Advice for a New Elder
Our church recently recognized a brother named Mark to serve as an elder. To welcome him, I reached out to a few dozen friends who serve as elders at other churches and asked them to send me advice they would give to a new elder. Here’s the summary of what they would say to a young man who is stepping in as a new overseer.
1 Samuel 12:23 “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you . ..”
Self-sufficiency will be your most persistent temptation. Trust in the Lord is cultivated through prayer. Pray for yourself. Pray for your family. Pray for the church. Pray with and for the other elders. Pray, and then pray some more.
2. Learn to listen.
James 1:19 “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger . . .”
This was by far the most often repeated advice you were given. As a new elder you will likely feel the pressure to “prove yourself.” Don’t fall into this trap. Jesus has called you to serve and the church has recognized this calling. Listen to the other elders, especially those who have served for a long time. During meetings, listen to how the conversations progress and keep your input succinct. Listen to the congregation. Be among them and ask questions. We learn most when we listen, so listen twice as much as you speak.
3. Learn to speak.
Proverbs 25:11 “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
Some brothers feel intimidated as a new elder and want to avoid being viewed as pushy or prideful. Jesus has called you to serve in this office and the congregation has recognized that. The Lord has given you a unique perspective that, after you have listened, should be shared if it will be profitable to the conversation.
4. Trust the wisdom of your fellow elders.
Proverbs 11:14 “In an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
You must trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding each of your fellow elders. Because of this, you should expect to be edified, encouraged, and challenged by them. Learn to be patient and see how the Spirit works through them. As you humbly serve along side these men, you will be amazed to see how the Lord uses each of your unique giftings and perspectives to lead and love the congregation.
5. Be willing to lose votes.
Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
There are hills to die on, but you must choose them wisely. It is wise and humble to defer to other brothers. This can be difficult when you have a strong opinion about something, but you must trust that God may be leading the church in a direction you can’t see. When you feel you’re not being heard, pause and pray silently. You must learn to trust the other brothers with whom you serve. I can’t tell you how many times God has saved our church from my dumb ideas through the other elders I serve with. If it is an issue you deem as essential, it may end up in you resigning, but don’t act ungodly and immature by threatening your resignation or stirring up division.
6. Beware of the fear of man.
Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”
Fearing others’ opinions can keep you from saying things you should say. It can also tempt you to say things you should not say. Remember that you live to please the Lord, not everyone else. Do not try to impress others. Do not hold back needed words of confrontation. Speak, serve, and love people as unto the Lord—this will keep you safe.
7. Don’t compare yourself to the other elders.
Romans 12:3 “Think with sober judgment . . . according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
The Holy Spirit has gifted each of us uniquely. Don’t get drawn into fleshly comparisons or competitions with other brothers. You are a fellow servant of the King called to serve alongside brothers who are gifted similarly and differently than you. Rejoice in the gifts he has given them and be content in what he has given you.
8. Build friendships with other elders.
Proverbs 17:17 “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
You and the other elders are fighting together against the gates of hell. You need each other. And though you won’t be best friends with every elder, you should pursue personal time with them. Do breakfasts, lunches, or double dates together. Spend time with them, especially with ones you don’t “click with.” Do all you can to be a “Barnabas” for the other brothers; they will need your encouragement. Be the friend you desire others to be for you (Matthew 7:12). The relationships you build with your fellow brothers will sustain you in the mist of battle.
9. Speak well of other elders and church members.
James 4:11, 5:9 “Do not speak against one another. . . . Do not grumble against one another, brothers and sisters.”
You can always find reasons to speak complaints against other people. You will almost always do well to hold your tongue. Look for evidences of grace in other people and be sure to highlight those in your conversations. There certainly will be time for critique and rebuke, but speaking well of others will glorify God and allow people to trust you as a peacemaker.
10. Be accountable to another elder.
1 Timothy 3:2 “An overseer must be above reproach . . .”
As Robert Murray M’Cheyne once told a fellow pastor, “What your congregation needs most from you is your personal holiness.” Your office as an overseer is dependent upon your personal holiness. And as you well know, holiness doesn’t just happen. It must be fought for. You won’t ever be a perfect man, but you must war against sin. And sin prospers in isolation. Having another elder with whom you are accountable is essential to enduring in ministry. To read more about being accountable, see this article.
