by Darryl Bolen
In this article, Darryl Bolen, senior minister with First Christian Church, Greeneville, Illinois, discusses his ministry. Read the companion article written by Ronald G. Cook, an elder with the church.
At the conclusion of his career, prematurely ended by a debilitating disease, baseball legend Lou Gehrig spoke to a packed Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. He said, “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”1
Overlooking the negative, he focused on the positive. I feel the same way about serving with an excellent team of elders for the past 36 years.
Every church decides for itself how to distribute or delegate leadership duties. Some churches are pastor led while others are elder and board led. We can find successful churches following either model. The leadership at the church I serve has been able to work together by blending both styles depending on the talent required for the individual circumstance. For us, the team approach has been successful.
The practical side of the role of an elder as he oversees the congregation means he must be accessible. To a young or inexperienced staff, he should be able to provide guidance and development. When I was a young minister filling my first professional position, several elders made me their mission. One offered daily encouragement, another saw raw skills that required sharpening and honing, and another became a backroom mentor, always available with a listening ear and sound advice.
Each one put into practice Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” An eldership can make or break a minister. Thankfully, I have worked with men who could see beyond my limitations and build on my strengths. True leaders believe in people and motivate them to release their potential.
Encouraging What’s Right
Being available to the congregation puts the elder in the position of leader and example. We think of the elder’s role as primarily spiritual oversight, teaching, and mentoring, but a lot of “eldering” is done in the halls between services, across the counter at a place of business, and during casual conversation between friends.
New Christians scrutinize leaders in the church to see how they should be living, because they want a role model who is dependable. Most of the time the person being studied is completely unaware of it. More than what a man says is the way he lives. An elder makes his example of Christian living available to the congregation whether he realizes it or not.
The minister’s role in the elder/minister team includes affirming them publicly and privately. Elders are God’s chosen leaders of the church. As a minister, I trust them to make sage decisions that are covered in prayer. It is also my privilege to pray for and with them. Some of the most heartbreaking events in my ministry have been brought to God while I shared in prayer with these men of strength.
Everybody does something right, and those right things should be encouraged and commended. Jesus had some of the rawest recruits that ever joined together to make a force that would change the world. He was patient and kind as he guided that diverse dozen away from selfish ambition and major blunders of judgment. His gentle words restored a dispirited Peter and affirmed a skeptical Thomas, while his anger was reserved for the religious establishment of the day who had distorted God’s plan with personal ambition.
Wise church leaders take the time to find the willing servant inside each other. Praise has a way of making people want to do better while criticism seems to grind efforts to a disgruntled halt.
Depending on Each Other
The World War II saga Band of Brothers follows a ragtag bunch of boys with little in common as they are transformed into arguably the most highly trained unit of the Allied Forces. The 10-episode series based on the book by Stephen Ambrose is known for its depiction of the remarkable relationship that was forged under enemy fire.
As the men of Easy Company learned to rely on each other, they were welded with an unbreakable bond to form an overwhelming power. Resounding victories were achieved only because they had a shared common goal. The tagline for the series is, “They depended on each other and the world depended on them.”2
More than 2,000 years ago another mottled group of people were involved in propelling the gospel from a local event to a worldwide phenomenon. Each person brought varying attributes to Jesus. He used those abilities and associations to reach Jews, Gentiles, men, women, professionals, and laborers.
A church board is like that. Each person brings business and social skills to the group that widens the appeal and reach of the church. The diversity of the early followers of Christ should be reflected in today’s church board.
Sometimes the very diversity that was evident from the beginning in Jesus’ followers could also be the source of friction. From the beginning of the church, Acts 1:14 tells that “they all joined together constantly in prayer.” The mixed group of elders and ministers need to form themselves around their common goal. They need to make a commitment to work together because of the shared belief that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. It is the common ground on which we can and need to stand united. Building projects will come and go, worship styles will change, but it is vital that the understanding of that core belief remains the basis of the elder/minister team.
A productive team effort is all about building relationships. Elders and ministers, to fulfill their functions, need to build relationships with each other, the church, and the community. It takes time to develop bonds. The nature of the roles of elder and minister assumes that those filling the positions are willing and able to spend time working with others. With their eyes locked on the common goal of building the body of Christ rather than on each other, petty disagreements remain minor. A successful team beats with one heart.
The Bible has a few examples of leaders who were lone agents. John the Baptist and Jonah were among the solitary evangelists. Most of the leaders after the time of Jesus worked with groups, establishing churches in a model of fellowship.
I can imagine conversations between Paul and Barnabas in the bowels of a ship as they made plans to tell the Jews in Cyprus about Jesus fulfilling prophecy. They might have even remembered the proverb saying, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). There is a feeling of satisfaction and joy when people work on a project and everyone understands the importance of excellent effort.
If I were to become a country songwriter (and there is not much chance of that!) I would probably title my first song, “Churches, Don’t Let Your Leaders Grow Up to Be Cowboys!” There is too much at stake for the task to be completed by only one person. Cowboys ride the range alone but shepherds take care of the flock.
Darryl Bolen has served as senior minister with First Christian Church, Greenville, Illinois, since 1977.