Developing elders

Developing Elders

How do we develop teams of elders in local churches? It doesn’t matter if your church is small, medium or large. This question is always vital.

Leaders face various challenges when it comes to developing leadership teams. In this article we will consider what eldership looks like, how we can raise new elders and how we should review our eldership workloads.

Understanding eldership

The church needs to think through its understanding of eldership. Biblical qualifications for this role are described in Scripture so that they can be recognised. The qualifications centre around character (roundedly mature with no obvious flaws), and capability (able to teach and to lead his own family well).

‘Recognition’ is a key idea here. Christ gives the gift of leaders and the church’s role is to recognise all those Christ has thus gifted. The church does not make people leaders; it recognises the leaders Christ has given.

From this flow some implications. All churches need to be praying that Christ will raise up those qualified to take care of his church. Without his gift, we cannot just develop our own leaders regardless.

Small churches may often feel there are not enough qualified men who can be recognised for this role. Just a word of caution before you assume this is so. ‘Able to teach’ (1 Tim 3:2) does not mean a man has to be the next Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It is somewhat relative to who else is teaching in the church. Someone, compared to others in that church, exercises a teaching ministry and may qualify in that context. But he may not strike a member of another church as having an ability to teach compared to the preachers in their church. So he may be an elder in one church, but perhaps not another, dependent on context.

Someone who is ‘able to teach’ may also be focused primarily in teaching in small group or personal contacts, not necessarily in large group settings. This may help larger churches too. If ‘able to teach’ covers these contexts it may mean that the Lord has given more elders than they might otherwise recognise. It goes without saying that every elder needs to have suitable character qualifications.

A large eldership will need to think carefully how to best deploy its elders. Not all will be able to be in the pulpit regularly. Indeed 1 Timothy 5:17-18 shows us that some elders will have a stronger gift of public communication (preaching and teaching) and this needs to be recognised and they need to be set apart and funded for this.

I don't think the apostle Paul is teaching a fundamental difference between elders, with some being ‘ruling elders’ and other ‘teaching elders’, but he is making a point about the relative strengths of gifting within an eldership.

Raising new elders

The church will need to be open to bringing along potential leaders. Paul's examples of taking Timothy alongside him is instructive here (Acts 16:1-3). He was willing to take a risk (not an unwise one in his own opinion) and invest in a young man who displayed a potential for service. Timothy wasn't the finished article when he took him along. But he was discipled and mentored, developing into a great future leader who could be trusted with significant responsibilities.

So, we should talk too of ‘proto-elders’. Men who show some promise, but are not ready for office bearing just yet. How long do you wait? Bearing in mind the injunction that they should not be a recent convert (1 Tim 3:6), my instinct is to bring them on as soon as you biblically can. They can then learn alongside the more experienced elders over a period of time.

An esteemed senior leader recently told me that he invested in men very significantly younger than himself so that they would have the opportunity to develop a long-term ministry in one place; something he saw as a very positive thing.

It may be in a small church that a person isn't ready for office, but can still be brought along by being mentored. It shouldn't be a case of the pastor saying, ‘I can't do anything with anyone’.

One concern I hear regularly, is from older men who feel they can't give up as there aren't others to take their place. Given the ageing demographics of many churches today, this is often a heart cry of concern. Older men, who have served in elderships long and well, can feel that they must not let the side down by stepping away, but they also sense they have not the energy to keep taking the work forward and thus feel trapped when fewer young men are present.

Any church in this situation needs to make this issue a significant matter for prayer.

It may need advice and help from other local churches. To leave this matter until it becomes a crisis is unwise. Ageing leaders need respect and wise handling. Any hint of, ‘You are the past, move over and out’, will damage the church, let alone the man.

Yet, ‘I am going to hold on until the Lord tells me otherwise’, maybe an unhelpful way of trying to prove your significance. Or a failure to really share power with others. It was widely remarked, ‘There may not be a right time to go, but there is a wrong time to stay’. Honest conversations initiated by the older leaders may help here.

Talking about honest conversations, I think it is really helpful if elders share with their wives. They can then get a wider female perspective on issues being discussed. Leaders will also need to think carefully how to get other voices heard in decision-making. It is important that members have access to leaders via conversations, and not just leave everything to formal settings such as members meetings. Careful thought will be needed so that single people, and people whose spouses aren't believers, are consulted and have opportunity to share their thoughts on matters concerning church life.

Reviewing eldership workload

One final thing comes from an unusual source. Michael Gerber wrote a book called The E Myth.1 He describes what happens when talented employees decide to start their own enterprise. Too often they succeed in the short term due to their own skill and hard work. But they fail in the long term because they confuse working in the business with working on the business.

Spending time working on the organisation can be seen as not earning money, or unnecessary management interference. But unless an enterprise attends to itself, it will get overwhelmed with busyness, it will fail to recruit staff properly, and to track the finances by sending bills out on time. He warns that the crash is awaiting.

Now there is not a one-to-one carryover from business to church, but there is wisdom here. We need to spend time working on leadership, as well as working in leadership. We need honest reviews about the workload, and whether the church is investing in future leaders. We need to think whether we are too cautious in bringing others along, or too fast. We need to deploy scarce re-sources of money and talent well. We cannot do everything, so we need to work on what will count.

Time for reflection, to gain counsel, and have candid conversations, are all necessary. We need to build in time away from doing the work to reflect on the work.

Next time I will reflect further on the role of deacons, and of paid staff, as part of the church’s team approach to taking its life forward.

1. Michael Gerber, The E Myth – Why Most Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It (Harper Business, 1988).

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