11. Make your family your primary ministry.
1 Timothy 3:4-5 “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”
If you are single, oversee your own life in all areas of purity and dignity. If you are married, your family is your first flock. Ensure you cultivate time with your wife. Guard your date night with her. Shield her from information that will stir her frustration toward other members or elders.
Love your children. Don’t disciple the church but neglect discipling your children. This will tempt them to hate the church that gets from you what they most desperately need from you. Remember, your church can always get another elder, but your family can’t get another husband or father. Guard their hearts; they are your first flock.
12. Love the church.
John 15:12 “Love one another, just as I have loved you.”
Jesus shed his blood for the church you shepherd. That’s how much he loves them. He has called you to show them the same kind of love. We are servants of the flock who lay down our rights so the church can see Christ in us. Love them in what you say by telling them the truth. Love them in how you say it by being gentle and tender. Love them by chasing off wolves that seek to do them harm.
This kind of patient, careful love will be difficult at times. You will be tempted toward bitterness at times. People will sin in ways that both irritate you and break your heart. People will resist your counsel at times. This is why the cross must be central in your shepherding. As you are reminded of how Christ loved you, you will find strength to love the flock on his behalf.
13. Develop thick skin.
Psalm 109:4 “In return for my love they accuse me, but I give myself to prayer.”
If you are going to endure as an elder, you must learn to not be easily offended. People will say very harsh things to you. People will misunderstand what you say. People will be upset by your tone, despite the fact that you tried hard to speak gently. You must ask God to help you remember, “whoever covers an offense seeks love” (Proverbs 17:9) and that “love endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Ask God to help you not be overly sensitive to criticism, but to develop a thick skin that will allow your heart to remain soft toward the chuch.
14. Cast burdens on the Lord.
1 Peter 5:6-7 “Humble yourselves . . . casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of his “daily . . . anxiety for all the churches.” You won’t have lots of churches to worry about, but the anxiety you face from your church will prove to be enough. You will hear heartbreaking stories. Tragedies will blindside you. You’ll be called to bear people’s burdens. Breaking marriages will weigh on your mind. Worry over wandering sheep will keep you up at night. You’ll hold the hand of suffering saints. People will slander you. People will misunderstand you. People will take your work for granted. But the good news is that Jesus cares for you and calls you to cast your burdens upon his everlasting arms. Do not carry your anxieties by yourself, bring them to the Lord—he will sustain you.
15. Allow your inadequacy to become your strength.
2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
You will regularly find yourself in situations where you won’t know what to do. People will look to you for wisdom, but you won’t feel like you have it. Your ability to bear the broken lives of those you shepherd will bottom out at some point. Your inadequacy is an opportunity for Jesus to be magnified. Plead with him for wisdom, strength, and the grace you will need to serve as a weak man.
16. Stretch yourself.
1 Timothy 4:15 “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.”
Study theological subjects that you are not familiar with. Be willing to do things that are uncomfortable like preaching, teaching, praying publicly, counseling, and whatever else might bless the church. Don’t just coast in your position, but continually strive to be sharpened and stretched.
17. Read your Bible.
Joshua 1:8 “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.”
You must be a man of the Word. You need the Word of God to feed your own soul, and you need to know God’s Word to feed and defend the souls of the sheep. If you neglect consistent devotion with God through his Word, you will lean on your own understanding and certainly do spiritual harm to yourself and others. Your shepherding flows from your abiding union with Christ, which flows from abiding in his Word (John 15:7-8).
You’ve already forgotten how much you need to pray. Abide in Jesus and draw strength from him. Pray, and then pray some more.
Scriptures to meditate on regularly:
1 Timothy 3:1-7
You really would do well to read 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus in full each month
1 Peter 5:1-8
Books recommended for new elders:
Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus – Jeramie Rinne
Elders in the Life of the Church – Matt Schmucker & Phil Newton
Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons – Thabiti Anyabwile
They Smell Like Sheep – Lynn Anderson