(Re-Valuing the Collective Work of Elders)

Once upon a time, the work of elders was considered “a noble task.”[1] Those who did the work well were shown “double honor.” (Does that mean twice the salary?)

These are not sentiments normally associated with elders in our authority-cynical age. Even when some measure of “nobility” and “honor” are ascribed to elders for the work they do, it is primarily their personal work that is referenced—their care and feeding of individual sheep, their humble and loving characters. The work elders do together—meeting, deliberating, planning, deciding—is usually described in less flattering terms.

Church members tend to be suspicious of what goes on “behind closed doors” and vaguely resentful of decisions made about matters they would much prefer to decide for themselves. A favored hobby of many ministers is either lamenting their exclusion from these meetings or complaining about having to sit through them. And even elders regard elders’ meetings as the onerous cost to be borne for wearing the shepherd’s mantle.

It seems that no one likes elders’ meetings. They happen too frequently, take too long, and result in too little.

How odd! For when elders met in the New Testament, God did things that rocked the first century world. When elders gathered to pray, spiritual gifts were bestowed and people were healed and whole cities surrendered to the gospel. When they deliberated together, decisions were made that brought peace to fractured churches and clarified central theological beliefs and encouraged mission efforts in far-flung corners of their world. Their meetings resulted in bold initiatives and meaningful ministry and faithful doctrine.

Those meetings sound … well … fun! They sound like meetings people would look forward to and enjoy participating in and be encouraged by. They sound like the spiritual highlight of the week, the time when God’s Spirit could be experienced most profoundly and God’s kingdom advanced most powerfully. They sound like gatherings where godly men wrestled with godly issues in pursuit of godly goals.

I’d love to attend meetings like that. Wouldn’t you?

A Failure of Imagination

We don’t expect much of elders’ meetings anymore. We do not attend with the anticipation that God’s Spirit will show up or lives will be transformed or the gates of hell might quiver and fall because we meet. We do not believe as we walk into elders’ meetings that we are about to do soul-shaping, life-changing, world-disrupting work. We do not suspect that God might intend—through the attitudes we display and the priorities we pursue and the vision we seek and the faith we muster—to accomplish inconceivable, leg-slapping, jaw-dropping wonders.

And so, because our kingdom ambitions are stunted, our reach is tragically small. We aim low and hit our target. We expect little and are rewarded by achieving it.

This lack of imagination explains why we spend our meetings focused on facilities and funds … dancing to the narrow tunes of our people’s complaints and comfort zones … chasing rabbits across the wasteland of pointless debate … praying pro forma and underwhelming prayers … consumed with programmatic details … wringing our hands over the latest instance of spiritual immaturity among our members … and wondering why we are meeting instead of being at home with our families. It explains why our meeting places are never shaken and we so rarely feel the Spirit’s fire and we do not leave meetings filled with an irresistible boldness (in contrast to what is described in Acts 4:23-31).

To be fair, we come by this lack of imagination honestly. We’ve learned to be modest in our hopes. This modesty has been modeled for us by elders who have gone before and the kinds of meetings they experienced. It has been beaten into us by churches who would rather we not dream or challenge them to something spiritually significant. It is the inevitable outcome of a theology that does not welcome the Holy Spirit and a faith-practice that does not pursue him. It is the lack of spiritual ambition that derives from the sad suspicion that people don’t really change and churches no longer turn the world upside down and our actions won’t make much of a difference in the end.

Satan doesn’t need elders’ meetings to blow up or adopt bad policies or promote heretical positions.

He just needs elders’ meetings to end in a whimper … and for elders to grow satisfied with that state of affairs.


An Immodest Alternative?

The first step to more effective elders’ meetings is revaluing the work God has called elders to do. There is something noble and honorable about the shepherding work of caring for sheep individually. And there is also something noble and honorable in the work elders do as, together, they lead the flock.

So what can be done? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Let’s expect God to show up in our elders’ meetings, to walk with us through our meetings, and to use the results of our meetings for his glory and the advancement of the kingdom.

Do you invite God to be present with you as you meet? Do you anticipate that his Spirit will pervade the people in the room, shape their hearts and minds, and direct conversations and conclusions? Do you see elders’ meetings as “holy ground” where faith-filled men gather in the presence of a powerful God to do work of eternal consequence?

