Developing unity and friendship among your elders is critical for the health of your church. The way that the leaders of your church relate to one another will eventually be reflected in how the congregation relates to each other. Disharmony at the top will create serious division in the body. Harmony at the top creates safety and security for the flock.
Can you develop a team of elders who like each other and truly get along? Is it even possible? Yes!
For years I have been greatly served by a team of men who enjoy the bond that has developed among fellow-shepherds of the flock. The times of mutual joy as well as challenge have forged cherished friendships. When the men rotate off after their term is up, many express the desire to come back on. That is extremely gratifying.
So how do you do it? I want to first acknowledge some challenges and then lay out some ideas.
CHALLENGES TO UNITY AND FRIENDSHIP AMONG THE ELDERS
What are some challenges to unity and friendship among the elders?
Assuming that your elders are theologically and philosophically in sync, there are some practical obstacles that can arise. For example, if you have some elders who are on the paid pastoral staff of the church and some who are not, those who see each other throughout the week will have a level of camaraderie that can make the others feel like outsiders. This will be nearly impossible to overcome if staff elders consistently discuss issues and agree upon a position or course of action before the rest even join the conversation. I cannot state in strong enough terms how deflating it can be for lay elders when you are made to feel that a direction has already been established before you had the chance to weigh in.
Also, new elders are naturally going to feel like outsiders and will not understand inside jokes or other such matters. Further, elders who are of a different age than the senior pastor will often have a tendency to feel like they do not quite fit. And if in the name of efficiency and organization you have a small group of the elders who function as the administration team, the rest of the elders can quickly realize that the few will establish a consensus, and leave them to provide the rubber stamp.
But the greatest challenge to elder unity and friendship is our tendency to use a leadership position as a means to be served instead of to serve. Therefore, the following steps will not be helpful unless you are consistently cultivating a culture of gospel-driven humility and servant leadership.
One year I purchased chef aprons for all the elders and had their names embossed on them. I gave them out publicly to remind them and the congregation that we are here to serve. It is both necessary and helpful to regularly read passages such as John 13, Acts 20, Philippians 2, 1 Thessalonians 2, and 1 Peter 5 as a group.
WAYS TO BUILD UNITY AND FRIENDSHIP AMONG THE ELDERS
With all that in mind here are some specific suggestions for cultivating unity and friendship among the elders:
- Every year the elders publicly sign our doctrinal statement and church covenant. This gives us the opportunity to stand before the congregation and affirm our commitment to watch our lives and doctrine. It also affords me the opportunity to remind all of us of the challenge to be servant leaders.
- We have an elder retreat every year. This time away is invaluable for our guys to get to know each other, pray together, play games, and have fellowship. We also have some strategic sessions on church health assessment, long term planning, and short-term goals. But the most beneficial part of the retreat by far is the team building that comes from the concentrated time that we spend together.
- We have two meetings per month. The first focuses on our oversight of the flock, and the second focuses on our oversight of each other. In this second meeting we study pertinent topics, discuss personal and family matters, pray for one another, confess sin and discouragement, and rejoice in each other’s blessings. The transparency of these meetings has led to deeper friendships and trust among the guys. I believe this more than anything else is why the elders present such a picture of unity to the congregation.
- All prayer requests that are communicated to the church office throughout the day are emailed to the elders. Sometimes there are 5-10 emails a day, but this way everyone knows the needs of the flock, not just a select few.
- From time to time we gather at someone’s home just for dessert or for an evening without an agenda.
- When I am overwhelmed, I reach out to all of the elders and ask for prayer. This confession of weakness not only gives them permission to do the same, but gets them to pray for me, and in turn for each other.
- We rarely if ever move forward with a decision if there is even one dissenting vote. It is not that we have a policy that every decision has to be unanimous, but we really care about each guy, and take his hesitancy seriously. This happened a few months ago, and honestly, I was hoping that we would just move on for the sake of time. But another elder expressed concern for the brother who was not on board with the decision. His care resulted in the brother being encouraged to express even more of this thoughts rather than feeling sheepish about being the lone dissenter.
- What is discussed in the meetings stays among the elders only.
Here are a couple of additional ideas from Don Magee, pastor of Lakes Baptist Church in Walled Lake, Michigan. They are so good I think I will be implementing them.
- During the year we schedule a Friday night dinner with our wives and conduct a Q&A about anything the ladies feel out of the loop on. We follow that with a time of prayer for personal needs in our families and then enjoy some games together.
- At Christmas we host the elders and their families in our home. My wife has gifts for all of the kids.
Bob Johnson is the senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan.
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