By Eddie Lowen
When I invited an elder to accompany me to a leadership conference, I hoped it would be a good experience for him. It didn’t work out that way. He found parts of the event more disturbing than inspiring. What happened?
During a workshop session attended by my elder friend, several ministers voiced bitter disappointment with the elders of their own churches. Their generalizations about elders may best be expressed as a mathematical formula:
church elders = dirty, rotten scoundrels
The elder from my church wondered, “Is this how all ministers regard their elders? Does our church staff hold our elders in such low esteem?”
An Unpopular Role
Although some believe paid ministry is the most thankless responsibility in the church, my experience suggests otherwise. After comparing notes with unpaid elders, I learned that I receive far more encouragement than most of them. The least-heralded, most-mischaracterized church leadership role is that of the volunteer elder. After observing intense opposition toward the elder team of his church, an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service quipped, “Perhaps there is a job more unpopular than mine!”
Some might say, “Hey, it goes with the territory. If an elder can’t stand the heat, he should get out of the leadership kitchen.” But there’s a difference between normal kitchen heat and arson! Most of the disheartening activity endured by elders is antagonistic in nature, and is identified in Scripture as sin.
Yes, it is wise to select elders who can respond to difficulty without wilting—but, it is wrong to excuse or normalize disrespect of elders. Hebrews 13:17 instructs Christians to treat elders in a way that will make their work a joy. By contrast, some church members make their elders sorry they ever accepted the role. We should take the Bible’s instruction on this topic literally, confronting those who make church leadership a greater burden than it ought to be.
Some Elders Aren’t Respectable
If you have observed destructive or sinful behavior in an elder, you know that not every elder can be reasonably defended. I’m not naïve, nor am I unconcerned about what some elders have done, individually and collectively. The Bible requires that church leaders behave honorably (see 1 Timothy 3:2). Some elders have disqualified themselves from leadership by missing that mark badly. Unfortunately, dysfunctional elders often continue in their leadership roles. I can think of three reasons poor elders tend to be retained:
• First, because the elder role is a less visible one. The best elder teams work primarily behind the scenes. However, lack of visibility can allow elders to disguise their spiritual flaws. It takes longer to identify weak elders, especially if they do not have regular teaching responsibilities.
• Second, poor elders continue in their roles due to inadequate evaluation. In most churches, there is no tool for measuring elder effectiveness. Avoiding peer review is probably wise; however, self-evaluation (to be shared with peers) could produce some honest and productive conversation. Regrettably, churches tend to evaluate only the leaders and workers they’re paying. So, a church custodian may be evaluated annually, but not an elder.
• Third, elders tend to be weaker where the preacher has no voice in their selection. Churches concerned with a democratic “separation of powers” approach, rather than a New Testament leadership model, may ignore the fact that Paul instructed a preacher, Titus, to “appoint elders” (Titus 1:5; see also Acts 14:23). In many churches, the person in the role most similar to Titus or Paul is given little opportunity to help select elders.
Churches should avoid both the extremes of allowing the minister to handpick elders or, on the other hand, having no say in their selection. A church’s minister should be allowed a key role in the process. In my view, if a preacher is too flawed to participate in elder selection with integrity, he should not be a preaching minister. Conversely, if he can be trusted with teaching and leadership authority, his involvement in elder selection will only improve results.
Who Is Obligated to Respect the Elders?
The expectation to respectfully follow our elders goes for everyone in the church:
• Individual elders must submit to the collective eldership. Some churches have difficulty building congregational cooperation with the elders because some individual elders (or their wives) provide a poor example of support and submission. When an individual elder speaks or behaves authoritatively without the permission of the entire group, or expresses disagreement with group decisions, he models disrespect for leaders. In a healthy church, an elder who behaves this way must change his approach or step aside.
• Deacons should model a submissive spirit with the elders. When our former church board formally evaluated our leadership structure, we began with a Bible study on leadership roles. Afterward, a longtime deacon said, “The elders should not ask permission of the deacons to do what God has already authorized them to do.” That remark was a scriptural bull’s-eye, and encouraged a more biblical level of respect for our eldership.
• Church staff members are required to respect the elders. Although leaders can make decisions that are perplexing, ministry and support staff (or their spouses) may not broadcast their surprise or disagreement. Inevitably, church members will question staff about elder decisions, sometimes hoping to identify and exploit those who are wavering in their support. Church employees must practice discretion, ask critics to supportively pray for the leaders, remind themselves and the flock that the elders often have information that is unknown to others, and relay disruptive activity to the leaders. Staff must also speak directly to the elders, and not to others, about their personal concerns.
• Church members must respect the elders. The more experience I gain in church leadership, the more vital this teaching appears. I have come to believe that elders who allow their leadership to be ignored or disrespected are not being meek, but irresponsible. By failing to confront disrespect for their God-given authority, they are denying healthier church members the opportunity to experience the type of church God intended.
Elder authority never supersedes Scripture, but the very concept is Scripture. God never said that a church’s future should be determined by strong opinions, pet interests, financial prowess, maneuvering of bylaws, past practices, twisted logic, or convoluted interpretations of Scripture. God makes it clear that he wants elders to “direct the affairs of the church” by obeying his Word and seeking the Spirit’s leading. Yes, elders need to invite congregational input, at times; but leaders cannot allow themselves to be manipulated by those who define “listening” as yielding to their preferences.
Selecting Respectable Elders
Elders need to recognize that the opportunity to guide the local church comes with a sobering promise. Hebrews 13:17 reveals that elders “must give an account” to God for their choices. God warns that each elder will have to justify the use of his influence. Therefore, elder authority should be exercised intentionally, unselfishly, and humbly.
The best safeguard against weak elders is a thoughtful and meaningful selection process. Below are some suggestions for achieving one (admittedly, these will work best among leadership teams that are already healthy):
• Give current elders the opportunity to identify potential elders, and to comment confidentially on all recommendations before people are approached.
• Do not obligate those who select leaders to inform everyone who is recommended. Doing so virtually forces the approval of borderline candidates.
• Do not select leaders simply because they attract little objection. Instead, select leaders who receive strong commendations.
• Do not approach candidates until you are certain they qualify.
• Keep discussions about potential leaders within the leadership circle.
• Written questionnaires, multiple interviews, and orientation sessions help in avoiding the type of leadership problems that are costly to correct.
• Do not select more elders than can comfortably participate in decision-making. A lot of elder work involves discussing and deciding. Everyone, including those with milder personalities, should be able to participate without competing to be heard.
Other prudent policies include offering only one-year terms of service to new elders and requiring periodic sabbaticals of all elders. Following a sabbatical, healthy and gifted elders can be asked to return for another term, but must be willing to walk again through the approval process.
Jack Welch can be criticized for many things, but his leadership wisdom is extraordinary. In his book Winning, the former CEO of General Electric describes the importance of organizational honesty when it comes to selecting key leaders. He points out that it is detrimental to both the organization and the individual to appoint or retain ineffective leaders.
Romans 12:8 suggests that God wants the church to select leaders who demonstrate a capacity to lead well on Christ’s behalf. Therefore, take care to select the best equipped leaders available to your church. If there are none, pray that God will raise them up, and consider allowing respected leaders from a nearby church to guide your church for a season. Such humility will be rewarded by God, I suspect. A few excellent leaders will produce better results than many mediocre ones. God’s people and mission are too valuable to settle for less.
Eddie Lowen ministers with Westside Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois.