Passing the Baton before Leadership Collapse

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.

2 Questions

by Billy Strother 

I love elders – always have and always will.  These dedicated spiritual servants put their hearts, souls, and finances on the line for local congregations.  In some congregations, new elders are recruited with no training or mentoring.  There is a last-second nomination scramble, with only a few days to affirm or not affirm one’s willingness to accept the nomination.  

Sometimes, new elders have no idea into what they are being launched into.  They simply said “yes” out of a servant’s heart … then comes the whirlwind.  

The congregation I was serving most recently provides rotational and intentional leadership training, mentoring, and personal spiritual care before one is invited to serve as an elder, and active mentoring continues in the first term of eldership.  

With or without training, even in the best of healthy circumstances, surprises in the burdens and joys of eldership happen to us all.  

In a recent elders’ meeting, I asked our multi-generational group of nine elders two questions.  (Our eldership is a larger number because we have been actively passing the elder leadership baton to the next generation of church leaders – half of our elders are in their early thirties or early forties, six of the nine are in their first term serving as an elder).  My explanation for the two questions posed to our elders was that I would record and share their answers on this blog, in the hope that their answers would help other newly-serving elders or those contemplating serving for the first time in eldership.  Our elders were vigorous and eager in their sharing of answers. I’m still not sure if they were talking to you or simply over-eager to educate me!  

Perhaps you have or have had that “deer in the headlights” look after your first elders’ meeting.  (My elders conceded such was unanimously their experience.)  Or, it could be that you have been asked annually to serve for years; but annually you have declined nomination – from the outside, serving in eldership looks severely mystical, or  too much like a monthly city council meeting, possessing all of the excitement of a root canal.  

I share our collective answers to two simple questions in the hope you will find encouragement in your own journey as an elder or to eldership.  

Question 1: “What do you wish someone had told you before you became an elder?”

  1. Serving would include more than a “one hour a month” meeting.  (Some elders had been recruited with the promise that eldership only consisted of one meeting for “one hour a month.”)  We corrected that inaccuracy in approaching candidates.
  2. Muting cell phones.  If you are not retired, and still work full-time, mute your cell phone!  (Texts, emails, phone calls, prayer requests, and Facebook posts will come in at all times.)  The advice?  Take control of your cell phone; do not let it control you.  Don’t just put it on vibrate mode, use the Do Not Disturb setting.
  3. Learning there is only one important voice to which to listen and follow: Jesus.  Eldership is not like politics – you represent no group in the church; you only represent Jesus, and what is best in Jesus’ eyes.
  4. Understanding the church is not like a secular, “normal” business, especially if you are from a professional business background.  (There is at times no clear “chain of command” and sometimes no “best practice” to lean on.) 
  5. Sitting in an elders’ meeting is different than sitting in a secular management meeting or fiscal court.  It is more of a burden to serve as an elder than to be a small business owner.
  6. Deferring church business out of our meetings and into staff hands as much as possible, so we could be active Shepherds to real hurting people. 
  7. Keeping necessary confidential secrets (even from your spouse) and prayer requests you become privy to as an elder, until/unless the elder team is ready to disclose them for a Kingdom benefit.
  8. Committing to be supportive when the elder team makes a decision, even if I personally (or church friends close to me) disagree.  Unless I am willing to resign, I must commit to be supportive for the sake of elder unity.  Sometimes, it is hard to admit that I might just be wrong, and that I will need to trust the rest of the elder team.
  9. Abandoning the naïveté to believe that if I reached out to every disgruntled church member who disagreed with an elder team decision, that, since they knew me, they would trust me.
  10. Finding it difficult to carve out time for prayer and Bible study because of the tyranny of the church-urgent. 

Question 2: “What Unexpected Blessing Have You Experienced by Serving as an Elder?”

  1. Watching a new idea for ministry delivery get tossed into elder meeting discussion, and then seeing it come to fruition
  2. Possessing an inside look at God’s faithfulness: knowing things kept in leadership confidence, which are best not shared outside the elders, and then watching God make bold moves to resolve or complete those things
  3. Watching people spiritually grow, including my fellow elders.
  4. Experiencing deep fellowship with elders who are spiritual heroes.
  5. Mentoring from older, experienced elders; being challenged in healthy ways by younger new elders
  6. Becoming more Christ-centered by being with seasoned elders who are already Christ-centered.
  7. Becoming a more effective leader in one’s small group, by spending time in team with effective elders
  8. Experiencing unity develop as a group of Christian men. (There was an associated quote: “There is no way I could have predicted the friendships, the connections, and my own spiritual growth with these men.”)
  9. Discovering even seemingly small leadership decisions can lead to positive, amplified Kingdom fruit
  10. Experiencing deep spiritual refreshing in elder meetings, often unexpected, and always when it was needed the most
  11. Participating in something that will bear spiritual fruit long after the second date is carved on one’s headstone

All agreed, the blessings of serving as an elder far exceeded the burdens. (That is why there are 11 answers to question 2, but only 10 answers for question 1.)  At its worst, none of us had ever experienced an elders’ meeting as bad as a root canal or a raucous city council meeting.

