3 Words

by Mike Shannon 

There is an incident in the book of Acts that gives us insight into the role of elder as it was understood by the New Testament church.  It is recounted in chapter 20, verses 13-38.  Paul is on his way to Jerusalem.  He did not know precisely what would happen to him there, but he suspected it would be difficult and perhaps even cost him his life.  Paul took time from his journey to Jerusalem to say his farewells to the elders of the church in Ephesus, a church that meant a lot to him.  This meeting ended in many tears as Paul said they would never seem him again.  In verse 17, Paul summoned the “elders,” which is probably the most common term for the office, even in our own time.  In verse 28, he called them “overseers,” and admonished them to shepherd (pastor) the flock, which is the church.  This is a passage that gives strong evidence that all three terms were applied to the same “office.”  Let’s look at these three words as a guide to critical elements in our understanding of the work of an elder. 

First, consider the word “elder.”  It means just what is sounds like it means.  It is an older or mature man.  The Bible never prescribes exactly how old an elder should be, but we can still draw some conclusions about what is behind this designation.  A leader in the church should be mature, at least emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.  These qualities would most often be found in people who were also chronologically mature. 

Secondly, consider the word “overseer.”  The English word is actually a quite accurate translation.  We instinctively know what it means.  The elders provide general oversight over the life, doctrine, and health of a church.  Although it doesn’t sound like it, the English word “bishop” is derived from this Greek word. 

Finally, the last word is “pastor.”  That word is used widely in our world today, but it is actually used rarely in the New Testament, at least when referring to an office.  It is the word “shepherd,” and in this passage it is the verb form that is used.  While the term “pastor” is often used for the minister or preacher of a church, it seems that this term originally applied to elders, and some elders were, no doubt, teaching pastors. 

My purpose is not to make a case for proper titles.  There is a place for such discussions, but my purpose is to consider that these three words describe essentials components of a church elder’s work. 

He should be mature.  Almost nothing is more destructive in a church than an immature leader.  Childish behavior will disrupt meetings and the overall building of a Christian community. 

He should be sure to take care of the overall health of the church.  While good elders delegate to deacons and other church workers, there is nothing outside of their concern.  For instance, good elders will take the time to study and understand biblical theology so they can guard the spiritual health of the community.

He should have a shepherd’s heart.  It is not just about meetings and policies, however important they may be.  Elder boards should consider how they can care for the flock: visiting the bereaved, visiting the sick, consoling the broken hearted, etc. 

I could say it like this: elders, be mature, be aware, and be compassionate.  In doing so, you will lead like Jesus – our good shepherd.

How to Persevere Under Criticism

by Mike Shannon 

I once saw a sign posted in a business that said, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”  That is good advice for anyone, but especially good advice for those who work in the church.  Many factors can potentially discourage us in church work.  There are many times we are prone to give up, but God’s work requires staying power.  Nehemiah knew that.  Nehemiah had staying power.

Sometimes we are filled with good intentions.  We begin a job, but when the boring and tedious parts come we walk away.  This is, I suppose, a common human failing.  However, our character is developed not in the exciting times but in the routine times.  The job itself can become discouraging, but if it needs to be done, and it is a job God has commanded, then we must persist. 

Sometimes it is not the boring part of the job, but the challenging parts that engender discouragement.  Critics often threaten us.  Nehemiah had such a critic in a man known as Sanballat, along with his co-critics Tobiah and Geshem.  It was not long after Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls that Sanballat and company resisted him fiercely; they even laughed in his face.  He ridiculed those who worked with Nehemiah.  Not only did Sandballat conclude the job was impossible, he mocked those who tried to accomplish it, calling them “feeble.”  Their critics suggested that a fox could knock the wall down.  They tried to distract Nehemiah with requests for meetings.  They spread slander about Nehemiah and suggested nefarious motives, once even claiming he was trying to set himself up as king.  I suppose every church has a Sanballat.  When nothing else worked he resorted to threats, suggesting something bad just might happen, but Nehemiah simply would not relent.  When Sanballat asked Nehemiah to come and consult with him, Nehemiah calmly, but firmly, replied, “I can’t come down from this great work” (Neh. 6:3).

Critics are too often allowed to control the agenda.  The harshest critic, of course, is usually the one who has never accomplished anything.  The critic is free to find fault with everything because he/she has never personally taken the risk of trying and failing.  Generally, you will find that critics are rarely doers and doers are rarely critics.  We should be humble enough listen to genuine feedback, particularly if it comes from those who are wise, but we should never let the pathological critic force us to come down from a great work.

We can change direction, change strategies, change tactics, but we must persist in our mission.  Remember when Paul came to Corinth, he had many reasons to quit.  He was discouraged, lonely, in poor health, and faced sharp criticism.  In the midst of that discouragement God promised Paul that he was with him.  God sent him people to help him deal with his great task, and a great church was built in Corinth.  Since God does not quit on us, we don’t have to quit in His work. 

We must expect the discouragers to come, but we must be strong enough to resist their influence.  In spite of the chronic critics, we can succeed if we are determined God’s work should, can, and will be done.  No doubt, most of the jobs we will take on are not nearly as challenging as building the city wall in Jerusalem.  Think of what we could do if we just had a little staying power. 

