by Billy Strother
Too often, the baton of eldership is foisted on younger, inexperienced elders through a church leadership collapse; beloved and wise serving elders have health crises, retire and move away, go on to be with the Lord. With them disappears their experience and wisdom.
Sometimes a leadership collapse comes by way of tragic church conflict; seasoned elders throw up their hands in surrender and leave leadership, or even the church. In many churches, long-serving elders, faithfully giving of themselves year after year (or for decades), grow weary, and resign in fatigue. I have seen groups of senior elders resign, collectively saying, “It is simply time for the younger men to start doing their leadership part; I’m tired and just want to go to Sunday school.”
An unhealthy leadership collapse occurs.
In a leadership collapse, often, younger men who love their church step up to serve as elders for the first time – but with no training, coaching, or mentoring. “OJT” in eldering forestalls church health. From the frying pan into the fire, or a baptism by fire, seldom produces exponential kingdom fruit. Overwhelmed, burn out often happens fast in these situations. Mission progress stops, or at least digresses. The church declines. The learning curve is steep.
For over four years, our long-serving senior-age eldership at the church I previously served was consciously, actively, and responsibly passing the spiritual leadership baton to the next generation of leaders. Identifying, training, and mentoring younger leaders into eldership was a consistent priority. And it bore great Kingdom fruit.
The faces around the eldership table began to demographically shift – on purpose and with a purpose. The team grew healthier, love and pouring into one another, the honoring of one another, was all a great joy to experience. The passing of the baton of leadership was well under way. The younger elders and older elders were beloved, honored, and respected by the congregation. The last of the older, faithfully serving, long-term elders were about to receive their first sabbatical in many years from eldership; the rest and refreshment had been well-earned. And they are the biggest supporters and fans of the younger elders.
So, how do we avoid, or at least mitigate, an elder leadership collapse? We begin passing the baton to the next generation of leaders well ahead of a leadership collapse, whether that collapse occurs by crisis or attrition. What follows is just a suggestion and only one of many models of passing the baton of elder leadership.
Offer Rotational Church Leadership Training
On a rotating basis, the elders team teach with me; we engage purposefully in leadership training. It is church-wide. The invitation is open for anyone interested in leadership at any level. We are not just investing in unearthing elder candidates through leadership training. No promises are made. We are looking for ministry team leaders, small group leaders, and key volunteers. There is no one way to do the training. It requires tailoring for your own congregational setting. The calendar is important. You might do one night a week, along with the school calendar, for one semester, for 10 to12 weeks. Each meeting should be highly focused on a specific topic and conclude on time; for example, at 60 minutes. You would be greatly surprised how much could be caught in just 12 hours of leadership training. All of the more recent elders began leadership life in one of those training sessions.
Identify Potential Elders
These are men who are not ready now, but who could possibly, with the right mentoring and coaching, be ready in the future. The active elder team keeps the list of future potential elders in strict confidence. Over time, the current elders prioritize the list and identify a few who they believe have the greatest future potential.
Mentor Identified Potential Candidates
Elders are assigned as mentors and potential candidates are approached. The approach is low key and relational. No burdens are placed on the candidate. They may be occasionally invited to sit in on an elders’ meeting as a part of their mentoring, or they might ask to be included because of their own desire to investigate what it looks like. Basically, the mentoring elder is called upon to shepherd those with potential. It may be a year, or two, or 3 of mentoring. The candidate might find himself unwilling to ever serve. There are no promises with mentoring, it is simply a time of personal spiritual investment.
Coach First-time Elders
Though dad has gone on to be with the Lord, my memories of fishing with him remain vivid. I was six-years-old and was fishing with my dad in Little Walnut Creek. I had a line was in the water with a worm or a Wheatie ball on the end. Dad looked down at me and said, “Son, did they teach you to swim yet at school.” I just shook my head “no.” Dad said, “That is a shame. Well, you are going to learn now.” He literally picked me up and threw me in Little Walnut Creek in a hole so deep it was well over my head! Well, I am writing this, so I made it! No Michael Phelps natural stuff; just a choking dog paddle to shore. If I had not have made it back, to this day I am unsure of dad’s rescue plan, if he had one. I do not recommend teaching a child to swim like that! I put my own kids in swimming lessons with a certified public instructor. There was no panic and they learned to swim well. Even now, when I fall out of a boat fishing, I still just dog paddle back to shore.
No new elder should be thrown in the deep. An experienced elder must guide and coach. And in time, we all coach each other. Eldering is a team sport, and early coaching for new elders is a lifetime gift.
Is it required to go through those four processes to become an elder? No. Sometimes, the Lord calls a trained servant leader to partner with and do life with a congregation. That person of great experience would be fast-tracked, but still receive personal investment.
But, if you are serious about hedging against a leadership collapse in your congregation, it may be time to start a purposeful process to begin passing the baton to the next generation of elders.