Worst Communion Devotion Ever? (Pt. 2)

by Billy Strother

I am often asked by leaders, “How does one lead an effective communion devotion?” 

Just as there is no one way to take communion (glass or plastic communion cups are both good options; before or after the sermon are equally optional; there is no company biblically-mandated from which to order communion bread or juice), there is no one biblical way to offer a communion devotion.

But, since it is the weekly practice for most of us, I offer a few suggestions which may help someone asking you that question.

  1. Open with the mechanics of taking communion in your service. 
    Many will end their devotion talking about how to take communion, or never mention the mechanics at all.  Even mature church visitors may come from a church which does it differently.  Opening with “here is how we take communion” puts visitors at ease.  It also implicitly communicates “we want and expect visitors to be here” to the congregation.  Sharing the mechanics after the devotion breaks the dynamic spiritual flow of the devotion into prayer.  Share the mechanics first – holding elements or taking them when passed, walking forward to tables, etc.
  1. Prepare hearts, not heads, for communion. 
    The purpose of the devotion is to orient the hearts of those in attendance to a focus on partaking of communion.  The devotion should simply arrest the attention of those in corporate worship and then point their hearts to the elements on the Lord’s table, symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, the sweet and terrible sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.  One cannot worthily examine themselves unless they take a fresh look at the cross.
  1. Retell a brief story or anecdote that’s personal or biblical. 
    People love stories.  I have noticed through the years that anytime I say, “that reminds me of a story,” that no matter how boring my sermon has been, people will give it another chance.  Two minutes is enough time to tell a brief personal story well.  It is enough time to retell a biblical story.  It is enough time to tell someone else’s story.  Anyone can ramble on forever.  It takes real work to hone a story down to the memorable.  Let’s face it, there is only so much shared time for a worship service in our culture.  Like it or not, that is the reality.  The two-fold purpose of the communion devotion is:  1) to arrest audience attention; and 2) to put Jesus’ work on the Cross in the spotlight.
  1. Anchor your story to the Bible. 
    Sincerely, your communion devotion need not be tethered to the preacher’s sermon text for the day.  But your communion devotion is well-served connected to a verse or two of Scripture (and not a long text—well, because of the time restraint we are under in our culture, if we desire to have a sincere influence for Jesus).
  1. Take it all to The Cross. 
    I have heard communion devotions which never mentioned Jesus or the cross or the elements.  That might be a devotion, but it is not a communion devotion.  An effective communion devotion takes our hearts directly to the symbols of the cross.
  1. Remember to pray for the elements and the hearts taking them. 
    More than once I have heard someone say, “I got so nervous, I forgot to pray!”  The small prayer at the end of the Communion devotion builds a significant bridge between people’s hearts and the symbols on the Lord’s table. 

Are you intentionally leading communion devotions as a church leader?  Speaking for myself, without a specific and deliberate plan, my next communion devotion is capable of becoming “The Worst Communion Devotion Ever.”

Worst Communion Devotion Ever? (Pt 1)

by Billy Strother

As a professor and preacher for over three decades, I have heard a great many devotions around the Lord’s Table.  I have given a few myself.  Mostly though, when preaching, I am a Sunday spiritual consumer when it comes to the devotion at the table, listening to other leaders. 
 
I have heard all kinds of communion devotions:  some so long they rivaled the length of the sermon; some which brought a tear to my eye; some spoken in a language foreign to me, but which still moved my heart; some which never mentioned Jesus or the cross, and some which really opened my heart to the moment of participating in table fellowship with the Lord in the moment. 
 
I do not remember the exact words of the best communion devotions I have heard over the years; simply that they opened my heart for the moment of table fellowship. 
 
But I do remember the worst communion devotion I ever heard.
 
In the fall of 1988, just minutes before my sermon, the leader selected to lead the communion devotion stood up at the microphone and cleared his throat.  The transcript of that devotion has been forever seared into my mind:
 
“Folks, communion is like that new number one song I just heard on popular radio by Bobby McFerrin.  When it comes to communion, like Bobby sings, ‘Don’t worry, be happy!’  That is what communion is all about.  The Lord does not want us to worry and he wants us to be happy.  Let’s pray!” 
 
And he did … pray.  I just do not remember the prayer at all; everyone was a little shell-shocked!  While the song, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” won three Grammy Awards in 1989 (Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance), it really is about as antithetical to self-examination as one can get. 

Paul told us explicitly in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 how we ought to approach the Table, and in verses 28 and 31, he specifically tells us to “examine ourselves.” 
 
That Sunday, I discovered that not all communion devotions are created equal.  The humble communion devotion is a big spiritual event.
 
I am often asked by leaders, “How does one lead an effective communion devotion?” 

We’ll explore that in depth next week.