The Role of An Elder

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I am currently working with a church that is reconstituting their eldership team.  There has a five-week series and then a three week nomination process.  A few nominees have asked for an overview of what will be required — they’re mostly asking about the time commitment.  Following is my response…

As elder nominees prayerfully consider the role of an elder at [the church] and the time commitment required, here is some basic information to consider:

PRIMARY TASKS

Elders, which includes the Lead Pastor, have three primary tasks that are carried out in the context of mutual prayer, study, authentic biblical relationships, unity, and consensus building:

Doctrine – The [church] elders will be the guardians of the church’s doctrinal stance for both the essentials of the Christian faith as well as non-essential (or secondary) issues of faith.

  1. The essentials of the faith most often describe the behaviors and beliefs without which the Bible clearly states we are not saved. For instance, the Deity of Christ, the Trinity, and justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, etc. (These are not requirements we must meet in order to save ourselves and earn God’s favor. Rather these are the essential beliefs and behaviors that will be manifest in the true Christian.)
  2. The non-essentials of the faith most often describe the doctrines in the Bible that while very important, are not essential to salvation. For instance, whether or not someone believes in the baptism of infants or whether or not God still heals today. These are important issues; yet, what someone believes about these are not essential to salvation.
  3. Here is how Augustine stated it succinctly: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”

Direction – With input from the Staff, Ministry Leaders, Members, and Attenders the Elders will be responsible to determine the vision of [the church] and, with the Lead Pastor, identify 3-5 yearly ministry objectives. The Elders will then delegate to the Lead Pastor the authority to oversee all Staff and operations of the church, and then consistently hold the Lead Pastor accountable through monthly reports and regular (yearly) performance reviews. The Elders will also consistently evaluate the progress of the ministry objectives by employing both qualitative and quantitative metrics.

  1. Qualitative Metrics include (but are not limited to) widespread genuine joy and excitement in the gospel, unity, maturity, zeal, faith, hope, love, increased boldness and zeal in evangelism with a winsome and contagious witness among a cross section of people, the aroma of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, responsive obedience to the Word of God, the fruit of the Spirit, a humble willingness to follow the leadership, eagerness to do works of service, receptivity to non-Christians, seekers, and newcomers, etc.
  2. Quantitative Metrics include (but are not limited to) measuring the numbers of conversions, baptisms, numbers of Bible studies, small groups, those enfolded into groups, weekend worship attendance, general giving, missions giving, numbers of those serving inside and outside the church, numbers of new and consistent givers, involvement in ministries and outreaches, attendance and quality of training events, etc.

Discipline – Broadly speaking, there can be a distinction between formative discipline (referring to instruction to develop the disciplines of the faith) and corrective discipline (referring to correcting sin). Corrective discipline refers to any act of correction, whether privately and informally warning a friend (which all Christians are called to engage in with gentleness and humility) or formally engaging a habitually sinning member in the corrective discipline process outlined in Matthew 18:15-19. The Elders become involved when all the other relational resources of the church have been exhausted. When the formal process gets to the final stage, the word “excommunication” is frequently used. To excommunicate is to “ex-commune” someone. Among Protestants, excommunication does not refer to removing someone from salvation (which the church is incapable doing) it refers to removing someone from membership in the church and participation in the church’s ministries including the Lord’s Supper. This effectively removes the spiritual connections and covering of the church with the hope for a deep and heartfelt repentance.

LEADING LEADERS

There is a difference between a minister and a leader. A minister builds people and a leader builds groups of people. Like wings on a bird every church needs both to fly straight. In a larger church the Elders must be proven leaders capable of leading other leaders. Are leaders born or developed? The answer is YES! Consider Jethro’s counsel to Moses in Exodus 18:21: “Select out of all the people able men who fear God, men of truth, those who hate dishonest gain; and you shall place these over them as leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens.” Every person has a “leadership capacity.” Most people can be trained to be a “leader of ten.” We can think of this as a small group leader, whose primary responsibility is to regularly facilitate thoughtful dialogue, prayer, biblical community, and service. Beyond leaders of tens there are leaders of fifties, hundreds, and thousands. Every person will max out somewhere on that continuum. The larger the church the more essential it is that the Elders (and Management Team Staff) need to be effective and proven leaders of fifties, hundreds, and thousands. It is possible in a growing church that the needs and governance required can outgrow the leadership capacity of an Elder (or a Staff member). (This could become one of the drawbacks of the “elder for life” perspective.)

