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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

A Job Description for Lay Elders

You were humbled—and a little surprised—when the pastor asked you to serve as an elder. You prayed about it, talked to your wife, and got the input of a few trusted church members. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement you accepted the nomination, and a few weeks later you were voted into office.

Now you sit at your first elders’ meeting, waiting for things to start. And a nagging thought arises: “Okay, I am an elder. Now what do I do?”

WELL-INTENTIONED BUT ILL-INFORMED

Lay elders are often godly, well-intentioned men who love the Lord and serve the church faithfully. But they sometimes lack a well-rounded understanding of the biblical job description for elders. Unfortunately, we paid pastors often share in their confusion!

As a result, lay elders sometimes fill the gaps of their understanding with their own life experiences. They assume being an elder is roughly equivalent to serving on a board of trustees for a non-profit organization, or leading a company, or managing a project, or commanding a warship, or supervising sub-contractors. While aspects of those skills and experiences will prove useful, none of them adequately approximates the elder task.

So what is a lay elder’s job description? What are they supposed to do? Attend meetings? Approve budgets? Distribute communion?

SHEPHERD GOD’S FLOCK

Here’s the short answer from the apostle Peter: “I exhort the elders among you: shepherd God’s flock” (1 Pet. 5:2; see also Jn. 21:15-16 and Acts 20:28). Elders serve the Good Shepherd by providing his local flocks with spiritual oversight. Elders feed, lead, protect, and nurture church members like shepherds do with sheep.

Let’s get even more specific. While shepherding is a powerful metaphor for framing an elder’s job description, our new elder needs concrete instructions. He needs an answer to his question, “Now what do I do?” Fortunately, God’s Word lists very specific duties that help elders put the shepherding imagery to work.

FOUR PRIMARY DUTIES

Here are four duties that are central to the elder’s job description. While this list is not exhaustive, I believe if lay elders devoted themselves to these four things, they would excel as shepherds.

1. Teach

An elder must be “an able teacher” (1 Tim. 3:2; see 5:17). He must hold “to the faithful message as taught, so that he will be able both to encourage with sound teaching and refute those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). Jesus’ under-shepherds feed Jesus’ sheep with Jesus’ word.

If you’re an elder, find venues for teaching the Bible regularly. Teach a Sunday school class, lead a home group, give a lesson to the youth group, or study Scripture with a member over coffee. And if you’re offered a chance to preach, take it.

Further, tune in to the church’s overall teaching ministry. Keep a finger on the pulse of what’s being taught through congregational singing or in the Sunday school curriculum. Listen closely when members talk about what they’re reading and be alert for rotten food in their spiritual diet.

Finally, remember that teaching includes training others to perpetuate the church’s teaching ministry. As Paul said to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). So bring along an apprentice teacher whenever you can.

2. Lead

Just as shepherds lead their flocks, so elders lead local congregations. The biblical writers also call elders “overseers,” a title that highlights their role as leaders (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1; Tit. 1:5, 7). Hebrews instructs Christians to “obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account” (Heb. 13:17).

Elders, be brave and lead your church. Don’t hide among the baggage like King Saul. When you see challenges in your church, face them proactively and plot a course forward.

Courageous leadership might involve reaching out to a frustrated member who’s stopped attending, or confronting an unrepentant member through church discipline. Or it could mean wrestling through staffing strategies, budget challenges, or important policies that affect the spiritual identity of the congregation.

As you lead, don’t lose sight of the destination. The goal isn’t to lead a church to become an efficient organization, as important as that may be. Rather, elders should lead church members toward maturity in Christ. Jesus gave teaching shepherds to the church  “to build up the body of Christ until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Eph. 4:12-13).

Elders bring the flock to green pastures and still waters when they help members know Jesus more and increasingly reflect his glory together.

3. Model

Most importantly, elders lead by example. Shepherd the church “not [by] lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). Not surprisingly, the New Testament lists of elder qualifications focus predominantly on character (1 Tim. 3:1-7, Tit. 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). An elder’s most basic job is to say “Imitate me as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

The mandate to model maturity carries two critical implications. First, modeling means you must guard your godliness: “Pay close attention to your life and your teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). Continue to live close to the Lord, nurture your wife and children well, resist sin, and love people. Open your life to the loving accountability of the other elders. Modeling maturity is a team project.

