By Gary L. Johnson
It’s a busy time of year when tens of millions of students return to classrooms. The cycle of learning ramps up in the late summer every year.
Student recruitment, by contrast, is one practice in higher education that never seems to slow. Universities invest time, money, and effort to recruit students who exhibit tremendous potential as scholars, artists, and athletes.
Competition for outstanding students is fierce among universities; all schools want to fill their dormitories and classrooms. It’s never ending. Recruit. Vet. Educate.
In the church, elders need to recognize that a similar focus on recruiting leaders is also necessary. We need to think: recruit, vet, and equip.
I was touring an oil terminal in Valdez, Alaska, when a company official told me that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is running dangerously low of oil. When the pipeline opened in 1977, it ran at capacity and the oil took an average of four days to travel 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez, where it is pumped into oil tankers. Much has changed over the years; now it takes as many as 14 days for oil to flow that distance. Why? There is far less oil in the pipe.
Similarly, the leadership pipeline in our churches is running dangerously low. We do not have elder candidates standing in line just waiting to be selected. Many congregations are not only understaffed, they are underserved with far too few elders. The Center for Church Leadership (centerforchurchleadership.org) recently conducted a survey of several hundred elders serving in Restoration Movement churches. More than half of those who responded range in age from 60 to 79.
We must make every effort to refill the leadership pipeline with next-generation leaders who are prepared to serve the church. To do so, we must recruit, vet, and equip.
Universities spend significant resources of time and money to recruit high-potential students. After developing profiles of the types of students to seek, the schools begin looking for them. In much the same way, a church’s leadership needs to know what it is seeking in high-capacity leaders, and then begin looking for elder candidates. This is essential. The CCL Elder Survey revealed that 61 percent of those who responded indicated their congregations did not have a formal onboarding process for elders. As we look for potential elders, three essentials should capture our attention.
First, these individuals must possess character. Consistent integrity should be obvious in the individual’s life, as he strives to be increasingly like Jesus.
Second, the candidate should be capable of leading the local church. An elder candidate should possess skills such as in teaching, relating to people, leading, managing, and more.
Third, an elder candidate should have a sense of calling. Selecting elders has nothing to do with being nominated and voted into office; instead, it has everything to do with being called by the Lord to serve.
Character, capability, and a sense of calling will turn heads of those looking to recruit the next generation of elders.
After a candidate is recruited, he must be assessed. Acts 6:1-7 describes a potential crisis within the Jerusalem church. The Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the benevolent, daily distribution of food; they were going to bed hungry night after night. The apostles instructed the disciples to find men known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to handle this ministry responsibility. Similarly, we must make every effort to know the spiritual formation of each elder candidate, the health of his relationships, his spiritual gifting (and how he has used those gifts in years past), his reputation within both the church and community, and more.
We urge you to ask essential questions in the vetting process, and even create a written record of those responses. For a template of an elder candidate questionnaire, visit www.e2elders.org (go to the “Resources” drop-down and click “Free”; download the “Church Polity” resource and see Appendix B). Remember, careful selection is essential if we are to refill the leadership pipeline with high-capacity leaders.
Each student arrives on campus to begin a journey with a desired destination. Each one has in mind a preferred future called graduation. In much the same way, the church needs to take elder candidates on a journey that ends with a type of graduation. A new generation of elders needs to follow a strategic training plan that equips them to lead the local church. Far too often, untrained men begin serving as elders. The CCL Elder Survey shed light on this need; one-half of the elders who responded indicated they received “little or no training at all.”
University students move sequentially through their academic program, beginning as freshmen and finishing with their senior year. This logical, practical journey continually equips them in their field of study. The same can—and should—happen with elder teams. Elders can embark on a strategic journey of becoming better equipped so that the team leads more effectively. To that end, e2: effective elders has produced a step-by-step curriculum for elders that addresses specific leadership skills and issues. It is available in print form and in a digital video format. Visit www.e2elders.org for a wide array of elder training material.
Increasing numbers of elder teams have created strategic, yearlong training plans to work toward improvement. More and more elders desire increased leadership effectiveness, and to achieve that objective, they are determined to become lifelong learners who realize to LEARN they must develop these five fundamental truths:
- Longing. Elders must desire to learn and grow as leaders.
- Effort. Elders must make a concerted effort to become better equipped.
- Admission. Elders who admit more training is needed grow spiritually.
- Realization. Elders must realize they can lead only as far as they have grown.
- Nurturing. Elders must nurture each successive generation of elders.
It’s that “back-to-school” time of year again. Not only is it time to recruit, vet, and equip the next generation of elders, it’s time for us to enjoy some continuing education, as well.
Dr. Gary Johnson serves as an elder/senior minister at Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is a cofounder of e2: effective elders. Gary offers resources and coaching as he works with elders to lead with greater focus and confidence.