No Rungs

by Stuart Jones 

The American Dream continues to challenge and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds.  Motivated by the ascending rungs of the corporate ladder, employees seek to rise to the next level of success, while supervisors seek to rise to the next level of recognition.  The beauty of the system is the seemingly limitless opportunity for achievement and advancement.  In some parallels, these same motivators challenge the Church to fulfill the mission laid before us by Christ himself.  Battling complacency and constantly pursuing excellence promotes God-honoring advancement of His Kingdom on Earth.

However, within the church leadership structure adopted by most congregations, ladder rungs that mimic the American Dream have the potential to bring about a “holy nightmare.”  As we read Scripture, we discover key positions and roles that should structure the local church.  Searching the text, we can find the role of deacon defined as those who are called to action with spiritually-enlarged hearts for service.  Elders – shepherds – are defined as the pastors or overseers that God calls to lead a congregation.  And sprinkled throughout Scripture, we find the roles of staff or ministers who professionally direct and lead areas of ministry.  These Scriptural definitions hold throughout time and governance.  But their placement, interaction and value have suffered unfortunate alterations through the lens of the American Dream.  

The American Church has embraced a corporate ladder mentality of leadership that typically flows in ascending order from volunteers to deacons to elders and staff.  Those seeking to find success and advancement within the church, and within the Kingdom of God, are encouraged to strive for the next rung of the ladder.  For example, great volunteers are challenged to become deacons, while deacons are simply waiting to become elders.  This hierarchical structure for leadership does not exist in the New Testament!  Did some deacons become elders?  That seems probable.  Did some elders become staff?  That most likely defines the “elder of double-honor.”  Yet, churches falsely assume that the expectation for achievement and advancement through the leadership roles is implied in the New Testament leadership structure.  It is not. 

Instead, the New Testament highly values those who accept the roles they are gifted and called to perform.  Deacons are men who implement and complete the ever-growing tasks and needs of the church.  The role of deacon or high calling of servant leader is not a steppingstone to pastoring or overseeing a congregation.  Those who bring action to the ministry of the church and those who bring wisdom to the ministry of the church are often two very different groups made up of very differently gifted individuals.  Church leadership structures often create a progression of roles and titles that may very well inhibit the God-given gifts of individuals within the church.

Will many deacons become strong elders in a church?  That transition does often happen.  However, we cannot assume these are the next steps in the American Faith Dream.  Many who are gifted in implementing and accomplishing tasks and projects are needed as servants and doers for the duration of their time on this earth.  The time that deacons serve does provide an opportunity for the church to gain trust and confidence in their leadership potential.  However, the value of servant leadership must not be perceived as an inferior rung to shepherding leadership.

Paul said, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). We apply these exaggerated questions to the congregation as we seek out volunteers.  However, we seem reluctant to equally value the multiple leadership layers of the church.  If all elders became deacons, who would spiritually guide the church?  If all deacons became elders, how would anything ever get done?  “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1 Cor. 12:18).  Leave the corporate ladder on the ground and celebrate the leaders God has placed in your church, exactly as He wanted them to be.

Elders Encourage Church Staff

by Rick Lowry 

The relationship between a church’s senior minister and her elders is a frequent topic of discussion in leadership circles.  But what about the connection between the elders and the associate ministers? 

Elder-associate interaction is often determined by the size of the church or the church’s philosophy of ministry.  But here are some general principles that apply in most leadership situations. 

Develop a personal relationship.  Most associates feel supported when an elder takes time to show a loving interest in them and in their ministry area.  An elder can be an ally, not just an authority.  Some eldership teams annually assign individual elders to specific ministry leaders, who then get together with them regularly and offer encouragement.   

Make sure elders and staff are like-minded about the direction of the church.  The church leadership team should have a handful of forward-thinking values and visions they have agreed on, and every leader should support those ideals.  If the leadership has agreed about the philosophy of any given ministry in the church, individual leaders can confuse associate ministers if they promote their own agenda privately with a staff member.

Get involved in their ministry.  Elders are a great benefit to their staff members when they get involved in their ministry.  Not to check up on them, but to intentionally take a sincere interest.  And of course, the best way to get involved is to volunteer for needed ministry roles in their area.

Appropriate Financial Compensation.  If they are full-time, make sure their family can thrive.  It’s hard for a guy or gal to completely focus on their ministry if they are always worried about the financial health of their family.  And in these days of staff looking more like a team and less like one main figure in charge, compensating an associate on the level of a senior minister is often appropriate.  If the associate minister is part-time, expect them to work only the number of hours they are being paid for.  Many conscientious associates quietly work full-time hours for part-time pay.  Elders can and should play a key role in protecting them in this regard.

Allow their voice to be heard.  Associate staff members often feel powerless.  Decisions that affect their ministry are sometimes made without consulting them.  In many settings, it is not possible for associates to be a part of the key leadership team, but creative ways can be introduced to get their input.  Invite them to key leadership meetings a few times a year.  Or have their team leader on staff brainstorm with them and then take their ideas to leadership meetings.  It may also be beneficial to have a trusted elder talk with an associate minister before a decision that has the potential to alter something in their ministry area.

Confront Privately, Support Publicly.  Wise elders handle complaints about associate staff members in an appropriate way.  Confronting a member of the staff in the presence of church members, or even in a meeting, can be harmful. Concerns should initially be expressed in a private setting.  Associates need to be perfectly clear about who their supervisor is, and that person (or persons, in a team setting) should be the final job performance authority for them.  A staff member who receives conflicting input from a variety of individual elders and staff members, especially when it is negative in nature and aired publicly, can be left confused about who they really need to listen to and what they really need to do.  Confronting an issue one-on-one will help the person to hear and understand the substance of the critique with better clarity, and without being defensive or dismissive.

