Four Observations from a Rookie Elder
Last Saturday morning I woke up earlier than my kids, grabbed a strong cup of dark roast, and went to meet seven other men who are fellow members at South Woods. We read scripture together. Then we shared a number of prayer needs. When we finished discussing those needs, we, of course, prayed together. Then we talked for a while, giving counsel to one another concerning a wide array of issues. As we did so, we challenged one another’s assumptions, though not dismissively. We laughed at three clever comments. Then we all headed home to our families, encouraged by one another. It was what you and I might call biblical community. It also happened to be an elders’ meeting.
Ten years ago, as my wife and I were considering joining South Woods, I told one of those men, “I’ve never attended a church with elders.” It would’ve been nearly as accurate to say, “I’ve never actually heard that word in a church building.” While a membership class shortly thereafter covered in depth the details of this congregation’s polity, my wife and I remained somewhat in the dark. Simply, having grown up and served in the single–pastor model all our Baptist lives, we didn’t have a category for it. Now, nearly ten years later––having spent half of that time serving alongside those elders––here are four truths I’ve observed.
1. A Plurality of Elders Facilitates Community
As a previous post made clear, pastors need pastoring too. In our case, the Lord has fostered our relationships to the degree that we can be honest with one another. Because of trust, we can speak into a fellow elder’s life.
But does this have to do with the congregation? Much of the connection hinges upon the admonition of Hebrews 13:7, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” This imitation the author of Hebrews describes would necessarily include the way their leaders relate to one another. Any passage concerning the unity of the local church should also describe the unity of the elders. Therefore, as something of a microcosm of the congregation, a plurality of elders model what it means to live in community.
Conversely, if the church leader never opens up concerning personal prayer needs, what keeps the congregation from following suit? If the elder isolates himself relationally, that’s what will be replicated. If he makes major spiritual decisions alone, so might those he leads. However, a group of men who love one another enough to hold one another accountable, pray for one another, and work through issues together end up teaching Hebrews 13:7 with more credibility.
2. A Plurality of Elders Facilitates Discipleship
Now, that might make our group of elders sound a bit too pristine. Rest assured, early on Saturday morning, weaknesses convened. In fact, here’s a direct quote from me to a fellow elder last Saturday, “Could you say that again? Slowly?” We happened to be discussing an issue in which he communicated comfortably, due to his background and gifting. On the other hand, due to my background and gifting, I did not. Nevertheless, that exchange serves as an argument for a plurality of elders.
That is, if the author of the book of Hebrews implores his readers to imitate their leaders, a plurality of elders actually facilitates discipleship. More specifically, because no one man embodies all the characteristics needed for the congregation’s imitation, offsetting one elder’s weakness with another elder’s strength gives a better picture to the congregation of what following Christ entails.
As an example, a full–time pastor’s vocation might look vastly different than the majority of the congregation. The crowd visiting the church building probably isn’t the same one visiting the 50–hour a week locale of many congregants. Admittedly, that’s a weakness for the full–time vocational pastor. However, a plurality of elders, including bi–vocational and lay elders, models more holistically for the congregation the integration of faith and work. If part of discipleship includes submission to Christ in vocation, men who meet the biblical qualifications while serving as a construction worker, dentist, or accountant give those in the congregation something more concrete to imitate.
Discipleship includes leadership development as well. Unfortunately, since observation is prerequisite to imitation, a single elder’s life can only be seen by so many people. Our clocks and maps make this certain. However, a plurality of godly men enables both observation and imitation among a greater number of potential leaders. Furthermore, when only one leader serves the local church, fewer gifted men in the congregation even aspire to the office. Multiple leaders multiply leaders.
3. A Plurality of Elders Facilitates Mission
In Acts 13, Luke lists multiple leaders in the church at Antioch, including Niger, Lucius, Manaen, Herod, Saul, and Barnabas. Shortly thereafter, that congregation sent Saul and Barnabas out for the purpose of mission. The question might be asked: if Barnabas were the only teacher in that congregation, would it have been more traumatic for the congregation to send him out? The answer is yes. However, a plurality of elders usually means the congregation depends less upon a single elder, allowing some to be sent out for the purpose of mission.
Furthermore, in my experience, a plurality of elders strategizes in reaching their local neighborhood more effectively than a single pastor. Multiple men living in the same zip code know the mission field more exhaustively. This is yet another aspect of ministry Christians do better together than alone.
4. A Plurality of Elders Facilitates Longevity
This year will be my tenth year at South Woods, making me one of the rookies. The average elder has attended here for 18 years. I attribute much of that longevity to the community described in our recent elders’ meeting. We’re in this together. A plurality of elders ends up sharing the load of pastoral ministry. Though the weight of some burdens might overwhelm a single, isolated elder, carrying that same burden with men you trust makes it more bearable.
G. K. Chesterton once said, “You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.” Nor can you do any of the things listed in this blog post. One doesn’t create community at a single retreat. Discipleship doesn’t happen overnight, nor does effective mission. All of it takes time. Therefore, if a plurality facilitates longevity, then it also makes more likely all of the above.