AN ELDER’S WIFE (IF MARRIED)

This is not directly addressed in Scripture but would come under the eldership qualification of managing his household well — with love and dignity (see 1 Timothy 3:4-5). In addition to being a spiritually mature believer an elder’s wife must also be self-differentiated (as do Elders!). Jesus would be 100% differentiated, the rest of us would land on a scale ranging from low to high. People with a high level of differentiation have their own beliefs, convictions, direction, goals, and values apart from the pressures around them.  They can choose, before God, how they want to be without being controlled by the approval or disapproval of others. Intensity of feelings, high stress, or the anxiety of others around them does not overwhelm their capacity to think and act intelligently and with responsive wisdom. There are times of high stress and anxiety in an elder’s home and marriage (again, if married). During these seasons the elder has the opportunity to regularly process with other elders while his wife may feel the weight of the stress and anxiety (no matter how much she knows about the situation) without the opportunity to process with others. If she is not differentiated she may be given to “leaking” her stress and anxiety in unhealthy ways. The stress and anxiety can lead to defensiveness, triangulation (i.e., unnecessarily involving a third party), or outright gossip.

Self-differentiation is an emotional health issue. Unfortunately many churches have not done a good job of integrating emotional health into the discipleship process.

TIME COMMITMENT 

Certainly the time commitment will vary. Not every elder will have an equal amount of time per month to serve. However every elder will need to determine during the vetting process if he has sufficient time to devote. The goal during this transition season at [the church] is to show that being an elder at [the church] is (overall) a joyful ministry opportunity! Whether or not a church believes in “elder for life” there does need to be required sabbaticals (TBD, somewhere between 3-5 years). I recommend three meetings a month. The goal of all of these meetings is to balance effectiveness with efficiency.

  1. A monthly board meeting to carryout the legal requirements of a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization by reviewing financial and attendance reports, holding the Lead Pastor accountable through engaging with his Ministry Objective Report, providing counsel and input to the Lead Pastor when asked for, and actively moving toward consensus and unity. The agenda for a board meeting is jointly assembled by the Board Facilitator and Lead Pastor and sent out with monthly reports 3-5 days before the Board Meeting so that every member can come prepared to move quickly and efficiently through the agenda. A board meeting should last no more than two hours, however it will most likely take an additional two hours to properly prepare for the board meeting.
  2. A monthly “work” meeting to engage in extended prayer for the church, the staff, leaders, members, attenders, specific prayer needs, and for God to bless the church with salvations. Additionally, in a work meeting the elders review any current or possible church discipline issues as well as continue to study and refine [the church’s] doctrine. Position papers are often written for effective instruction and communication to the rest of the church (hot topics include women’s roles in leadership, sexuality, and defining marriage). These meetings can last 2-3 hours.
  3. A monthly “check-in” meeting to share and care for one another. Honest sharing about joys, challenges, struggles, marriage, work, etc. and praying for each other individually as needed. I would also encourage, at least once a quarter, for these meetings to include wives for continued relationship building, sharing, and caring. This also helps the wives to be able to engage with their own wisdom and discernment (where appropriate) as well as being an outlet for any pent-up stress and anxiety. These meeting should last 1-2 hours. When the wives are involved it should usually take place over a meal, with plenty of time to interact plus time to pray together.

I would also recommend an elder’s retreat on a regular basis – at least yearly. This could just be for the guys, or for couples (maybe one of each??).

Addendum #1: What About Women Elders?

Think of a continuum with “Complementarian” on one end and “Egalitarian” on the other end. Here’s a concise definition for each:

  1. Complementarian – The theological view that men and women are created equal in their value, being, and personhood through bearing the image of God, displaying physical and functional distinctives and are created to complement one another in biblically prescribed roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and church leadership. Complementarians view women’s roles in church ministry as distinctive from men, holding to the “mystery” of mutual submission, male headship, and sacrificial love conveyed in Ephesians 5:19-33. Practically, this is expressed through the practice of male lead pastors and elders.

An important theological consideration is, does complementarianism emanate from the Fall or the Trinity? But that’s for another time 🙂

  1. Egalitarian – The theological view that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, value, and worth but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, church, or society – viewing Galatians 3:28 as a hinge-verse that changes the historical role of women in the Church.

Complementarianism has it’s own continuum: “Soft,” “Strict,” and “Hyper” (again, for another time). Historically, [the church] has been more complementarian in its theological perspective with male elders and pastors. This is an area that the incoming elders will oversee theological clarification on. (If a nominee tends toward an egalitarian view it will not disqualify him.) Also, many healthy and vital churches have a provision in their governance model to add “gifted men and women” to their board. These men and women would not be considered elders but their wisdom and discernment would be consistently utilized.   

Addendum #2: Can Vocational Staff Be Elders?

This is an area that is not clearly defined in Scripture. Many healthy and vital churches have differing views on this question. When a church is in transition with the aim of calling a “Permanent Pastor” it’s generally wise to not have any vocational staff as elders. When a permanent pastor comes on the scene it can be awkward and confusing for the permanent pastor to be the (new) supervisor of the staff member/s at work but be a co-equal in an elder’s meeting. In the governance model expressed above the Lead Pastor can bring one of his staff (often the Executive pastor) to a Board Meeting as a non-voting member to give input as well as helping the Lead Pastor communicate with the rest of the staff.

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