People Power

by J. Michael Shannon 

Linus once told Charlie Brown, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” 

Sometimes, we all need a break from people.  That may especially be true after coming off an intensive week as many of us just have at the NACC.  But if we “can’t stand people,” we’re in trouble in church work.  Churches are full of people.  The world is, for that matter.  Nearly everything we do in life is dependent on us being able to manage relationships with each other.  No great thing is ever accomplished without cooperation.  No one person can perform all the tasks that need to get done – especially in the church.  When a congregation succeeds, it’s always the result of the labor of many.  

Some of the qualities that define a leader are the ability to motivate people, utilize their gifts, and marshal their resources.  Nehemiah illustrates this for us.  Even though the needs of Jerusalem – rebuilding the wall especially – were heavy on his heart, he knew there was no way he could do all that needed done by himself. 

Nehemiah first got permission from his king to go about the task God had laid upon his heart.  No doubt, Nehemiah’s faithful service gave the king a good reason to grant his request.  Nehemiah found favor in the eyes of Artaxerxes.  The king even seemed to take a genuine interest in what Nehemiah wanted to accomplish.  Not only did he give Nehemiah permission, but significant resources as well.  Our cultivation of good manners and courtesy will allow some people, even some outside the church, to help us with our task.  Nehemiah marshaled resources. 

Nehemiah also knew he had to motivate God’s people.  He did this by having a plan and challenging people.  People can be expected to react or respond to a plan, but they don’t craft one without the guidance of a leader.  It is the leader’s job to set the agenda and the goals; the people’s job is to amend and adopt them.  The vision Nehemiah cast for the people of Jerusalem was a great challenge – it seemed nearly impossible.  But the people responded and rose to the challenge, perhaps because of Nehemiah’s careful planning, and perhaps because of his enthusiasm. 

Notice his willingness to work side by side with the people.  Sometimes leaders do not receive respect because they insulate and separate themselves from the hard work and labor.  Nehemiah was, in today’s terms, a player/coach.  That is not a bad model for a minister, elder, or deacon. 

The satisfaction of seeing the walls built was not motivation enough, and Nehemiah knew this.  He helped motivate the people by allowing them to work near their own homes.  Each man was vitally interested in his own home being protected.  That personal buy-in kept the people going when the labor got discouraging. 

Finally, Nehemiah knew the ultimate reward for volunteer laborers – words of thanks and commendation.  Too seldom do we give words of commendation in the church.  Maybe this is because we have been erroneously taught that to work unselfishly means to work without thanks.  They are not the same thing.  Very few people in the church are paid anything for the labor they give.  The least they can expect are words like “well done,” “thank you,” and “we couldn’t do this without you” from their leaders.  Many people are convinced, but would never admit it out loud, that they are inept, have failed, and are not making any difference.  Our words of encouragement can keep them going and build them up for future service as well. 

We must cultivate our people power because we desperately need people.  The old saying is true: “It is never too heavy when we all lift together.” 

Prayer-Power

by J. Mike Shannon

The secret of all genuine accomplishments for God is found in prayer.  Prayer has been called the greatest force on earth.  We all agree with that sentiment, but to say that the key to a church’s vitality and effectiveness is found in prayer seems a bit simplistic.  This is because too often we pass off problems with a casual, “Just pray about it.”
 
If prayer is not a real force in congregational life, maybe it is because too often prayer has become a simple formality.  It becomes merely a ritual we perform in public worship.  It becomes “the bookends” that open and close meetings.  Prayer can only become a force in a church when it is genuine and not perfunctory.  Real and vital prayer is indispensable to the life of the church, while pious and ritualistic prayers are of little or no value.
 
Look at Nehemiah’s prayer in his first chapter as he considered the deep need of Jerusalem, and prepared to do his part.  It was not a “tippy-toe” prayer.  It was a genuine heart-felt communication with God.
 
Nehemiah began his prayer where all prayers should begin: in worship, adoration, and praise (v. 5). 

Too often prayer becomes simply asking God for things.  While God has invited us to take our requests to him, that should not be the only, nor even the main, aspect of prayer.  In fact, just being with God should be enough.  The things he gives us are the additional blessings that come from having a relationship with him.  However difficult the challenge, and however doubt-filled our hearts may be, all prayer needs to begin by focusing on God Himself.
 
Nehemiah’s prayer also included confession (verses 6 and 7).  He knew that God was not responsible for the problems, but that the difficulties they faced were the logical outcome of their actions.  Nehemiah’s confession was not just confessing the sins of other people; he admitted his own failings.  This confessional aspect of prayer was both personal and corporate.  It is never appropriate to dwell on the sins of others until we have mourned over our own sins.
 
Nehemiah’s prayer was also characterized by boldness (verses 8 through 11); what some have called a “holy boldness.”  It was not boldness in the sense of arrogance, but rather an attitude of assertive praying.  Nehemiah was not afraid to tell God what hereally thought and he asked God for what he really wanted.
 
Prayer prepared Nehemiah to fulfill a nearly impossible task.  He backed up his prayer with action and sacrifice.  The task did not seem so big once he had been in the presence of God. 

The old adage is very true, and every church leader should remember it: 

If you have a big God then you’ll only have small problems;
if you have a small God you’ll always have big problems.