If not, you should resign immediately. Go join the Kiwanis Club. Find a place where God’s presence and God’s power is not required, where plans and purposes can be addressed by merely human activity.

If, however, you intend to stand beside the likes of Paul and Timothy, Peter and Mark, Barnabas and Silas—if you want to do kingdom work that makes an eternal difference for the souls of the children of God—not only must you recognize that an unleashing of God’s power will be necessary in that work, you should expect to witness and be part of something miraculous.

Let’s commit an act of faith and trust that, when we meet, God meets with us. And where God is present, transformative things happen. Walk into every elders’ meeting in anticipation of that.

2. Let’s dare to develop some kingdom ambition.

“Ambition” has a bad reputation. When ambition is personal and selfish, it deserves the bad name it has. But when our ambitions are for the Kingdom, when our aspirations and dreams focus on God’s purposes, ambition can be a holy thing.

Jesus came to save the world—a hugely grand objective. Paul understood his mission as encompassing the entire Gentile population—no small aim. The disciples were tasked to “preach the gospel to all creation” and “go into all the world” and “make disciples of all nations.” God intends for the gospel to turn the world upside down and transform lives and right the problem of Satan and sin.

Elders do not serve God’s best purposes by keeping their spiritual aspirations small. Tiny ambitions simply demonstrate that we don’t really believe God is in the room (see #1 above). It’s not enough for elders to circle the wagons and make programmatic tweaks and manage petty squabbles. God has greater things to accomplish through us. But unless and until we lift our eyes to higher hopes, we will content ourselves with goals that are small enough for our own powers to achieve.

Elders’ meetings should be opportunities for towering dreams, immodest proposals, and life-changing plans. If the meetings you attend don’t take your breath away, leave you nervous and excited, and make you walk with a purposeful stride, you’re meeting beneath your calling.

3. Let’s embrace boldness as a gift of the Spirit.

The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John. (Ac 4:13)

“Give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word….” They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Ac 4:29-31)

Saul … went all around Jerusalem with them, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. (Ac 9:28—Paul’s boldness is mentioned by Luke in several passages.)

But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. (Ac 14:3)

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. (2Co 3:12)

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. (Eph 3:12)

I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. (Php 1:20)

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid … (2Ti 1:7)

You can’t turn a world upside down without some boldness. In the first church, boldness was characteristic of leaders and closely associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. While boldness can be a vice when found in unworthy people (e.g., 2Pe 2:10), it is invariably regarded as a virtue when evidenced in the lives of godly leaders.

If contemporary church leaders suffer from any malady, it is not from the disease of being overly bold. Elders, on the contrary, are characteristically cautious. “Boldness” feels a lot like “recklessness” to many elders. They want to proceed prudently, make sensible decisions, demonstrate wisdom and discretion in their leadership. I’m for all of those things. What we do is too important to permit a lack of prudence and sense and wisdom.

But prudence can easily morph into paralysis. The desire to be “sensible” can become a justification for inaction. And debate over “the wise course” often keeps us tied in leadership knots.

Most elderships could use a bit of boldness. Boldness is the necessary balance to every eldership’s fear of mistakes. Boldness gives evidence of the presence of God’s Spirit. Boldness demonstrates a confidence that God is in control and is greater than our missteps. If boldness doesn’t break out in your meetings from time to time, you have to wonder whether you’re in the same business as Jesus, Paul, and Peter.

4. Let’s take seriously the Scriptures that honor shepherds and teach healthy and proper attitudes towards elders.

It may seem immodest or self-serving, but we need to talk about the noble role of shepherds more. Preachers need to hold up elders before their congregations, honor them, and model the kind of respect that is an elder’s due. And shepherds need to honor each other (or, at least, the role they share): publically praising those who serve well, giving tribute to those of their number who are retiring, and taking very seriously the process of nominating/choosing/and training new elders.

“I am the good shepherd.” (Jn 10:11—Jesus wore the “Shepherd” title gladly. It was a role he relished and reveled in. When we take up the shepherding role, we engage in one of Jesus’ favorite functions.)

“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” (1Ti 5:17)

“Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.” (1Ti 3:1)

And we need to talk more about the relationship between church members and church leaders. So many of our people allow their elder attitudes to be shaped by bad elder experiences: the domineering elder who insisted on his way; the passive elder who would not act out of conviction; elders who were doctrinaire or narrow-minded or relationally challenged. Such experiences are not to be discounted but must not prejudice us against godly shepherds who are attempting to conduct godly business.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Heb 13:17)

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. (1Pe 5:5)

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. (1Ti 5:19—The practice of verbally dissecting church leaders, whether pastoral or ministerial, has reached epidemic proportions in today’s church. When church members do not respect spiritual leaders with their tongues, they will not respect them with their lives.)

