They Met to Consider this Question

There is elder (the individual) and there is eldership (the collective). There is the role which individuals fill personally—“shepherd”—and the governing role which a group of elders shares together—“shepherds.”

Most elders I know get stuck on occasion in the tension between the singular and the plural.

So much of the important work of a shepherd is done by the individual elder: comforting, counseling, mentoring, teaching, investing in the lives of others, praying, seeking God’s will.

And yet there is a necessary plural component to the work of shepherds. Shepherds run in packs! And some of their work must be done together, as a team: overseeing, visioning, making decisions affecting the church as a whole, taking disciplinary actions, etc.

A Theology of Group Leadership

In the New Testament, church leadership seems to take two distinct forms.

When churches were forming in the first century, there was usually a singular leader (the “missionary”) who taught, converted, trained, and matured an initial generation of disciples. Think of Philip’s work in Samaria, or Barnabas in Antioch, or Paul in Philippi and Corinth and Thessalonike.[1] (Nor was this just apostolic leadership, by the way—a leadership exception granted only to those who belonged to Jesus’ inner circle. Timothy seems to exercise this kind of leadership for the church in Ephesus as does Titus in Crete and Silas in the Macedonian churches.)

In time, however, solitary leadership gave way to group leadership, the missionary moving on, leaving behind a clutch of elders appointed to “oversee” the church. You can see this transition from singular to plural leadership evidenced in Paul’s appointment of elders for the churches of Asia Minor (Ac 14:23) and in his instructions to Timothy and Titus that the time had come for the appointment of elders in their respective churches.

Elders were intended to have a wider ministry than the important but personal work of mentoring, counseling, and maturing. In the New Testament, it is evident that elders as a group had a leadership role to play in their churches. They laid hands on budding ministers[2] and gave their collective blessing to mission efforts.[3] They met to discuss and decide matters important to the health and growth of the church.[4] They received and distributed funds donated for the ministries of the church.[5] They welcomed delegations from other churches (being viewed as authoritative arbiters of controversial issues), heard and responded to reports, made decisions and wrote letters addressing questions of theology and policy.[6]

This leadership role for elders is underscored in the New Testament by the descriptions given of the work of elders. In addition to the personal pastoral role of caring for individual sheep, there was a collective pastoral role involving the care of the flock as a whole. Elders are called “overseers” of the church,[7] a role and responsibility granted by “the Holy Spirit.”[8] They “manage God’s household” and “direct the affairs of the church.”[9] As “shepherds of the church,” they “watch over the flock” and “guard” against attacks on the body of believers.[10] Singly and together, they have a duty to promote and protect the core doctrines of the church.[11] As Peter tells his fellow elders, the church is “under your care.”[12]

While the New Testament never uses the word “eldership,” it clearly teaches that elders have a group function, that their leadership flows out of their mutual calling and conjoined work. It was the Jerusalem elders (together with the Apostles) who determined a policy about Gentiles that would shape the future witness and growth of the world-wide church. It was the Ephesian elders, called together by Paul, who were admonished—in their collective capacity—to “keep watch.”[13] When Paul reminds Timothy of a leadership action taken by the elders as a whole (they “laid their hands on you” and conferred Timothy’s ministry gifts), he uses a word meaning “body of elders” or “elders as a group” and implies that there are things elders do together that transcend what they can do singly.[14]

In a word, elders in the New Testament church met. And when they did, important leadership functions flowed from their time together.

Were there times when New Testament shepherds moved independently among the flock to offer care and encouragement and training to individual sheep? Certainly. But there were also times when New Testament shepherds gathered at the gate of the sheep pen to discuss the health of the flock and the pastures of tomorrow and the challenges of coming winter.

If churches of Christ experience problems with elder-leadership, it is not because such leadership is illegitimate or because “real leadership can’t happen by committee.” There is simply too much evidence in Scripture that (at least in the first century) church leadership was shared leadership. Rather, I would suggest that our difficulties arise from two related issues:

  1. We have allowed elder-leadership to become exclusive, limiting legitimate leadership—authoritative leadership—to elders alone. As a future article will argue, there are other voices required at the leadership table if effective church leadership is to emerge.
  2. The second issue bearing on the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of communal leadership in our churches, however, is the simple fact that we don’t practice the necessary habits that make group leadership function. We don’t develop the attitudes and skills that allow a group of elders to lead with vigor and vision.

Skills for Shepherding

There are two distinct skill sets required for effective eldering—one skill set for the singular work of a shepherd and one for the plural work of shepherds. They are related to each other. And, in some sense, they are dependent on each other. But they are not the same.

