By Jim Tune
In my previous article on elders and submission, I suggested that church planters may be hesitant to install elders due to a misunderstanding of biblical authority. We’ve become accustomed to thinking about abuse and power in the same sentence. We have so many poor models of leadership around us today, it is easy to cringe when words like submission, authority, and rule come up. But a new church plant can provide a unique opportunity to create a workable and biblical model unhindered by any existing and entrenched system.
At Churchill Meadows we followed an intentional pathway—one embarked upon in the earliest years of the church—to develop an effective eldership. While initial oversight was provided by a management team, we set out early to identify and equip potential elders.
That does not mean we operated in haste. Seven years passed between the launch of the church and the installation of elders. This may seem a long time, but for us it was a good decision.
Don’t Move Too Quickly
Like many new churches, ours began with a handful of people. We had three staff members and a small band of people positioned as missionaries taking new territory and shaping the DNA of the church from ground zero. We planted the church as a group of missionary-gatherers with the plan to install an eldership only after we had coalesced into a more established group.
Most of the people we initially reached were unbelievers or from among the long-term unchurched. Our new congregation simply lacked biblically qualified leaders. While a few churched families migrated to Churchill Meadows from other congregations after our launch, we exercised caution, deciding to observe their lives over time so as not to place disgruntled church hoppers into key leadership roles. Statistics show that 50 to 60 percent of a new church launch team won’t be around after two years, so we were hesitant to install leaders who might contribute to a sense of discontinuity.
The early installation of an eldership may also send the wrong message to your people. It tells people, “We are established now.” In a young church, the mind-set can easily shift from an attitude of pioneering to one of “mission accomplished.” Had we installed elders too soon, it could have destroyed momentum and diminished our sense of mission.
One church planter put it this way: “Church planting is like launching a rocket: once you’re safely headed into orbit, you can jettison your rocket boosters. But if you jettison them during liftoff, you’re in big trouble.” At Churchill Meadows, our “liftoff” phase lasted more than three years. For that matter, to this very day we resist creating an established church culture. Our experience has led me to counsel church planters to wait at least three years, and until they are consistently running 100-plus in attendance, before installing elders.
Don’t Move Too Slowly
Good church planters will watch out for the dangers of Boyle’s Law: “If not controlled, work will flow to the most competent person until he or she is swamped!” When the Jerusalem church exploded in growth, the 12 apostles could not keep up with the needs. Consequently they selected seven men to manage benevolence and ministry needs so they could continue giving themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
While premature installation of elders may send an unintended message that weakens missional momentum, sooner or later failure to delegate ministry to others will inhibit church growth and burn out the staff. Good leaders realize it’s impossible to reach maximum growth potential without delegating responsibility. Even an exceptional lead planter and staff will not be able to adequately meet the demands of a growing church.
Just look at this partial list of the duties assigned to elders in the New Testament:
• ruling and leading the church (1 Timothy 5:17)
• teaching sound doctrine and correcting false teachings/teachers (Titus 1:9; Acts 20:17-31)
• caring for people in the church (1 Peter 5:2-5)
• managing the church (1 Timothy 3:4, 5)
• living exemplary lives (Hebrews 13:7)
• prayer and Scripture study (Acts 6:4)
• working with diligence (1 Thessalonians 5:12)
• disciplining unrepentant church mem-bers (Matthew 18:15-17)
• praying for/anointing the sick (James 5:13-15).
When I read this list, two questions come to mind. First, who in their right mind would want such a job description? I am just grateful there are godly men who desire such a task! Second, could any preacher or staff member, regardless of how gifted or committed he might be, possibly do all of these things in a growing church of hundreds or thousands?
One rarely sees the critical importance of godly elders mentioned in church planting manuals or books on church growth. That’s an almost inexcusable oversight! Our church would not have grown numerically or in spiritual maturity without the adoption of a biblical eldership.
How We Identify Potential Elders
We believe the Bible is very clear on two aspects of church governance. According to the New Testament, God intends each local congregation to have a plurality of elders. It’s also clear that God requires mature Christian character to be evident in the lives of the elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Beyond that, we consider two questions: Is this person already functioning as an elder without the title or recognition? Does this person shepherd his family the way one would expect an elder to shepherd God’s church?
All of our current elders were already shepherding people even though they had no formal title. They demonstrated caring hearts toward the hurting, and they discipled others with no motivation other than to see spiritual fruit develop. Likewise, each one demonstrated an exemplary family life—so much so that others in the church took notice. In other words, the congregation already looked to them as good shepherds.
Our Installation Process
Because this was our first eldership, I personally selected the initial four elders. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the New Testament (Acts 14:23), and Paul instructed Titus to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5). As lead planter and senior minister, I was probably the best judge of their fitness for the role. I had walked closely with these four men for a long time. We had already spent years in the trenches together. I was confident of their doctrinal fidelity, shepherd hearts, harmonious spirits, loyalty, and support for the staff.
They were presented to the congregation and staff for feedback, but there was no voting. A new church is no place for a popularity contest.
Realizing early on that I would need to develop an eldership from a crowd of spiritual novices, I created a training curriculum for emerging leadership. It requires two years of part-time course work that I teach myself. Also, because our church had very few people with a Restoration Movement background, our elder candidates participated in an eight-week study on the history of the Restoration Movement. We also have whole-day seminars available to the entire congregation on our doctrinal distinctives and the Restoration “plea.” This teaching has been well received. It reflects my deep concern that our church should embody these values even if I am no longer serving at Churchill Meadows in the future.
The current eldership is serving a three-year term. The elders operate via consensus and are comfortable with an “elder-protected, staff-led” model. I answer to the elders. They determine broad policy issues, approve the budget, co-shepherd the flock, and hold me accountable. They have the authority to fire me, and I like it that way.
This initial installation process was the only time the elders would be selected by me personally. One of the chief tasks for their first term is to establish our future elder-selection protocol.
This past year we entered our new building, and in 10 months we added more than 300 people. We could not have coped with this rapid growth without a team of godly elders who were willing to work very hard. Far from being an impediment to growth, our elders have contributed to it!
Jim Tune is senior minister of Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada. He is founder and director of Impact Canada, a national church planting organization, and serves as a contributing editor for CHRISTIAN STANDARD.