Leadership in the church is a fascinating subject as it affects so many lives and families. Churches will often prosper or struggle as they reflect the quality of care they receive from their shepherds. Many groups have embraced the Biblical teaching of leadership by elders, a subject to which a considerable amount of attention has been devoted in past issues of ESN. As time brings changes, elders move away or are called home to the Lord, churches grow in size, the question is heard: “How can new elders be found; when is a brother ready to be an elder?
To answer these questions, there are a number of things to consider. Certainly there are the basic guidelines provided in the Scriptures. Then there are some things which seem to be implied but not stated in the Bible; things we might call wise but not specified. Finally, there are local issues which may reflect strong traditions of any particular congregation; things which may be changed but which must at least be considered.
As to the first, Scripture indicates a work of God in making elders (Acts 20:28 KJV), a work in the heart and life of the individual as to desire and qualifications for eldership (I Tim 3:1-7), and a work in the people of the local assembly as they discern this good work taking place in the life and actions of a brother (I Thess 5:12). If any of these is lacking, it is safe to say that problems will likely follow. No amount of desire and popularity can substitute for a genuine work of God in the heart, and any true work of the Holy Spirit must be lived out in the practical conduct of a leader for God. If these things are present, they will be seen or recognized (at least informally) by the people, and hopefully in a tangible way by the entire church.
With regard to things implied but not specified, it may help to mention a few. An elder will be a working part of a close brotherhood, and should be a team player, neither dominating nor receding into silent uninvolvement. He ought to share the vision of the current elder group for the work they have done thus far. And he should have some convictions about time commitment to the local work. Opportunities to be absent, even in the service of the Lord may abound, but shepherds must spend a substantial share of their time among the sheep.
As to local issues, there are considerations, traditions and scruples which may apply only in the particular local situation, but are very important to the people of the church. For example, in a retirement community of older believers, the “younger” men aged 50 – 60 may be expected to yield the place of leadership to those who are over 70. Some groups insist that an elder must be married, based on a particular interpretation of I Tim 3:2. And some would add to that the need for the elder to have children based on the same verse. Some hold that the preaching of the Word must be done by the elders themselves; others enjoy different measures of delegation of this task.
Need For More Elders
Important as all the various concerns may be, it is critical not to lose sight of the goal: the church needs an adequate supply of qualified, capable elders who have a heart for the Lord and the people, and this need must not go unmet on account of non-biblical technicalities! God has supplied the basics, and the believers would do well to go back and review them carefully. Has there been an ongoing work of God in the life of the brother in question? Does he have the desire to lead as an elder? Does his life display a reasonable degree of compliance with the qualifications set down in the Word? Does he have credibility and integrity among the people of the church? If the answer to these questions is yes, then serious consideration should be given to making a simple public affirmation of what seems to be already well in progress!
Two related questions come to mind at this point. Are there things an assembly might be doing to ensure a good supply of elders for the future, and how can we protect the elders we have from “burnout?” In looking toward the future, it is not a bad idea to have some sort of an “elders – in – training” program. This can be as informal as older men working with younger men, or in a larger church, there can be some specific guidelines by which ongoing preparation and discipleship are matters of accountability among the existing elders.
The three great discipling relationships in Scripture (Moses and Joshua, Paul and Timothy, and the Lord Jesus and His disciples) can serve as models for this. Additionally, it should be remembered that Paul hints that those who have served well as deacons, procure a good standing (or “step”), implying the step up to more significant spiritual responsibilities in the work of the church (I Tim. 3:13). Those who excel as deacons or leaders in small groups, are heading in a good direction for increased spiritual leadership among God’s flock.
Protection of Elders
As to the protection of those elders who are already functioning, there are endless creative ideas which can encourage the leaders among us. Before suggesting any though, let’s take note of one that is spelled out clearly in the Word. Those who lead should be able to do their work with joy and not with grief (Heb 13:17). Working among thankful, cooperative people will go a long way toward resting the spirit of any servant of the Lord! Beyond that, here are a few other ideas: If the number of elders can be increased to a number greater than the bare minimum, why not rotate responsibilities with an occasional month to “rest” from extra meetings and visits.
How long has it been since the elders and their wives were treated to a night out at a restaurant for relaxing and renewing friendships by the people of the church? Why not make up teams to visit families of the assembly with one elder and one deacon (or younger man) in each team to help keep nights out to a reasonable number. Where Sunday teaching workload is heavy, why not an occasional panel of elders with written questions submitted in advance?
One may wonder at such suggestions in an article about when a brother is ready to be an elder. But they go together! Ask a congregation whose people have gotten the idea that doing the work of an elder is a dirty job of late night meetings, neglected family and stomach ulcers! Or the group whose elders have come to believe they are merely the puppets of a powerful administrative boss. No, these are not the pictures of elder work given in the NT. Instead think of a flock of contented sheep, giving constant thanks to God for supplying them with wonderful caring shepherds. Yes, they’re human, and yes, they sometimes could have done it better, but overall “Where would we be without their tireless, loving help?” Happy is that assembly whose younger men look forward to the day when they are numbered with the team of godly, older men called elders!