“A Parable of Two Churches” (a sidebar) is my attempt to capture the past 37 years of observations and experiences. I’ve been privileged to be the preacher in three very different congregations. And while serving as a Bible college and seminary professor, I worked in various capacities with dozens of congregations. What follows are practical suggestions for how congregations can have healthy, effective elderships.
These are simply reminders of the obvious. I’ve seen them work in a variety of settings, expressed in various ways, ending with varied results.
Every church I’ve seen believes it is doing church biblically. And in many senses, that is the case, because there is incredible freedom in the Scriptures for how things may be done. Honestly, church structure and procedure is not my primary concern. While it’s true some structures are better than others, almost every structure will work if the basics are in place.
Suggestion 1: Return to the Scriptural Foundations.
The most common texts (1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) have not proven to be the most challenging. Instead, texts that deal with actions and motives have proven most difficult to implement (Ezekiel 34:1-16; 1 Peter 5:1-4; and Acts 20:17-31). My suggestion is not to ignore the common texts. In fact, use them to determine an effective process for selecting elders. But when it comes to determining the actual functions of the elders, turn to the texts that address actions and motives.
• Put the sheep first (Ezekiel 34:2).
• Bring strength to the broken and hurting (Ezekiel 34:4).
• Refuse to ignore or accept the fact of lost and wandering sheep (Ezekiel 34:4, 5).
• Follow God’s example of shepherding (Ezekiel 34:11-16).
• Eagerly serve the flock (1 Peter 5:2).
• Be an example of maturity and service (1 Peter 5:3).
• Take responsibility for your personal maturity/spirituality (Acts 20:28).
• Shepherd the sheep; see the list above (Acts 20:28).
• Protect the flock from false teaching and counterfeit shepherds (Acts 20:29, 30).
These are not delegated responsibilities. Shepherds may well partner with their wives, staff, or other elders, but they may not assume someone else is responsible. Elders are not permitted to abrogate these duties for any reason, without coming under God’s judgment (Ezekiel 34:7-10). So, if a man does not have the time, temperament, or temerity to do these things, it’s quite likely he shouldn’t be an elder.
What are elders not to do?
• Be an elder for personal gain—emotional, financial, power, or other (Ezekiel 34:2, 3; 1 Peter 5:2).
• Serve out of compulsion (1 Peter 5:2).
• Lead by authority and control; micromanage (1 Peter 5:3).
Suggestion 2: Develop your meetings to reflect these biblical functions.
The first half—90 minutes or so—of the first of our two monthly elders meetings is spent directly in shepherding: reports from visits, updates on prayer needs, reflections on recent developments in previous pastoral situations, additions of new pastoral concerns, assignments for future interactions, and prayer.
There’s always much to talk and pray about when elders fulfill their responsibilities by doing tasks like these: ministering to people in the hospital, intervening in marriages, assisting in financial counseling, serving as greeters and kitchen help when needed, praying with people, following up on crises, making phone calls and home visits to missing sheep, and other practical shepherding tasks. In essence, anything that appears to be the logical expression of fulfilling Ezekiel 34.
The remaining portion of the meeting is devoted to dreaming, planning, reviewing plans, and making key decisions that impact the congregation.
The second monthly meeting begins with Bible study and includes such issues as dreaming, planning, etc. Very few decisions about finances occur because the ministry plan (budget) has already answered those.
Another congregation I know dedicates one entire meeting a month to shepherding concerns (defined as healing, helping, intervening, encouraging, praying, supporting, etc.). Yet another congregation delegates all “business” to staff, deacons, and ad hoc teams, while the elders do only shepherding.
Whatever format you choose, the care and feeding of people must be the top priority, and the budgeting of actual meeting time is the clearest indicator of what takes precedence. At first it seems impossible, but soon elderships discover the “bricks and mortar” become less and less important as more and more time is spent interacting in the lives of people.
Suggestion 3: Define roles and accountability.
Of necessity, the first step is making sure all elders know what is expected of them before they are selected. The second logical step is for new elders to accompany experienced elders in their ministry to people. Third, elders must be held accountable for their ministries. If assignments are made, then reports should follow. If contacts are not accomplished, ongoing accountability must ultimately lead to the fulfillment of those responsibilities.
The expectations may be high, but they are reasonable. Expectations may require tremendous effort and sacrifice, but they are clear. And neither staff, ministry leaders, nor eldership is allowed to merely ignore their respective responsibilities without consequence.
In these churches, staff and ministry teams (deacons, etc.) are free to dream and plan and carry out the daily activities of ministry (preaching, teaching, discipling, worship, etc.) knowing that the primary shepherding and intervention is done by mature men of God. This partnership means the most mature men of the congregation are being asked to do that which requires more maturity, and it means giving younger, less mature Christians a greater opportunity to serve and grow into the maturity they will need in the future.