The way elders relate to associate ministers and staff can be one of the most powerful ways they lead the flock – by serving the flock.

How Not to “Elder”

by Brad Dupray

First Timothy chapter 3 is the usual, “go-to” passage for elder qualifications.  It begins, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of an overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.”  Then Paul goes on to give a fairly specific list of what many would call the “musts” of being an elder.
For some reason, Titus 1 has become sort of the backup list.  Once we have exhausted I Timothy 3 it’s almost as if we say, “Oh yeah, Paul had something to say to Titus about this, too; guess we should take a look.”
Personally, I have a greater appreciation for Paul’s exhortation to Titus.  Certainly there are some things that are redundant between the two passages (“above reproach,” “husband of one wife,” “not addicted to wine”) and there are many things that are similar but the wording is slightly different (e.g., “free from the love of money” in Timothy, “not fond of sordid gain” in Titus). 
Paul’s words to Titus are less of a “list” and more of a teaching moment.  Paul uses his letter to Titus to ascertain some things that not only come as “requirements” for an elder, but what it takes to be a good elder – or not so much.
For example, an elder must be a good man.  As Paul begins his teaching to Titus he indicates two times that an elder must be “above reproach” (verses 6 and 7), and as he comes toward his conclusion in the second verse of chapter 2 he concludes with the same theme: “temperate, dignified, sensible, sound in faith, in love, in perseverance.”
Where Paul diverts from his teaching to Timothy is when he talks about what an elder should not be.  Verses 10-16 of Titus 1 tell us how not to be an elder in the church of God:

  • Be a false teacher – “empty talkers and deceivers…” (v 10) “who turn away from the truth” (v 14).  He calls these teachers “defiled and unbelieving” (v 15), which tells me I don’t want to be a man like that!
  • Be racist – Paul is astonished in verse 12 that one who calls himself a leader in the church would make evil assertions about Cretans.  When he writes “this testimony is true” in verse 13 he is not endorsing the ugly statements about Cretans; he is making reference that it is beyond belief that an elder would say such thing about people of another race.  The “testimony is true” that “empty talkers and deceivers” must be rebuked.
  • Create havoc in the church – He warns in verse 11 against elders in the church who “teach for the sake of sordid gain.”  There were men who were “upsetting whole families” by the things they were teaching.  An elder has to remember James’ admonition: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment (James 3:1).”  Paul had told Timothy an elder should be “able to teach;” he here elaborates on that to Titus.

 As chapter one comes to a close Paul says that men like this “profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him.”  He says they are “detestable,” “disobedient,” “worthless!”  Paul doesn’t simply wag his finger at these men who divide the church, he says in verse 13 to “reprove them severely.”
Opinions vary on whether the lists provided by Paul should be understood as checklists versus guidelines.  But I think there’s one thing we can all agree upon and that is an elder is a role model to the church and when he deviates from being above reproach he not only offends the bride of Christ, he offends the savior Himself.

More Prayer = Shorter Meetings

by Randy Boltinghouse 

Our elder leadership team meets twenty times over the course of a year, typically twice a month for two hours.  During the first hour of our meeting, we pray over each of the prayer requests made from the previous Sunday’s communication cards.  Furthermore, all of us have the same daily devotional book which we read between meetings then share on the evenings we meet.  A rotational schedule assigns each elder the opportunity to lead both the devotion and prayer time.  After praying, sharing scripture, and reflecting on the devotions, it’s been an hour, leaving an hour for congregational matters.  Our meetings consistently end at the two-hour mark.  
We have a policy governance system which delineates the responsibilities of the elder leadership team, the senior minister, values, vision, limitations, etc.  Policy governance streamlines what decisions need to be made and by whom.  When needed, we have spirited discussion over necessary issues.  All decisions are by consensus.  Our policy governance serves as “good bones” supplying structure, discipline, and an operational unity that results in leadership alignment.
That said, I don’t believe it’s enough to have “good bones.”  We need an environment of spiritual nutrition and brotherly warmth entrusted to God and His Word.  Paul wrote about this in his parting words to the Ephesian elders: “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  A proper understanding of biblical eldership involves shepherds who, when they gather, do so to consume the Word, seek to be built up by it, and then strive to remind each other from it that in Christ they are heirs with the saints of all God has promised.  How can any meeting of the elders go wrong when such a spirit dominates the room?  

I’m convinced that prioritizing prayer and the ministry of the Word are what keeps our meetings unified, efficient, on schedule, and spiritually nourishing for each elder.  One of my priorities as senior minister is not only to encourage each elder toward the work of the Lord but to see that the Lord’s work nourishes each elder.  Starting each meeting with prayer, Bible reading, devotions, and spiritual reflections ensures unity, love, and a brotherly affection among the shepherds of the flock.  Our elders tell each other that our meetings are a highlight of the week; a spiritually enriching small group time.  Sometimes the agenda changes in the meeting itself because one of the elders (or the senior minister!) has a heavy heart, needing conversation time and prayer.  What that means is that the other elders will rise from their seats and surround the one in need, praying fervently with the laying on of hands.  This does not mean we do not have difficult conversations.  Nor does this mean we won’t process through differing points of view.  It means that the difficult conversations situate themselves in a larger context of loving, truthful, prayerful Christian unity.  It means that differences are discussed in a gospel tone of grace and truth.  Such unity spreads out through the congregation, contagiously affecting the church family.  Christ-honoring elderships lead to Christ-honoring congregations.  

When our elders meet, we don’t come representing the interests of the church.  We come foremost to represent the interests of our Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  We come to build one another up in Him.  Our brotherly unity touches the entire church family.  If your meetings are consistently running more than two hours, they’re probably too long.  So if you want richer, more effective meetings, pray more.