Without question, more elders are needed, both to replace those called home by the Lord, and to keep up with expansion in the local church. Do we need a plan? It depends. If you’re happy with an informal approach and it’s working, stick with it. But many believe that one reason some churches struggle for years is the lack of trained, qualified elders. Scripture does provide examples of older leaders training younger ones, and we can benefit by applying the lessons we discover. We surely have the liberty to do that. Think of the notable discipling relationships reflected in the Bible: Moses with Joshua, Paul with Timothy, and above all, the Lord Jesus with His disciples. Is there not a wealth of information on how leadership passes from one generation to the next?
There is a Biblical principle underlying the inquiry. Whether we are comfortable with present day terms like “mentoring,” “internship,” “passing the baton,” or prefer a low-key approach, it is true that whatever we sow, we will eventually reap. Good leaders are not produced through neglect. Let’s consider five areas that take most, if not all, of elders’ time in the work, and think about how younger men of the assembly might participate with them and learn.
1) Time with the Lord. The early believers knew the value of this, for we read in Acts 13:2 concerning leaders in the church at Antioch: “As they ministered to the Lord and fasted…” (KJV). These men of influence who spoke the Word of the Lord to the people, were spending quality time together in the Lord’s presence. Do we make time to spend with the Lord collectively, i.e. in addition to private devotions at home? Do such times show our conviction that the Lord is truly present among us when we meet? Wouldn’t this be a good time to include some younger men who had interest and potential in spiritual things? It is an important lesson for the younger ones to learn that relationships among brothers can be peaceful, and difficult issues cleaned up in a timely manner when each one present has a conscious awareness of the presiding presence of the Head of the church at the meeting! In this, the assembly is very different from corporate meetings in the business world.
2) Caring for the team. Paul told the elders at Ephesus to take heed to themselves and to all the flock (Acts 20:28). To borrow an expression from Peter’s epistle, we should dwell with our fellow elders according to knowledge (see I Peter 3:7). It takes time to really get to know our co-workers and care for them, to know their strengths and weaknesses, their spiritual gifts and talents. Our loving interest should extend to their wives and family, health, time and business constraints.
Now while we may not be comfort-able sharing all these details with younger men in the church, isn’t it important for them to hear elders pray for one another, speak well of one another, and make special provision for life’s inevitable difficulties? It would be sad if younger believers got the impression that the sum total of team cohesiveness is simply the urgency of dealing with assembly problems and meeting schedules. Put another way, is it possible that more young men do not aspire to the work of eldership because the existing elders have hidden their vulnerability, their “humanness,” so well that the younger ones doubt that they could ever be spiritual enough to work among such a group? Therefore, if it is imperative that younger men embrace the idea of plurality in leadership, they need to be included in some of the intimate times of elder fellowship. The team approach is the biblical model for leadership.
3) Laboring in the Word. Paul reminds Timothy of the honor due to elders, “especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). Many Scriptures emphasize the importance of sound doctrine, and the feeding of the flock. Not all elders are gifted teachers, but being “apt to teach” is one qualification of the elder (I Tim. 3:2). Here is a valuable opportunity to train younger men in an important leadership skill: let them participate in the study of the Word with the older men of the assembly. This brings honor to those who are more experienced or gifted in teaching the Word. It goes beyond one’s private studies for discipleship, message preparation or dealing with the inevitable problems growth brings. The value is not just in what elders study, but how they do it. Listening to one another, deferring graciously to other points of view is a form of honoring one another. In addition, learning to take careful notes and maintain records, hearing the names of honored teachers of the past and their writings are all priceless training tools for young men.
4) Shepherding the flock. In many assemblies, the elders become so involved in decision making and other administrative duties that scarcely any time remains for pastoral work. Yet the instruction to elders is clear: “Feed [pastor, shepherd] the flock of God which is among you…” (I Peter 5:2). Here is a work that is desperately needed today, and a virtual gold mine of practical opportunity for training future elders. Are we taking them along on visits to homes, hospitals, convalescent homes? Are they seeing us move among the believers on Sunday morning to greet and inquire, or is all available time spent with fellow elders discussing problems and arranging programs? Young men need to watch the shepherds care for marriages, for new believers, for the aged or infirm, and for those who seem to be growing cold in the faith. All the better if there are times to discuss how these various shepherding functions were carried out, and what lessons were learned.
5) Attending the regular and special meetings of the church. Perhaps it’s obvious, but after all the above, elders still must attend meetings, often many meetings. Such times can be useful in discipling the younger ones. Recently an elder friend read a letter from a younger man in our assembly. He wrote to thank the elder for inviting him to a weekend conference in a nearby state. He enjoyed the conference, was helped by the excellent ministry of the Word, but then he added: “The part of the weekend that made the biggest impact on my life, was the conversations we had in the car driving up and back to the conference!” What seemed like a rather mundane matter of traveling to a meeting, was used by God to make some spiritual gains in a young life.
Perhaps the real hurdle in involving younger men is something deep in the heart. True shepherding is not about power and control. Rather, it’s about being a servant. It comes from loving the Shepherd and the sheep. Just as the Good Shepherd did not think equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6), but gave Himself for the flock and then turned the work over to under shepherds, so the true elder rejoices when the Lord blesses simple attempts to bring along the next generation of servant leaders. Happy is the assembly that has elders with vision for future leaders, and some plans on how to prepare them.