By John E. Wasem
On September 25, 1994, a long-awaited new congregation was birthed by the joint efforts of the Chicago District Evangelistic Association and the East 91st Street Christian Church of Indianapolis. As founding minister, I pledged at the grand opening of the Suncrest Christian Church in St. John, Indiana, to provide this faith community with qualified, prepared, dedicated, and “called” spiritual leaders (i.e. elders) before the church occupied its first permanent facilities.
Through it all, our experience was characterized by prayer and fasting and reflection on the New Testament model. We consulted with leaders of new churches and veteran mentors of spiritual leaders. We cast vision, built strong foundations, shaped curriculum, and spent much time equipping and teaching. We became convinced that developing elders is an important step that must be characterized by biblical integrity, organizational thoroughness, spiritual imagination, and sensitivity to timing.
These are the steps in our process:
• Intercession. A team of seven men and women were recruited to provide daily intercession on behalf of the eldership selection process, the candidates for spiritual leadership, and the eventual dedication of the elders. This team continued to function faithfully, providing a prayer shield for our elders in their first year of service.
• Education. We conducted a preaching series on spiritual leadership, even creating a brochure and making it available on the church Web site. Sermon manuscripts and tapes went to anyone who missed any of the teaching sessions.
• Identification. All members were welcome to help identify prospective spiritual leaders to serve as elders. Each nominee should, in the opinion of the nominator, meet the character and skill qualifications of a biblical elder as delineated in Scripture, explained in literature provided for the process, and presented from the pulpit. An elder nomination form was to be completed, signed, and submitted by a designated date. No e-mail or incomplete nomination forms were accepted.
• Initial Confirmation. After prayer and individual evaluation, every nominee was approached by the person who desired to nominate him. All nominees were required to tell the nominator they were willing to serve and to sign the nominating form. Only then could the nomination be submitted.
• Personal Confirmation. A member of the Elder Selection Team notified each nominee of his completed nomination. This team had been appointed by the lead minister and confirmed by the existing leadership team. (In many new churches this pre-eldership group is termed a “management team” consisting of mature leaders from within and outside of the church’s membership).
The nominee was required to complete a self-appraisal process that included a comprehensive questionnaire and a minimum of three written references. These represented the nominee’s personal, community, and professional networks. Letters requesting references were sent from the senior minister with follow-up handled by the selection team.
Questionnaires were completed and returned by e-mail attachment to expedite document distribution for review. In addition to the selection team, the elders of our “mother” or mentoring church and selected vocational and lay ministry leaders, including a few global missionaries, reviewed all questionnaires and submitted their input electronically to the team within two weeks.
• Pastoral Confirmation. The selection team conducted interviews with each of the prospective elders and spouses. The typical interview was carefully shaped to ensure thoroughness and personalization, yet designed to flow conversationally and naturally.
The team met to debrief the interviews in an all-Saturday retreat. The following Monday was devoted to prayer and fasting regarding final nominations. The individualized portfolio for spiritual development that emerged from each interview was carefully summarized, then shared with each interviewee in a follow-up visit.
Because of the completeness and, more importantly, the tenor of the entire process, every nominee sensed profound affirmation even though only four of the seven were recommended for congregational confirmation as the initial elders of the congregation.
• Congregational Confirmation. The selection team sent a letter to the congregation notifying them of the four nominees and reiterating a summary of the process. Anyone who questioned the fitness of any nominee was urged to go to the candidate to share his or her concern (this fit a pattern set by our earlier teaching on Matthew 5:24 and 18:15-17.)
If upon speaking with the prospective elder the individual felt unsatisfied with the outcome of the discussion, he or she was instructed to speak by appointment with one of the two staff ministers on the Elder Selection Team. Because of the scriptural command to be followers of the eldership, any concern with a potential leader’s qualifications or suitability was a serious matter and needed to be handled with directness and spiritual maturity.
• Introduction. On the advertised date, the selection team recognized the men who had completed the confirmation process and introduced them as the inaugural elders of the church. Given the thoroughness of the above process, and since no biblical precedent mandates voting, no vote was deemed necessary. The entire congregation was notified by letter on the following Monday of these introductions and confirmations.
• Orientation. We carefully designed the schedule to allow the newly confirmed elders and staff ministers to attend the leadership conference of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, before the new elders were ordained. Bob Russell, senior minister at that time, graciously agreed to spend time with the group; he provided inspiration, advice, and encouragement. This was a defining moment, since Russell’s fine book, When God Builds a Church, was a centerpiece among the many readings during the two-year leadership development track predating the selection process.
• Dedication. The dedication of our first elders occurred during weekend services just two weekends before Suncrest inaugurated her first permanent facilities. We had reached our goal! Special guests from our primary supporting bodies shared in the ordination. Each man was asked to make a one-year commitment to the eldership ministry.
A process of evaluation and congregational reaffirmation occurs annually. The process of potential selection of additional elders also occurs annually. Elders welcome the refreshment of a periodic sabbatical year based on self-assessment and team consensus. Provisions are clearly delineated in the eldership charter for an elder’s service to be discontinued by his own decision or by the consensus decision of the elder body.
Additional elders have been added only once since that inaugural experience more than six years ago. The exact nature of the process continues to adjust to reflect the ever-changing dynamics of Suncrest.
After 11 years of service with the Suncrest Christian Church, in 2005 John E. Wasem became the founding director of the Emmanuel Institutes (www.esr.edu/institutes.htm) at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, Tennessee. He also is a professor of Christian ministries and Director of Planter Care for Stadia East. He and his wife are members of Boones Creek Christian Church in Gray, Tennessee.