by David Hennig
In the fall of each year, the people of the church in which I was raised were asked to submit names of men to be considered to serve as elders and deacons. Following a vetting process, candidates were put before the congregation for a vote. I was in high school when my father’s name appeared on such a ballot and he was elected an elder. My father was a mechanical engineer in a white-collar position for an aircraft engine manufacturer. To the best of my knowledge he never received any training to serve as an elder, but he faithfully attended monthly board meetings. It sounded to me like people elected to civil government – you vote people in and you hope they do a good job. If not, you don’t re-elect them. Over the years, I have been a part of other churches in which this form of polity was practiced.
Fast-forward to 2010 when I began a preaching ministry at a very small, struggling church. There was a Steering Team in place and David Roadcup came alongside us to help. He encouraged us to be patient in making the transition to becoming an elder-led church. During this time I was taking seminary classes at Cincinnati Christian University and was introduced to the book “They Smell Like Sheep” by Dr. Lynn Anderson. We used this book (and its sequel) to train our Steering Team to become elders. We were captivated by this alternative name for elders that evoked a beautiful description of the work: SHEPHERD! Paul used this term in his farewell to the elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God…”
In 2015, we dedicated four shepherds for our flock! Because our church family was growing, we began to talk about the need to establish a leadership pipeline. The men we approached about serving were hesitant because they didn’t really understand what elders were supposed to do. So, we decided to implement an apprenticeship approach. We recruited four men of humility and character to be our Shepherds-In-Training. In addition to taking them through Lynn Anderson’s books, we met weekly to pray for the church together; we made shepherding calls and hospital visits together; we taught Bible classes and led Life Groups together; you get the idea! And I almost forgot – we also did our administrative meetings together. We demonstrated to our Shepherds-In-Training that being a shepherd is about far more than attending business meetings – the real work is “out there” with, and among, the sheep! Shepherds smell like sheep because they are with the sheep!
We work with our Shepherds-In-Training for about a year. During that time we have the chance to model to them the work, coach them in the work, and evaluate their aptitude for the work. At the same time, they learn what shepherding the church family is all about and whether it is something that God is calling them to do. At the end of the training period, we may extend the invitation for these men to come on board as shepherds, and each trainee has the ability to decline. During the training period we do not announce the trainees to the church family so that no one feels pressured or is put in an awkward position if they later decline.
We have conducted three rounds of training so far and have nine solid shepherds serving on our team. We currently have four Shepherds-In-Training in the pipeline who may be dedicated later this year. This apprenticeship approach is bearing leadership fruit that is making our shepherding team strong.
And just in case you hadn’t noticed: this apprenticeship approach looks an awful lot like “discipleship!”