Elders: Key to Growth in a New Church

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!

Elders, Submission, and the Rebel in Me

by Jim Tune

With so many poor models of leadership around us today, we may cringe when words like submission, authority, and rule come up.  We’ve become accustomed to thinking about abuse and power in the same sentence.  We have difficulty separating authoritarianism from authority, creating a latent suspicion of authority in our society. 

This general spirit is also alive and well in the church.  The already-challenging task of church leadership has become even more complicated as elders interact with visionary preachers, multiple staff, and church members.  Having experienced dysfunctional leaders and leadership structures, we shy away without ever realizing the great benefits of submitting to godly men who humbly shepherd the flock. 

As a church planter, I wrestled with the how, what, and why of establishing an eldership.  I understood that the Bible called for church oversight to rest in the hands of a plurality of elders, (also, “pastors,” “bishops,” “overseers;” see Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2).  Elders are to be chosen for ministry according to clear Biblical requirements (1 Timothy 2:11–3:7; Titus 1:5-9).  Elders are always spoken of in plurality because God intends for more than one man to oversee the church as a safeguard for both the church and the men. That is why I have gently corrected people who called me the pastor. 

My experience with church planters reveals they struggle with the following concerns: protectiveness toward their “baby” church and its vision; fear of rigidity and legalism; fear that a “hireling” mentality will emerge; and a legitimate concern about the possibility for impotent, committee-style governance.  They ask: “How do we get the elders to go along with this?”  Manipulation and politicking almost always result.  This creates a backlash that erodes trust and further bogs things down. 

Church planters are spooked when they see these dynamics. 

I’ve concluded that in many cases, church planters, whether they know it or not, are really not resisting the idea of eldership, but are instead reacting to a system, to the way elders ruled in the churches they’ve experienced.  But allow me to comment on the benefits of having elders. 

Installing an eldership was a huge win for me as a preacher.  I am a rebel at heart and I need to submit for my own safety.  It helped me immensely in my pastoral work, knowing I could lean on the collective wisdom of men recognized as godly and gifted. 

The development of a committed eldership made our church stronger.  I received encouragement and accountability.  Sometimes the elders did rein me in, but they did it so I didn’t wear myself out!  I love to be busy and make things happen.  If I’m not careful, I shift into workaholism, pursuing good things in personally destructive ways.  I always want the light to be green, but my elders sometimes signaled a yellow (caution) or even an occasional red (stop), for my own good. 

I am convinced the Bible teaches that submission (even when a person is treated unjustly) results in favor from God.  Wise elders will create an environment that makes it a joy for the preacher to submit.  That said, there will inevitably be moments of tension and disagreement.  Learning to be determined yet submissive is, without a doubt, the finest lesson I have ever learned in ministry.  I am not always right.  The Bible says, “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.  All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).  When God says he opposes the proud, that includes un-submissive leaders. 

I am a rebel at heart, and that is the human way.  But God never blesses it; in fact, God opposes it.  If I never submit, I may be right on the issue and still be wrong.  It’s a question of biblical authority.  A world without authority would be like desires with no restraints, a car with no controls, a major intersection with no traffic lights … a world with no God. 

Can You Let Your Preacher Change?

by Jim Tune

Is it OK for your preacher to change?  Churches expect their leaders to grow.  Christians expect their preacher will become more saturated by, and competent in, handling Scripture.  Time in study should lead to greater depth and maturity.  Shepherding a flock should, over time, lead to stronger skills in conflict resolution, mediation, and reconciliation.  Your preacher will attend conferences, read books, and embrace new ideas and fresh vision. 

For the most part, this kind of growth and its changes are generally welcomed by the elders and congregation.  But what if deeper change takes place in the life of the leader, change disrupting the status quo?  What if time in study, immersion in the Bible, and experience with body life actually make him a different person from the man the church hired 20 years earlier?  Can we cope with that kind of change?  Can we admit that life should reshape our souls and adjust our lenses?  

Let me be clear about what I am not saying.  I am not talking about heresy or adopting a plan of salvation distinctly different than the one you hired him to preach (and that he professed to believe). 

Still, many preachers feel a deep reluctance to reveal who they really are to those they lead.  They ask, “Where can I truly be myself?  If people know who I am, will they reject me?  Do people love me as their pastor but not as a person?” 

I think, for the most part, churches have improved their level of care in terms of salaries, benefit plans, retirement, vacations, and sabbaticals.  Despite this, vocational fulfillment seems elusive to many preachers and staff.  We want to be valued for who we are and who we are becoming, acknowledged as trustworthy, creative, thoughtful, capable leaders.  We want to use our gifts, abilities, and skills to make positive, unique contributions.  To be real at work is as important as the paycheck. 

Without being overly sentimental, the best thing you can do for your preacher is to love him.  Love is not a word that comes up very often in the rough-and-tumble environment of employment.  But in the church employment environment, love is not only the “greatest of these,” it’s everything.  Love is an act of humility that says, “You have value. We need you here!”  How many annual reviews in churches ask the question: “Does our preacher or staff member feel loved?” 

Let me offer an example. For several years I’ve been slowly backing away from what I call the “Evangelical Ghetto.”  Inside this ghetto is a subculture of its own that rallies and bases inclusion on several extra-biblical earmarks.  Many Evangelicals live, behave, lobby, and vote as though the hope of the world rests upon worldly kingdoms.  But the Bible teaches that hope lies in a Kingdom established by Jesus, expanded by people committed to following Him only.  They may even be pacifists, Democrats, and oppose capital punishment!  

I have taken a walk outside the “ghetto” walls from time to time, and I’m beginning to like it. It’s a part of who I am becoming: a resident alien.  People who love me unconditionally have accepted my departure from the right-wing party line.  Others have backed away, dropped support for the mission I lead, or expressed concern for the state of my faith. 

Too often, when someone arrives at different positions and convictions, we cut them off.  We then distance ourselves from anyone who likes that person.  Of course, this is wrong, un-Christ-like, unloving.  

My move away from the tribal markers of Evangelical subculture has changed me. I believe it is a change brought about by spiritual growth.  Others believe differently.  That’s OK, because we “show tolerance for one another in love,” (Ephesians 4:2, NASB).  Again, not tolerating “a different kind of Good News,” (Galatians 1:8, NLT), we can still, even when they change, “have confidence in [our] leaders…because they watch over [us] as those who must give an account,” (Hebrews 13:17, NIV), “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21, ESV), because it is Jesus Himself who was and remains “the author and perfecter of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2, NASB). 

Churches, give your preacher the space I’ve received.  Give your preacher room to change.