Healthy, active churches need healthy, active leaders. Only a balanced life equips a person to handle the burdens of leadership.
By Aaron Wymer
“I don’t think so, Elzie. It’s just easier to be a Christian when I’m not an elder.” With these words, or words very much like them, Wayne told my father he wasn’t willing to become an elder at my home church. My dad’s eyes twinkled a little when he told me what Wayne said, but the rest of his face frowned. I could tell dad agreed with him, but couldn’t bring himself to refuse his call to be an elder.
“I feel like I’m wearing a heavy, lead vest.” With these words my friend shared the impact his transition from youth minister to senior minister was having on him. In that transition, I saw him spin around from radical youth blogger to elder statesman so fast he almost broke his ankles. He was discovering that leadership is a burden; a heavy and constant burden.
Growing up in the Christian church, I remember passionate discussions about what it meant to be an elder. Those discussions started and stopped with the biblical qualifications found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. We seemed more worried about requirements than anything else. Some believed if a person failed the checklist of qualifications at any single point, then that person could never be an elder—ever. Some of us believed this despite the fact that Titus lists blameless as one of the qualifications (our preachers said nobody was blameless). Others advocated various degrees of grace regarding these lists. We were suspicious of those people.
As I’ve progressed in age and ministry, I have come to see that the list of qualifications is pointed strongly toward elders having healthy lives, including family and work. The reason an elder needs a healthy all-around life is that when one truly leads a church, the burden and heaviness of life thicken. Put the weight of eldership on an unbalanced life and that person will either fall apart or walk away from being an elder. Healthy, active churches need healthy, active leaders.
Paul’s Burden, Every Leader’s Load
Scripture is filled with stories about the burden of leadership, and yet I spent most of my life not noticing the toll leading had on biblical heroes. Somehow I imagined the postresurrection Peter was always sure and never bending, despite his wavering about eating with Gentiles until being confronted by Paul (Galatians 2:11).
Then there was Paul, himself. I can think of no bolder character in the unfolding church. At Iconium he was stoned and left for dead, but got up and went back into the city (Acts 14). Surely this man, so faithful and strong, did not feel weighed down by leading the church.
My eyes were opened by Rollin Ramsaran when he led a study of Philippians. He said again and again that Paul believed Christians will suffer for the sake of the gospel. I sat there, in my padded pew, a paid minister of the church, thinking about how little I suffer. When I voiced that concern, Ramsaran pointed me to 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, where Paul dared to boast about his suffering:
I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.
And then Paul delivered the line that both comforts and challenges me, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28).
Facing the daily pressure of concern for the church may not be the most brutal form of suffering on Paul’s list, but it is on the list nonetheless. I want elders who face the daily pressure of their concern for the church.
Biblical elders love the bride of Christ so much they are willing to suffer under the weight of that daily pressure. They love the church so deeply they are willing to sacrifice, pray, serve, and even disappoint people when necessary. They understand it is easier to be Christian when they don’t have that responsibility, but they are unable to say no to God’s call to lead.
Aaron Wymer has served as senior minister with Grandview Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, for more than 14 years.