By Don Green
Churches of all sizes need to establish a process for disciple and leader development that can equip future elders to function as Christlike leaders (Luke 6:40). To be healthy and effective, every church must ensure that mature disciples are being prepared to function as shepherding, overseeing, and leading elders and equippers (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 5:1-4). Although adopting a disciple development process in a local congregation is no guarantee that effective leaders will be developed, it is an essential pathway to kingdom leadership development.
During church consultations over the past 30 years I have often been asked, “What do you recommend our church use for a leadership development program?” The question often comes as a church nears its annual election time and again faces the prospect of a limited number of willing and prepared elder candidates. My stock answer reflects my personal bias: “I do not know of any effective church leadership development program you can buy off the shelf to produce leaders, but if your church will engage in an intentional, transformational disciple development process, that is the best way I know to produce leaders.”
Christian churches and churches of Christ historically have focused on the qualifications for elders and deacons found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, to the exclusion of a biblical perspective on Jesus’ marks of discipleship. As a starting point, leadership selection should begin with the obvious, but often overlooked, criteria that godly spiritual leaders are to be disciples of Jesus Christ and disciple-makers for Jesus Christ. One could make the case that the qualities listed for elders in 1 Timothy and Titus are expressions of disciples who are abiding in Jesus’ words (John 8:31, 32), loving others (John 13:34, 35), and bearing fruit (John 15:7, 8). Being a maturing disciple should be foundational for any spiritual leader of the church (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).
A related foundational issue for church leadership selection is the place of the home in the disciple development process. An elder should not only be a maturing disciple, but also a disciple-maker, especially among his biological family and his spiritual family. This is no doubt what Paul had in mind when he described a spiritual leader as one who can “manage his own family well” (1 Timothy 3:4, 5, 12).
In Metaphors of Ministries: Biblical Images for Leaders and Followers, David Bennett wrote,
Jesus trained the twelve to be leaders in his church. . . . Yet the words “leader” and “leadership” do not appear in the Gospels. In fact, Jesus says surprisingly little to his disciples about their future role as leaders, at least in any explicit way. Why is this? Could it be that leadership has more to do with learning to follow than learning to command, supervise, or manage? Could it be that effective leadership depends more on right attitudes than on mastery of certain skills? Could it be that it is more important for the leader to understand what he or she has in common with other followers of the Lord than to focus on what sets the leader apart from the rest? (p. 11).
Rusty Ricketson echoes this sentiment in his excellent book Follower First: Rethinking Leading in the Church, in which he observes, “The Bible is a book about followers, written by followers, for followers” (p. 7). He identifies the church’s perceived crisis of leadership as actually “a crisis of following” (p. 11) and argues that leaders must “begin to embrace the thinking that the ultimate goal of the believer is to be a follower of Christ first, regardless of organizational position” (p. 8).
Local Church Examples
It is apparent that the need is for ongoing elder development through enhanced discipleship, but how does a local church do it? Or perhaps this is a better question: how are some local churches doing it? To arrive at an answer, I spoke with ministers of small, medium, and large churches, megachurches, and multisite churches. Here are just a few of the creative and effective ways some of our churches are approaching elder development.
For several years churches have used two main books for elder training: Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership by Alexander Strauch and They Smell Like Sheep by Lynn Anderson. These are excellent resources, but reading good books alone is not an adequate elder development process.
A number of churches are now using the E2 Effective Elder curriculum developed by James Estep, Gary Johnson, and David Roadcup. One such church, Sebastian (Florida) Christian Church (sebastianchristian.org), is using the four books provided by E2 as part of its eldership training packet. Todd D. Thomas, senior pastor at the church, describes this curriculum as “practical, effectual training that aptly explains the role of a biblical elder.” He notes, “As our church moves forward to boldly pursue the plan God has laid out for us in the areas of leadership, discipleship, and evangelism, the E2 book series will be an integral part of our leadership training. They are a ‘must read’ for all current and future elders, as we hopefully restore God’s original design of church leadership.” These books on elders and the accompanying DVD curriculum are available at the E2 website, e2elders.org.
Another congregation, Lakeside Christian Church (lakesidechristian.com) in Springfield, Illinois, is using Live 2|6 disciple making groups for developing elders. All of the current elders and a group of prospective elders are involved in Live 2|6 groups (a two-year gospel study on the life of Christ that involves intensive training in the strategies and priorities modeled by Christ). The disciple making resources are available at live26.org.
“At Lakeside, we believe that before elders can become good leaders, they must become good followers,” says Jon Morrissette, preaching minister at Lakeside Christian. “Therefore, we want to observe which men are receiving the leadership of other leaders well.” In evaluating who is ready to serve as an elder, questions such as these are asked:
• Does he demonstrate a hunger to believe in Jesus, to become fully like him, to build into others, and to bless those far from God?
• Is he moving through new life tracks, member tracks, and leadership development tracks?
The church also expects future elders to demonstrate pastoral initiative, so additional questions include:
• Is he bearing fruit in character and service?
• Is he engaging others in a ministry of teaching, training others for godliness, pastoral care, and/or community outreach?
Finally, future elders must demonstrate theological, philosophical, and relational unity with existing elders. This includes a multistage interview process, and ever-deepening, hands-on exposure to the actual work of eldership. At Lakeside the work of elders centers on proclaiming Christ faithfully, protecting the flock proactively, pastoring the flock holistically (through staff and key leaders), and forming strategic partnerships globally.
