Why and How to Develop A Team of Elders
As my wife and I were preparing to move after I accepted the call to pastor a small struggling church in Northern New Jersey, I’ll never forget the parting words of advice given to us by one of our seasoned ministry mentors: “Don’t trust anyone!” I think it is particularly easy for those in full-time ministry to slip into this way of thinking, particularly when dealing with lay leaders. We find ourselves in a place of unique vulnerability. Armed with fear and pride, we are tempted to keep our distance from everyone. Fear—ministry is our livelihood, not just something we do after work. Pride—we’ve spent years studying and praying about this stuff, why should we listen to these people? But the problem with our mentor’s advice isn’t that it’s too extreme or unbiblical. The problem is that it isn’t extreme or biblical enough. It is absolutely right—you can’t trust anyone— but, that includes ourselves. There is “no one righteous, not one” including me. Including you. The heart of the gospel is that Jesus is the only truly faithful one. As we seek to lead the church we should ultimately trust no one other than Jesus. The problem is that the Spirit of Jesus doesn’t pour himself out only on one individual but on his body- the church. In view of this, the way we demonstrate trust in Jesus is precisely by humbling ourselves before a collective group of leaders who have been called by Him.
The spirit with which we ought to approach our role in church leadership carries over to my approach in writing this post. When Mark asked me to do this I was both honored and humbled. In full disclosure I must admit that I have only ever led one group of men through an elder development process, so I hardly consider myself an expert on the subject. Nonetheless, I certainly know more than I did beforehand so I offer these meager and tentative gleanings.
Don’t copy someone else’s process
When I was developing our process I asked a number of pastors whom I respect (including Mark of course!) what their process looks like. While I learned much from all of them, I quickly discovered that they all did it differently and none of their models seemed to quite fit where we were. The Bible gives no specific blueprint on how long the “process” should take, how many books should be read, or how many meals should be shared. Every situation is different.
Though the Bible doesn’t give a time frame, it certainly does tell us not to rush (“Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” 1 Tim 5:22). Particularly in small and struggling churches where current leadership is worn out and/or there is an overall leadership vacuum, the temptation is to stalk and pounce on the first set of pretty legs that show even slightest curves of leadership potential, like a soldier who runs after the first pretty girl after coming home from deployment. But “charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting” also applies to a potential elder. Don’t fall for love at first sight.
But on the other hand. . .
Don’t drag your feet
Perhaps you’ve been able to cast a vision so compelling that everyone in your church has committed their families to stay with you to the third and fourth generation. (And we ought to try to cast precisely such a great vision.) But for most of us, while on one hand we must fight to change society’s increasingly transient nature (because Kingdom effectiveness requires deep community), and we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for serious commitment, we must also work within reality. A mentor of mine who now pastors pastors after serving in local church ministry for 30-plus years perceptively observed that toward the end of his tenure he had discovered that he simply couldn’t take as much time raising up leaders as he had when he first started— because these days they’d have moved on by the time the process was over.
Involve the current and previous elders in the process
About two years ago we reached a pivotal moment in our church revitalization process. Over half of those currently attending weren’t here when my wife and I first came. From the beginning the goal was to raise up new leaders who could take the torch from the remnant of faithful men and women who had stuck it out and carried the church through a long period of drought. But it was and is important to us that there be continuity from the old to the new and a sense of togetherness that bridges the cultural divide. Keeping this in mind, we tried to involve in the process even some of those elders who had stepped down from official service. I invited them to participate in the elder development meetings and before it began, I sought their advice on how to proceed.
Identify those who are already doing the work of an elder
Not only did involving previous leaders foster a spirit of camaraderie that has helped to smooth the transition, but involving them gave us access to a wealth of experience that was invaluable. In addition to helping me find the right balance between rushing and dragging out the process, the single greatest nugget of wisdom offered was this: Identify which men in our church are already doing the work of an elder. Which men already reflect the criteria the Bible lays out for elders? Which men are already shepherding the flock? Which men are hospitable? Which men already demonstrate a clear understanding of the gospel? Remember, in the end we aren’t so much choosing elders as we are seeking to recognize the calling God has already placed on their lives.
Prioritize doctrinal character over doctrinal competency
Elders must be able to teach. But if they don’t live out their doctrine, being able to explain it will only create a culture of hypocrisy that will hurt the church. The image Psalm 1 uses for the life of the righteous is that of a tree, not a garden hose. A godly man isn’t one who can take the Scriptures in one end and then spray it out the other, but one whose study of the Scriptures bears fruit. Time and time again I allowed the slot that had been allotted for discussion of our doctrinal statement to be squeezed out by the vibrant and authentic conversation that supernaturally permeated our process. As I saw these men confess their struggles and encourage and challenge one another, I saw glimpses of the fruit that indicates that the Spirit was writing true doctrine first and foremost on their hearts. Of course, I continually gave them opportunities to discuss any aspects of our doctrine that they were unsure of and I hope to beef up our doctrinal study as we move forward as elders, so that they will be able to teach it with greater confidence and accuracy. But (no offense to those in academia) it is much easier to get someone to verbalize understanding of doctrine than to get them to live it out.
Instill in your church the importance of bringing on new elders
At the beginning and the end of the elder development process we brought the candidates forward during our Sunday morning service and had the whole church pray for them. We also asked the church to commit themselves to pray for us on their own throughout the process. However, as unexpected events would in retrospect suggest, it seems that God wasn’t satisfied with how much we had driven home the significance of what was happening. At the congregational meeting where we were slated to vote in three new elders for the first time in over a decade, a very divisive (and unrelated) issue emerged that threatened to hijack the meeting. The issue was important enough to me that had it been any other meeting I probably would have stuck to my guns and settled in for what in the short term was sure to be an uncomfortable evening but in the long run(I felt, anyway) was best for the church. However it became clear to me (divine passive!) and was confirmed by conversation with another elder that at this pivotal moment nothing was more important than unity. What had the potential to tarnish the significance of what was to take place and put a wrench in the momentum that was building, proved instead to heighten and fuel both. As I swallowed my pride and diffused the controversy by backing off from my position, I was able to demonstrate that whatever issues any of us might have thought were important that evening, they paled in comparison to and must not be allowed to overshadow the voting in of new elders.
Kevin Hanly is Pastor of River Vale Community Church located in northern New Jersey (35 minutes north of Manhattan). He and his wife Laura are blessed with two kids Grace (age 4) and Caleb (age 2). He holds an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and ThM in Church History from Princeton Seminary. In 1994 he fell one match short of playing Mark in the Wyoming state men’s tennis final where they planned to lead the crowd in gospel-centered devotionals during each changeover.