I trust this is not true of all churches, but I have discovered that elder meetings can have an unexpectedly difficult social dynamic. There you sit at the table with a number of godly men. You are hashing out this or that issue. And somehow the room feels tense, even political!
“Why is he contradicting me?” “Is he just posturing?” “Why did he say it like that?” “What a jerk!”
Truth be told, you can see my own small-heartedness and sin in such responses. But I am confident I am not alone.
THE BIGGEST LESSON
Here’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned about the social dynamic of elder meetings: fear of man sometimes keeps us from saying the things we should say, and fear of man sometimes provokes us to say things we shouldn’t.
That is, sometimes we fail to say what we should say because we are afraid of saying something different, something wrong.
But sometimes we speak more than we should, or harsher than we should, because we are afraid of losing control or losing the argument. We think persuading the brothers depends upon us. So we push too hard. We clutch our ideas too tightly, because we are afraid of losing face. And that is just another form of fear of man.
Different sized elder boards, no doubt, have different social dynamics. I remember sitting on a small elder board, where all the men had good relationships. So it was easy for us to trust one another, but it was also easy for us to fall into group think.
Larger boards can fall into group think, too, but there are more personalities to challenge it. Indeed, factions can form which challenge it, but then factions are problematic for other reasons.
I remember when I first became an elder at my present church, everybody told me not to talk much for a while, but just listen and learn. And in general, that is very good advice. So I decided to speak only when I thought the elders were heading in a bad direction, and they really “needed” my input. Well, there are a couple things wrong with that approach, one of which is that you only talk in order to disagree. Second, when those moments come, you will probably push too hard because, by the nature of the moment, you are already convinced the guns of others didn’t work so it is time to bring your bombs.
HOW TO SPEAK IN ELDERS’ MEETINGS
So when should you speak in an elder meeting? What is a useful attitude to adopt toward the other brothers? Here are few tips, but let me admit this is the counsel of a novice, and the counsel of someone who is not naturally good at the politics of group meetings. I’m writing this because no one else has, and maybe it will inspire someone else to write something better.
1) Begin by thanking God for placing each of the other men in the room (Acts 20:28).
When you walk into a meeting, look at the faces around the room, and thank God for each of them. The Holy Spirit made them overseers, remember? He put them in the room. And who are you to defy his wisdom? Thank God for the sacrifices of time and energy they have made to be there and to serve the church. They might even be making financial sacrifices to be there. Praise the Lord!
2) Become an active listener (James 1:19).
Oh, this one is hard for me. I’m so quick to be convinced of my opinions. But determine to work hard at listening and understanding what the other brothers are saying. On a related note…
3) Give the benefit of the doubt.
I’m not sure I have a proof-text for this one. But you know what I mean. Assume good motives, even when you disagree. Assume also that their perspective might possess a better rationale than they are capable of articulating. Can you even help them state their point? On a related note…
4) Be convinced that there’s wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 11:14; 24:6).
I say “be convinced” because I know you know there is wisdom in many counselors, but we all forget it. Here’s the deal: I have difficulty thinking of a time in which a good idea was presented, and nobody in the room could improve it. Somebody always improves it, making the good better. Other brothers also expose the bad. Don’t you see God’s purposes of reminding us of our finitude in the wisdom of many counselors?
5) Look for ways to facilitate unity and understanding (Ps. 133:1; Eph. 4:3).
When I realized the problems with only speaking when I thought the elders were about to go off the rails, I decided to change my approach: be most interested in speaking to bring clarity or unity to the brothers. Maybe two brothers disagree, or are speaking past one another. Is there something I can say to facilitate unity and understanding between them? The focus moved from “Let my deep wells of wisdom save you fools” to “How can I promote peace and truth?”
6) Beware group think (Mark 7:8-9).
You want to promote unity, yes, but you also want to keep going back to Scripture, and making sure you are all in accord with Scripture. It is so easy to fall into patterns of thinking and traditions that subtly, silently take us away from Scripture. In fact, apart from constant recourse to Scripture, we will slip into either conservative fundamentalisms or liberal compromises.
7) Be shrewd (Matt. 10:16).
It is a good skill to learn how to persuade people, and frankly, it is a skill that I am not sure I have. But I know I need to learn it, especially for the sake of elder meetings. Can anyone help me? I’ve been told it has to do with knowing when to come at issues head on, and when to come at them from the side—understanding what makes other personalities tick and how to step around their personal landmines. Frankly, it requires paying attention to others and being conscientious, and if you are not naturally conscientious, it will be difficult. I think that’s probably my problem. Such conscientious shrewdness, ironically, can be an activity of love, at least if you are seeking to help others gain wisdom, assuming that wisdom is what you have to give.
8) Be courageous (Josh. 1:7).
God has made you an elder. The church has affirmed you. You are in that meeting for a reason. So stop fearing men, fear God, and be willing to speak and even make mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes. You’ll learn. When you do, stand up, and keep walking. Try not to make the same mistake again. And ask God for a thick chest.
9) Trust God!
Trusting God, finally, is the antidote to fear of man. Trust God that the fate of the church does not depend on any one meeting or decision. Trust God that the fate of the church does not depend upon any one church! Frankly, you can wreck your church (please don’t!) and Jesus will still come back to redeem his people and show his glory to the nations. Being confident of Jesus’ victory will help you to keep things in perspective. Your compass for when to push, and when to hold back, will be more accurate.
Jonathan Leeman is the editorial director of 9Marks and the author of Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus and Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus (Crossway, 2012).
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