That leads to a second implication: modeling requires elders to be among the people. It only works if people see you up close. So open your life to church members. Invite them into your home, your hobbies, and your ministry. People need a firsthand experience of how you handle stress, relate to your wife, respond to difficult people, and humbly admit when you blow it.

4. Pray

Finally, elders should take up the apostolic shepherding mantle and say, “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry” (Acts 6:4). Ultimately elders are powerless in themselves to mature anyone in Christ; only the Holy Spirit can do that through God’s Word. The sooner an elder realizes this, the sooner he will hit his knees and plead for a continual work of grace among church members, as well as in his own life.

So if you’re a lay elder (or a paid elder!), strive to be a man of prayer. Build regular prayer into your daily rhythms. Pray over your church’s membership rolls during the commute or while you’re walking the dog. Carve out time as an elder board for concerted prayer. And when you’re talking to a church member, be sure to stop and pray for her right then and there.

SHEPHERD LIKE JESUS

Maybe we could sum up an elder’s job description this way: shepherd the church members like Jesus shepherds his disciples.

Like Jesus, make teaching central to your ministry, and make Jesus and the gospel the primary content of your teaching. In every decision, lead your people toward knowing and trusting Jesus. Let them see the character of Jesus exemplified in your life. And just as Jesus often turned aside to pray, so you as an elder should join Jesus in interceding for his people.

The under-shepherds of Jesus are at their best when they reflect Jesus, the Chief Shepherd.

Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts.

November/December 2012
© 9Marks

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Topics: Leadership

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Jeramie:

Excellent, and spot on. But what about the corporate governance? It doesn't go away in a church. Sometimes it gets simpler but in many ways it is more complex. Do you have a separate board of Trustees that serve as the corporate board and officers? Or does the elder board do both duties? If so, how do they have time to do them both well? I can certainly see the error of missing spiritual leadership and not caring for the flock. But I can also see problems if you don't remit payroll taxes or call the building inspector back. Sure, if you have the staff they can handle that, but the board is ultimately responsible and shouldn't be out of the loop. Perhaps this is what the deacons are for?

Hi Guest!

Good question. I see elders as responsible for the affairs of the church, including corporate governance issues. However, elders may (and should) delegate work and projects to deacons or staff so that they might spend a majority of their energies shepherding the congregation. The story in Acts 6 is very helpful even though it does not directly mention elders. In general, the larger the congregation, the more elders need to delegate. My experience is that given a choice between spiritual oversight of people and church business matters (budgets, policies, facilities, etc) men tend to gravitate toward the latter. The struggle isn't getting elders to focus on logistics! Hence the emphasis in the article. But maybe my situation is unique... :)

Excellent, and spot on. But what about the corporate governance? It doesn't go away in a church. Sometimes it gets simpler but in many ways it is more complex. Do you have a separate board of Trustees that serve as the corporate board and officers? Or does the elder board do both duties? If so, how do they have time to do them both well? I can certainly see the error of missing spiritual leadership and not caring for the flock. But I can also see problems if you don't remit payroll taxes or call the building inspector back. Sure, if you have the staff they can handle that, but the board is ultimately responsible and shouldn't be out of the loop. Perhaps this is what the deacons are for?

Will these articles be available on the Spanish website?

Will these articles be available on the Spanish website?

My question is whether these lay elders are ordained or not? If not, is this previous article from IX Marks irrelevant now? - http://sites.silaspartners.com/cc/article/0,,PTID314526_CHID598014_CIID2301908,00.html

Caleb,
I think the answer is, yes. The Elders described in these articles are ordained, but are being called "lay."

Jeramie,

Thank you for the resource. I am always looking for opportunities to challenge, encourage, and equip our elders. I think you provide a great starting point for our men to understand how to provide God honoring leadership in His church.

Jerome,

I like the conclusions, but I wish your opening illustration were not true….although it is at times. On the topic, I think us brothers truly need to drop the “Lay” title when talking about non-staff Elders (aka non-staff Pastors). It automatically takes away from a plurality and communicates the staff guys are the real Elders. Calling them, Pastors would remove a two-level perspective.

A good test for this is to ask the staff pastors if they wouldn’t mind being called Lay Elders.
Just a thought.