking Him for inspiration and opportunities to move His Kingdom forward!
1 7. BE DECENTRALIZED
YWAM is a Christ-centered, faith-based global volunteer movement, united by shared vision, core beliefs, foundational values and relationships. We do not have a centralized structure. Every YWAM ministry has the privilege and spiritual responsibility to develop and maintain healthy relationships with appropriate authorities and circles of elders.
2 10. FUNCTION IN TEAMS
YWAM is called to function in teams in all aspects of ministry and leadership. We believe that a combination of complementary gifts, callings, perspectives, ministries and generations working together in unity at all levels of our Mission provides wisdom and safety. Seeking God’s will and making decisions in a team context allows accountability and contributes to greater relationship, motivation, responsibility and ownership of the vision.
3 11. EXHIBIT SERVANT LEADERSHIP
YWAM is called to servant leadership as a lifestyle, rather than a leadership hierarchy. A servant leader is one who honors the gifts and callings of those under his/her care and guards their rights and privileges. Just as Jesus served His disciples, we stress the importance of those with leadership responsibilities serving those whom they lead.
4 12. DO FIRST, THEN TEACH
YWAM is committed to doing first, then teaching. We believe that first-hand experience gives authority to our words. Godly character and a call from God are more important than an individual’s gifts, abilities and expertise.