Considerable time and ink have been invested in thinking about the personal qualities that equip someone to serve as a shepherd: character, compassion, conviction, etc..[15] These individual attributes and competencies are necessary to be an effective shepherd (singular).

But there is also a skill set—a distinct skill set—that equips elders to serve together, as a group, in cooperative leadership: skills related to focus, efficiency, big-picture-perspectives, decision-making, follow-up, accountability, conflict-management, group-discernment, and deference to the greater wisdom of the group (to name but a few). These group competencies are necessary to being effective as a team of leaders.

And it is precisely these group competencies we too often lack. We don’t know what they are. We don’t appreciate how critical they are to effective elder functioning. And, as a consequence, we don’t practice these competencies intentionally, deliberately, and vigilantly.

The result is elders’ meetings that limp and meander and dissolve in a fog of spiritual uncertainty. In these trying times, those are the kinds of elders’ meetings we (and our churches) can no longer afford.

An Observation

Have you noticed that, just as the singular and plural skill sets we’ve been talking about are distinct yet related, so also the singular and plural effectiveness of elders is related—and intimately dependent on the other.

When shepherds do not function well singly (getting on with their personal pastoral work), that impacts the manner in which they function together. When these ineffective elders gather as a group, they start focusing on peripheral matters … lose a sense of urgency about their flock … are inordinately influenced by a minority of vocal members … fail to manage conflict … start thinking the meetings are the work, etc. We can’t do the work of shepherds when frustrated about the way we (personally) are failing to shepherd.

The converse is also true. When shepherds do not function well in concert, the functioning of individual shepherds is almost always impacted. We lose our pastoral touch. We find it difficult to feel confidence God is working through our individual shepherding when we lack confidence he is working through our group. Many of us find it difficult to function as a shepherd when we get frustrated about the way we function (or fail to do so) as shepherds.

Which means that elders don’t have the luxury of giving up on the way they meet, abandoning hope in finding collective effectiveness, and retreating into their individual role of caring for God’s people. Not if the church is to be healthy and equipped … not if we want the Body as a whole to thrive.

Fortunately, each set of skills (the singular and the plural) can be developed and honed. Shepherds can learn to function more effectively in both the personal and the collective spheres. This series of articles addresses the work of elders as a group—how they meet. Can elders become more effective in doing their collaborative work? Absolutely. Can they make their meetings more intentional, goal-oriented, kingdom-honoring, life-changing, and soul-satisfying? Without question.

I believe in the importance of effective elder leadership. I believe such leadership requires meeting together confidently and competently. And I believe that powerful, visionary, Spirit-led elders’ meetings are possible and—in fact—long overdue.

Do you?

[1] Certainly there were “missionary teams” in the New Testament (like Paul and Barnabas, or Paul and Timothy and Silas). But even in these cases there was usually a clear leader who shouldered most of the teaching and directional responsibility. Consider Luke’s name order when mentioning Barnabas and Saul (Ac 11:26, 30; 12:25; 13:1, 2, 7)  so long as Barnabas seems to be the primary leader … and then his reversing of that order (Paul and Barnabas—Ac 13:42, 43, 46, 50; 14:1, 3, 20, 23, 35, 36) once Paul took up the mantle of leadership. And Paul was clearly leading the churches he founded with Timothy, Silas, and Luke.

[2] 1Ti 4:14

[3] See Ac 13:1 (although elders are not specifically mentioned in this passage); Ac 15:6; 21:18ff

[4] Ac 15:2, 4, 6; 16:4; 20:17ff

[5] Ac 11:30

[6] Ac 15:4, 22-23

[7] Php 1:1; 1Ti 3:1, 2; Tit 1:7

[8] Ac 20:28

[9] Tit 1:7; 1Ti 5:17

[10] Ac 20:28, 31; 1Pe 5:2;

[11] Ac 20:30; Tit 1:9

[12] 1Pe 5:2

[13] Indeed, Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders collectively to guard against those of their own number who, in their individual capacity as shepherds, would “draw away disciples” for personal purposes. (See Ac 20:30)

[14] 1Ti 4:14

[15] Possessing a quality or attribute does not necessarily ensure that individual elders have the skills to shepherd. Many shepherds lack the kind of interpersonal, relational skills that contribute to effective shepherding: knowing how to mentor others, for example; practicing the habits that grow people into Christ’s image; being competent to recognize and encourage spiritual gifts. We need to keep encouraging the development of such skills in people who are charactered for shepherding but not always competent to shepherd.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.