I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household … (1Ti 3:14-15—This “conduct” regards how the church is to select godly elders and how they are to interact with them—respectfully, trustingly, obediently.)

The notion that we should recognize, honor, and submit to spiritual authority (any authority, in fact) is not a popular concept these days. But unless we teach, practice, and model such regard, how will churches ever develop the kind of respect and deference that are so desperately needed in these spiritually dangerous times?

It’s difficult to meet effectively and lead boldly when the role of shepherd is neither valued as “noble” or respected and admired by those we lead.

5. Let’s dust off a theology of “calling” for shepherds.

God has always raised up spiritual leaders for his people, whether prophets and priests under the Old Covenant or Apostles and elders under the New. We need a fresh appreciation of God’s involvement in the appointment of shepherds. Not only does such a view underscore the legitimacy of church leaders, it also highlights the spiritual authority that comes with the role.

“… the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” (Ac 20:28—The role of shepherd is not conferred as the result of congregational vote or some kind of popularity contest. It is a role conferred by the Holy Spirit.)

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Ac 14:23—Notice the spiritual care exercised by Paul and Barnabas in appointing elders, the prayer and fasting involved, the intentional “commitment.”)

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands … (1Ti 5:22—This instruction to Timothy is given in the context of his relationship with elders and has ordination overtones.)

Shepherds are not just good men who are granted a certain credibility because of their experience and accumulated wisdom. They are, in a very real sense, God’s men, chosen and called for their shepherding work, whose credibility is rooted in this calling. I would encourage you to look at the following link for further information about a theology of calling: http://timwoodroof.com/tims-writings/archives/a-theology-of-calling/.

Elders who understand they are “called” meet differently from elders who are merely “elected.” They have a different sense of mission and urgency. They answer to a different voice. “Called” elders don’t vacillate and act from fear of the sheep. They don’t sacrifice theology for the pragmatic or popular. We desperately need elders who feel the hand of God on their lives. We have too many who mainly feel the hands of the congregation on their throats.

6. Let’s value our meetings, guarding our agendas diligently, protecting our time together from the petty and peripheral and nonessential.

The archetype for this diligence is, of course, the decision of the Jerusalem Apostles to keep the main thing the main thing. A growing church was presenting the Apostles with a growing list of needs and decisions. When widows were overlooked in the daily food distribution, the Apostles—while fully capable of addressing this need themselves and very aware of the importance of the issue—valued their calling and mission enough to say “No” to their personal involvement. The work of Apostles was prayer and preaching. Others could see to details of church life.

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing … the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Ac 6:1-4)

The result of this decision speaks for itself: “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly …” (Ac 6:7)

When elders do not understand their primary work, when they are not diligent about protecting their time and efforts from the details of church life, when they make the mistake of confusing proper concern with personal involvement, they rapidly lose their effectiveness and find themselves “in the thick of thin things.”

The key issue facing shepherds and their effectiveness as a leadership group boils down to a decision about what they talk aboutand what they refuse to talk about. It boils down to a question of whether matters that matter will be the focus of their limited time and attentions. Elderships who truly believe they can make a difference will reflect that belief by focusing on matters where a difference counts.

Conclusion

Elders’ meetings can be the spiritual mountain peak of every elder’s week. They can forge a path through the murky waters of an uncertain future. They can be the compass that permits the church to keep the main thing the main thing. They can ensure that Kingdom work is done by the Kingdom’s people for Kingdom ends. They can foster Christ-like maturity, encourage meaningful ministry, diagnose spiritual ills and prescribe spiritual remedies, and challenge God’s people to lift their eyes to higher goals. They can recharge the batteries of the church’s leaders, lift up the hands of the church’s staff, and plant the seeds for the next generation of shepherds.

Being a shepherd, working together with fellow shepherds, should be a “noble task.” And it can be. But that will require us to re-value the shepherds’ role, reaffirm the shepherds’ significance, and reorient the shepherds’ aim towards goals that are worthy of the adjective “noble.”



[1] 1Ti 3:1; 5:17