A survey of congregations throughout the Unites States revealed that 50% do not have elders and 54% of those that do have elders have only two. That means that three quarters of our congregations either have no elders or are a heartbeat away from having no elders. I wonder how many of those congregations are actively preparing men to serve in leadership roles. How many, although they may not admit it, have become comfortable with the “Men’s Business Meeting” style of congregational leadership? As with many activities in life, the longer we do them the harder it becomes to change those habits. The harder it becomes for two or more men to separate themselves from the crowd and take personal responsibility for shepherding their flock. The harder it becomes for the congregation, especially the men, to accept and trust their leadership. Shortly after Paul established congregations on the island of Crete, he directed Titus to set in order the things that were lacking by appointing elders in every city (Titus 1:5). Who is fulfilling the role of being an example to the flock (1 Pet 5:3) if there are no elders? If a congregation is not organized as God intended or actively pursuing that organizational structure, can they avail themselves of the full spiritual blessings in Christ?
These are perilous times for the world at large and certainly for the Lord’s church. Both are experiencing a crisis in leadership. Personal attacks from those in opposition to current and potential political leaders who exhibit integrity and virtue discourage these qualified men from serving in secular leadership positions. Unfortunately, many qualified men in the church refrain from serving because of the perceived hardships associated with the work of an elder. Shortly after I was appointed an elder, news of the appointment was announced at a board meeting of an organization associated with the church. The general reaction from these mature Christians both surprised and disappointed me. Statements such as “buy yourself a flak jacket, the arrows are coming; say good-by to your wife and family, you won’t be seeing much of them from now on; and there go all your social friends in the congregation,” were heard from around the conference table. Contrary to those comments my eight years as an elder were, although not without challenges, the most rewarding of my Christian life. Our congregation may be the exception, but I pray it is not. God is searching (Jer 5:1) for qualified men who will stand in the gap (Ezk 22:29-31) and lead His church.
Roman Centurions, mentioned numerous times throughout the New Testament, are excellent examples of sound leadership. They spent years in preparation for this position learning at the side of a Centurion. They led in battle from the front, wearing brightly colored plumbs on their helmets in order to inspire loyalty and ownership of the cause in those soldiers under their command. Unlike Jacob, who out of fear, allowed his wife and children to lead him toward perceived enemies, shepherds must be in the forefront of every battle, protecting and feeding their flocks. Although preachers, who are not elders, are not to fulfill that role, in many congregations they perform as defacto “pastor” because of a void in leadership. This situation is not pleasing to God and those involved will one day answer for their actions or inactions.
A twenty year old single man who has completed high school and a two-year program at one of our preaching schools may be qualified for an entry level minister’s position. If that same young man desires to be a shepherd one day he will require many years of spiritual growth, service, experience that brings wisdom and the challenge of marriage and family (1 Tim 3:1-7). We must create an environment within our congregations that encourages younger men to prepare themselves for the work of a shepherd. As in all aspects of life, we accomplish what we plan to accomplish and that planning and the execution of that plan must originate with the elders or male leadership, including the preacher, of each congregation.
As with our secular lives, balance is a key ingredient to success. Congregations that rush to appoint elders simply to have elders without adequate preparation will often create more problems than they solve. It is much better to be scripturally unorganized than to appoint unqualified men to watch over the flock. A balanced approach to leadership includes preparing men to serve. Start by identifying men with the potential to become elders or deacons. Place them in categories based on the estimated time it will take to prepare them for each position (1-3 years, 3-5 years, 5-10 years). Assign an elder or spiritually mature male leader to mentor them in the development process. Then assess each man’s development needs and create a plan to fulfill those needs. Sit down with each man and his wife, and encourage them to continue to grow spiritually and strive to reach the goal of one day becoming a deacon or elder. Meet annually to access the progress of each man and revise his development plan if necessary. The plans will be unique to each man, but can include daily Bible reading and related books concerning the church, elders, deacons and various ministries, as well as attendance at sound lectureships. A workshop was held in Atlanta in the past by two men with a wealth of knowledge and experience but was attended by just five of the area’s fifty plus congregations. This apathy does not bode well for the church’s current and future leadership. Developmental assignments within the congregation such as teaching, benevolence, local and foreign evangelism will prepare men for congregational leadership positions. Accompanying the elders and preacher on visits to visitors, shut-ins, those in hospitals and spiritually weak members will help prepare them for the vital role of personally shepherding their flock. Teach them the importance of gaining the trust and respect of the congregation by accepting responsibility for their commitments and holding them accountable for their assignments.
Shepherds have an awesome responsibility in protecting and feeding their flocks as well as spreading the gospel. Their goal is to reach heaven and bring along as many souls as possible. Joshua 3:17 tells of the priests standing firm in the midst of the Jordan River allowing all of Israel to cross over on dry ground to the promised land of Canaan. Elders have that spiritual responsibility today. They are the bulwark against Satan. If faithful men will step up and stand firm, they will help their flocks to reach the promised land of heaven.
Future leaders must be challenged to take personal responsibility for their preparation to lead and they must understand the conditions for receiving God’s blessings (Jas 1:22-25). They should not underestimate what they can accomplish (Phil 4:13) when they honestly examine themselves (2 Cor 13:5).
Current leaders must be challenged to raise up men whose hearts are aflame with love, whose souls are full of faith and vision, whose spirits are burning with zeal, whose lives are humble and selfless, who know the Book, who are afraid of being ashamed and ashamed of being afraid, who are set for the defense of the gospel, who will declare the whole council of God and who will count the cost and be willing to pay the price. Our talents are a gift FROM God, what we do with those talents is our gift TO God.
A quote from Matthew Henry’s commentary on First Timothy is a fitting way to end this discussion:
“There ought to be an earnest desire of the office in those who would be put into it; if a man desire, he should earnestly desire it for the prospect he has of bringing greater glory to God and of doing the greatest good to the souls of men by this means.”