Suggestion 4: Build authentic relationships.
In healthy situations, staff, ministry leaders, and elders work in partnership, often literally going together into ministry tasks. They pray together, eat together, play together, laugh together, and serve together. They build relationships of trust and respect.
Congregational leadership cannot function effectively until authentic relationships are forged. If staff members are viewed as subservient, ministry leaders as gophers, or elders as managers, the only possible result is conflict and bitterness.
I have the privilege of meeting with two or three elders each Sunday morning for prayer. We seek to partner staff and elders so every staff member has an ally in the eldership. Ministry leaders receive both oversight and encouragement in their ministries, even while being free to function within their particular ministry plan allotment (budget).
Some churches have annual retreats with elders and staff, sometimes including ministry leaders. One church has a biannual dinner with ministry team leaders and elders. Another has quarterly elder and staff meetings to build relationships. We encourage staff members to come to elders’ meetings any time they want, always when they have proposals to present for information purposes, or at least once or twice a year just to see how the elders function.
In healthy churches, good people work together to produce good in the name of the supreme good. The key words are work together.
Healthy churches select men they believe to be godly, filled with integrity, and led by the Spirit to shepherd them. Healthy churches call to their staffs men and women they believe God has gifted with abilities the congregation needs to move forward, reach lost people, and help develop them into disciples who look like Jesus. Healthy churches empower ministry team leaders to develop and implement ministry.
Suggestion 5: Lead the change process.
Most people are afraid of change in the church. The fear of the unknown, the loss of the known, and the release of security all have a paralyzing effect. The presence of new procedures, the learning of new practices, and the building of new relationships require a renewed effort (especially in situations where little growth has occurred in recent years).
Long-established members of the church are often not willing to follow young and inexperienced staff or new and untested ministry leaders. But they will follow their shepherds.
A congregation must be led in change by the most mature men in their midst. If, by default or inactivity, the responsibility falls to anyone else, it’s apt to fail. If, by passivity or objection, it is opposed by the elders, it will surely fail. In the process, young and sometimes inexperienced staff are broken by the experience. Unfortunately, many are overwhelmed by the disappointment and leave the ministry for good.
Developing new ideas, creating a vision for the future, and addressing needed changes requires a partnership among elders, ministry leaders, and staff. Creating the actual plan may be left to the staff and simply approved by elders, depending on the changes and the particular strengths of the elders. But when any proposal is launched, it must be launched with the solid, unanimous, strong voice of the congregation’s shepherds.
Sheep know and follow the voice of their elders. Elders must be strong enough and wise enough to absorb the criticism. People will follow their lead.
Our churches need strong, godly shepherds who know and care for the sheep. Our young and inexperienced staff need healthy congregations in which to grow and serve and learn. Our people need the voices of wisdom and experience willing to lead them into the future. Our world needs the gospel of Jesus and healthy churches where authentic disciples of Jesus can grow.
We have the opportunity to help make those ideas become reality if our elders are willing to shepherd instead of manage, support vision instead of thwart progress, and encourage staff members instead of undermine them.
Chuck Sackett serves as minister with Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois.
Compulsion or Compensation?
No man should serve as an elder who isn’t willing. He may (should?) have reservations, but he must be convinced in his heart. Nor should a man expect to be an elder simply because he’s been around a long time, he’s been a deacon, his father was an elder, etc.
Elders are selected because they are already demonstrating a shepherd’s heart and practicing shepherding activities. Elder service is not compensation for longevity or being in the right family. Elder service is the logical consequence of being compelled to shepherd people whether given a title or not.
Israel’s Shepherd and Those Who Do His Work
Ezekiel 34 is God’s rebuke of Israel’s shepherds who had selfishly cared for themselves while failing to care for Israel. The list of failed activities gives a clear picture of what today’s shepherds (elders) should see as their primary functions.
The fact that Ezekiel writes to God’s people, his use of the common vocabulary for shepherding (poimen), Peter’s emphasis upon elders serving as examples of the Good Shepherd, and the clear connection to John 10 (“I am the good shepherd,” v. 11) indicate this is a particularly useful passage in discussing shepherding.
Elders could use Ezekiel 34:1-16 as their guide to regular self-examination. The following questions could determine any shepherd’s effectiveness:
1. Do I shepherd because of what I receive (position, power, prestige) or because of what I can give to God’s people (encouragement, healing, instruction)?
2. Do I faithfully pursue missing sheep, sacrificing my time and energy to see they are accounted for?
3. In what ways have I sought to bring healing to the brokenness in the lives of those entrusted to my care?
4. Do I lead through example or with harshness?