by Jim Tune
A new church plant can provide a unique opportunity to create a biblical, workable model unhindered by any existing, entrenched system. One should embark on an intentional pathway to effective eldership in the earliest years of a new church. While initial oversight may be provided by a management team, set out early to identify and equip potential elders.
This does not mean we operate in haste. Years often pass between the launch of a church and the installation of elders. This may seem a long time, but it is a good decision.
Don’t Move Too Quickly
Many new churches begin with a handful of people. Plant as a group of missionary-gatherers with the plan to install an eldership only after coalescing into a more established group.
There are two reasons to avoid moving in haste. First, most of the people initially reached will be unbelievers or come from the long-term unchurched, so a new congregation often simply lacks biblically-qualified leaders. Around 50-60% of a new church launch team won’t be around after two years, so be wary of installing leaders who might soon leave, disrupting life in the Body.
Second, early installation of an eldership may send the wrong message to your people. It says, “We are established now.” In a young church, the mindset can easily shift from an attitude of pioneering to “mission-accomplished.” I counsel church planters to wait at least three years, and until they are consistently running 100-plus in attendance, before installing elders.
Don’t Move Too Slowly
Good church planters know the dangers of the truism “work flows to the most competent person until s/he is swamped!” When the Jerusalem church exploded in growth, the 12 Apostles could not keep up. Consequently, they selected seven men to manage benevolence so they could continue giving themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
While premature installation of elders may weaken missional momentum, failure to delegate ministry to others will inhibit church growth and burn out the staff. No one can possibly “do it all” as a church leader, so leadership should be shared, especially with elders. One rarely sees the critical importance of godly elders mentioned in church planting manuals or church growth books. That’s an almost inexcusable oversight!
Identifying Potential Elders
We believe the Bible is clear on two aspects of church governance. According to the New Testament, God intends each local congregation to have a plurality of elders. It’s also clear that God requires evidence of mature Christian character in their lives, (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Consider two more questions: Is he already functioning as an elder without the title or recognition? Does he shepherd his family the way one would expect an elder to shepherd God’s church? In other words, the congregation can and should already look to them as shepherds.
An Installation Process
For a first eldership, the planter might personally select the initial elders. Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14:23, and Paul instructed Titus to do so in Titus 1:5. The planter/minister will probably have walked closely with the candidate men for a long time. These potential elders should be presented to the congregation and staff for feedback during the vetting process, but not for voting. A new church is no place for a popularity contest.
Realizing that eldership in a church plant will often come from spiritual novices, implement a training curriculum for emerging leadership. When I served at Churchill Meadows, it required two years of part-time course work that I taught myself. Additionally, the elders operated via consensus and were comfortable with an “elder-protected, staff-led” model. I answered to the elders. They determined broad policy issues, approved the budget, co-shepherded the flock, and held me accountable. They had the authority to fire me, and I liked it that way.
The initial installation process was the only time the elders were selected by me personally. One of the chief tasks for that initial term was the establishment of our future elder-selection protocol.
At times, we experienced rapid growth, and without a team of godly elders who were willing to work very hard alongside the staff, we could not have coped. Far from being an impediment to growth, our elders helped make it happen!