Suncrest Christian Church (suncrest.org), a multisite church located in St. John, Indiana, uses a 15-month elder development path for training future elders. This focused effort requires participants to meet monthly to discuss assigned reading that ranges from spiritual classics to theological textbooks to practical, business-oriented leadership books. These monthly meetings also include one-on-one peer mentoring to promote accountability and to fulfill Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”
Lead pastor Greg Lee also meets monthly with these future elders in smaller group huddles that include a meal and mentoring. Participants are expected to develop a daily time with God that cultivates a personal relationship with Christ, pray for and actively engage five unchurched people, attend one outside leadership conference during the program, lead either a devotional thought or theological summary at one group gathering, and agree to pray and consider the next steps in serving as an elder at Suncrest.
Crossroads Christian Church (crossroadschristian.com) in Newburgh, Indiana, follows a small group strategy for future elder development. Senior minister Ken Idleman describes the process as more organic and natural than programmatic. The 15 lay elders in this congregation of about 3,800 weekly worshippers received training and leadership development through small groups. In addition to regular small group leadership training, group leaders are fulfilling eldership responsibilities for eight to 10 families (prayer, providing spiritual counsel, teaching, and doing service projects together).
Crossroads Christian’s small group structure serves as the training ground for current leaders and proving ground for future elders. Current elders and pastoral staff elders engage elder candidates in mentoring relationships for further spiritual development and skill development. Through this ongoing process, Idleman said, the church has “an army of capable, committed, qualified people who are invested at the elder level, but not necessarily attending elder meetings.”
Richwoods Christian Church (richwoods.org) in Peoria, Illinois, which has grown from 200 or so to about 1,500 in just a few years, has been blessed with highly capable and qualified elders. According to lead pastor Jim Powell, Richwoods does not have a formal training program for future elders, but has a more fluid process of elder development that focuses on identifying emerging leaders. Current elders and ministry staff identify emerging leaders and elder prospects in their areas of ministry. When the current elders determine a new elder needs to be added, they have a pool of potential elders from which to draw.
Those who have already shown themselves to be spiritually mature and model a servant leadership lifestyle are evaluated on the basis of four criteria:
• Do they demonstrate the character of an elder?
• Are they philosophically on board with the church’s values, vision, and policies?
• Is there a relational fit with the other elders?
• Do they fill a needed niche within the elder group (theological perspective, pastoral sensitivity, spiritual formation-minded, financial expertise, etc.)?
Approved candidates are then further trained over a nine-month period as they go through a thorough interview process, attend elders’ meetings as observers, review elder policies, and engage in one-on-one mentoring relationships with current elders or pastoral staff.
It should also be noted that Christian universities are also providing opportunities to enhance elder development. Lincoln Christian University (lincolnchristian.edu) hosts an annual Elders’ and Church Leaders’ Conference the third Saturday of February. This event typically draws several hundred church leaders from a five-state area. This past fall, Cincinnati Christian University (ccuniversity.edu) offered a leadership seminar called “The Eldership” at Indian Creek Christian Church (thecreek.org) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In a culture where leadership is often defined by what is accepted practice in the business or social sector, it still finds its greatest expression in the person of Jesus Christ. For that reason, applying ourselves to intentional disciple development and adapting his method of discipling others will prove to be an effective leadership development strategy.
It is my prayer that as churches engage in a more holistic process of disciple development, more effective leaders, especially elders, will be prepared. Such leaders will then be better equipped to lead churches, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, to be the kind of proactive, productive bodies that will bring honor to Jesus Christ and further his kingdom.
Don Green is director and professor of leadership at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University. He also has developed the Church Leader Network (www.churchleader.net), established for the purpose of networking church leaders around the world. The website contains helpful articles, links, downloads, discussions, tips, tools, and other resources.
Why Disciple Development Is a Key to Elder Development
What kind of elders will govern a local congregation appropriately and how are they best developed? In his unpublished Theology of Leadership, Guy Saffold defines biblical leadership as “taking the initiative to know God deeply, to reflect his holy character abundantly, and through loving relationships to draw people together to further his purposes in the world.” This fresh perspective demonstrates the importance of disciple development in the leadership development process.
First, if elders are to lead the church effectively, they must be men who take the initiative or have the will and commitment to grow continually as elders. It begins with a lifelong desire to know God deeply. Since they are serving him as stewards, they must have a deep, intimate awareness of his will to know what pleases him, and of his Word to know what must be guarded against.
Second, elders are to reflect God’s holy character abundantly. This means nothing less than being molded into Christlikeness. The goal is to look more like him, live more like him, and love more like him, so they may lead more like him.
Third, elders who govern well do so through loving relationships among themselves and those they lead. One cannot miss the repeated emphasis throughout the New Testament on the importance of leaders caring for others. Effective elders understand they are not merely filling an office, wearing a title, or exercising authority, but rather they are living in loving, caring, nurturing relationships with others.
Fourth, elders who lead effectively draw people together. They do not lead “Lone Ranger” style or autocratically, but by bringing out the best in others. Rather than dividing people into groups, they draw diverse people together in unity around a common purpose and toward a unifying vision.
Finally, elders lead God’s people to further his purposes in the world. The elders’ objective is not to accomplish their desired ends or personal goals, but to achieve what God wants, and to avoid what is unacceptable to him. In this, elders are leading for his glory and the good of his kingdom.