Not long ago, a man said something like this: “I enjoyed the ministry today, but one thing you said really caught my attention. It was the statement that there is an active as well as a passive side to the work of elders. I need to do some serious thinking about that, because … through most of my years I have been a passive elder.”
I remember wondering how many other elders might feel the same way. Some will wonder that an article on such a subject could be needed at all. Isn’t it obvious that both active (action) and passive (accepting) roles are involved in leading people? We might think so, but consider the following.
In many churches, one man is the picture of action and involvement. Preaching the Word, chairing committees, leading in visitation, in decision making, in outreach and a host of other activities, there is not much time for being passive about anything.
On the other hand, I have been told on several occasions by men who have been elders for years that the chief responsibility of any elder is stated in I Peter 5:3 namely, to be “examples to the flock.” Presumably if an elder is a godly example, everything else will fall into place.
Clearly, all elders need to strive for balance in leading the church, but does that balance extend even to being more active or passive in how one leads?
The Need for Balance
It is quite apparent that people with widely different personalities can become effective leaders in society and in the church. Churches that depend on a plurality of brothers, a team approach to leadership, often observe an interesting mix of personality types in the group. Some are more outgoing and expressive; others are quieter and more reserved in their participation.
A quick check of Scripture passages relating to church leadership makes it clear that in some things elders must simply “be,” and in other situations they must “do.” In fact the passage from I Peter 5 cited for what elders must “be” begins with a charge to “do” something: “The elders who are among you . . . feed the flock of God…” (I Peter 5:3,4). In I Timothy 3, Paul describes the qualities of an elder as both passive virtues such as “sober minded” or “patient,” and with action words such as “given to hospitality” or “apt to teach.” Without question, both aspects are important.
But suppose an assembly has leaders who all share the same personality type or approach to leading; that is, all find it easy to take an active role and initiate. Or on the other consider where all prefer to sit back and wait for change to come and others to function? Clearly, both of these present an imbalance. Are there realistic changes that could be made for the blessing of the church in order to prevent such imbalance in leadership?
Traits of Leaders
We should be clear that the subject of God-given personality is not a question of “right” vs. “wrong.” God has made each servant of His a unique creation of infinite value to be appreciated. Any leadership team will find strength in the blend of its personalities. But one’s approach to leading, that is, his leadership style is a different matter, and should be growing and improving throughout life.
On a well balanced team, the more active leader takes initiative, makes things happen, is not threatened by change or the need to deal with problems, and enjoys communicating. The passive leader takes a relaxed position, enjoys delegating tasks to others, is content to let change come naturally and enjoys listening to others.
The goal is to achieve a pleasing blend of action and acceptance so that all involved are respected and honored for their work, and that the church is healthy and able to accomplish its mission. In such a setting, people in the church enjoy the freedom to learn and grow without pressure. A study in the life of the Lord Jesus reveals His perfect balance in leading His disciples– as the apostle John put it, He was “full of grace and truth.”
Problems and Dangers
While much could be written about the problems caused by a lack of balance in either direction, it is probably not an overstatement to say that more assemblies suffer from an overly passive leadership than one that is too active. Some leadership groups are plagued by a sort of spiritual inertia; no one wants to lead and things are not taken care of. In this sense, passivity is the path of least resistance. In time the church suffers and growth ceases.
Of course there are many factors that contribute to a languishing local church, but one of the most common is a lack of good leadership. The elders simply cannot or will not lead effectively. They cannot inspire and motivate the people. Decisions are inconsistent or not made at all. Time in leadership meetings is wasted, coordination of servants and ministries is weak, and problem issues remain unresolved.
The sad part is that all of this can be tolerated because it appears more spiritual to “just pray about it,” “leave it with the Lord.” What can a group of elders in this condition do?
Working Toward Balance
What an encouragement it is that with the Lord there is always hope! Probably the greatest hurdle is to admit that a problem exists. The decision to “turn around” and go in a new direction (called repentance in the Bible) can be the profound beginning of a whole new outlook in a fellowship. No question about it, change in these things will not be an easy road. Admitting weakness can be a foreboding thought to those who have long been recognized as leaders in the church.
But there is more incentive. With its team approach to leadership, New Testament assemblies are in a favorable position to involve people in the work of the ministry. Their involvement will provide support for their leaders who actively lead in the challenges that growth will inevitably bring. And how important that support is!
Feeding the flock, equipping the saints, making important decisions in a timely manner and setting a godly example all result from a team effort. Therefore it is important that each elder be honest about his strengths and limitations, not forgetting that his fellow elders may have much needed insight on blind spots he himself cannot see. Open communication is crucial. If each man is willing to accept correction from his coworkers, and is determined to sharpen his leadership skills, the effect can be marked blessing and growth in the church.
Engaging The Elders
It would be especially helpful if the elders engaged in some frank discussion about this matter of active/passive leadership. Once again it must be emphasized that there is no reason to expect a man to be what he is not as to personality. Rather, each man must sense that the goal is to bring out the best and fully utilize the strengths and gifts God has given to him. This process in turn will not only help the church, but will strengthen his marriage and his other relationships in all other aspects of life.
Perhaps some portion of the elders’ meeting could be devoted to compiling an informal list of the things about which elders must provide active leadership, such as protecting the church from false teachers, dealing with needed discipline and restoration of sinning believers, providing nourishing spiritual food for the flock, visiting the sheep, and communicating a sense of vision as to what are the goals of the particular church.
Try to include some practical helps such as setting up simple measures for accountability. Taking and reviewing notes of meeting decisions, using email updates on progress during the week, and periodic reviews through feedback from the saints are all ideas that some churches have found helpful in making sure that momentum is not lost.
In conclusion, Romans 12:11 best summarizes this subject as it can be applied to all believers, but especially to elders-they should be: “… fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” The word “fervent” could be translated “boiling” and carries the thought of something that has been exposed to great heat. This links well with Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to “stir up the gift of God which is in thee…” (II Tim. 1:6), as one would stir the coals of a dying fire into new life and warmth. One can only imagine what God can do in a church whose leaders are willing to move from their passive comfort zone into the active part of the battle!