I love elders.

I love their charactered ways and pastoral hearts and concern for the Kingdom. I love their commitment to Christ and His church. I love the way they give themselves to the people God has placed under their care.

I love elders.

It’s elders’ meetings I find difficult.

As someone who has attended his fair share of elders’ meetings (and seen his fair share of ‘meeting dysfunction’), I have good reason to harbor serious reservations about the ways elders conduct themselves when they gather around the conference table.

I’ve endured meetings that would never end … meetings squandered on matters that didn’t matter … meetings that meandered from one topic to another without any apparent method to the madness … meetings that were short on prayer and long on hand-wringing … meetings that suffered from the worst excesses of “group think” and poor assumptions and bad information … meetings that ended in the whimper of inconclusiveness … meetings that left everyone in the room frustrated, agitated, and irritated.

Take elders (who individually are compassionate, wise, spiritual, visionary, and Christ-like) and let them herd and something perplexing happens. The sum of the whole doesn’t add up to the spiritual worth of each part. There is (too often) a diminishment of effectiveness rather than an augmentation of it.

“Why?” is the question that haunts me. You might expect that elders meetings would function like nuclear fission—pack enough high-spirit, high-energy disciples into the same room and something explosive should happen. Instead, sad experience teaches us that, when elders come together, they are more likely to sputter than reach critical mass.

This below-expectations-reality has led some churches, many ministers, and not-a-few shepherds to abandon all hope that a group of elders could ever function as an effective decision-making, vision-casting, direction-setting, momentum-producing core of the church. You’ve heard the pronouncements:

  1. “Let shepherds care for sheep, but keep them out of conference rooms!”
  2. “We need a staff-driven leadership model, not a committee of part-time amateurs!”
  3. Question: “How many elders does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Change‽”

As you will discover (if you continue to read this series of blogs), I’m in heated agreement with many of these sentiments. Yes, the first priority of shepherds should be the care and feeding of sheep, not meetings. Yes, ministry staff must be given a significant place at the leadership table. And, yes, many elderships struggle with managing change and the discomfort/conflict it often engenders.

That said, I suspect the primary problem has less to do with the legitimacy of elder leadership, or some kind of “inherent inefficacy” with elderships per se, and more to do with a widespread lack of appreciation for how elders should function as a group. If there really is such a thing as “elder leadership” for churches, it can only be leadership by a plurality of shepherds called by God to “manage God’s household” (Titus 1:7). The bottom line is that, if shepherds are going to lead, they have to meet. They need time together to pray, dream, discuss, seek, wrestle, develop consensus, hear opposing viewpoints, weigh consequences, make decisions, and plan.

But “time together” is not synonymous with “time well spent.” Just because elders gather regularly around a conference table with the desire to provide leadership for the church doesn’t mean that leadership actually results … at least, not effective leadership.

And therein lies the problem. Let me state it boldly: many elders don’t know how to meet. They don’t understand the necessary context for effective meetings … they don’t cultivate the group dynamics that result in rewarding meetings … they don’t value their meetings sufficiently or envision what God could be doing through their time together … and they lack the skills required to meet well.

Perhaps you think I’m being overly critical. Maybe your experience of elders’ meetings is distinctly different from mine. It could be that you are quite pleased with the efficiency and productivity of the elders’ meetings you attend. If so, wonderful! This series of articles is—obviously—not for you.

But if my experience has been yours … if you are convinced that elders could (and should) lead in more vigorous and visionary ways … if you agree that, for the most part, elders do not practice good meeting habits, I encourage you to read the following series.

I’ll begin with an introductory handful of articles that will set a context for effective elder leadership: articles on vision, relationship, attitude, and (a little) theology. Then I’ll outline “Ten Keys to Effective Elders’ Meetings”—including the importance of someone leading the leaders, the importance of ‘meeting disciplines,’ and the power of strategic prayer.

I’ll say it again: I love elders.

But sometimes “love” means saying: “Sorry. We can do better. And here are few suggestions, offered in love and respect, to help us become more effective leaders.”