In many churches, the elders aren’t really the leaders. But they should be.
ELDERS WHO AREN’T LEADING
Scenario one: The elders are viewed as more of an advisory board. They’re trustees, not teachers. They exercise some responsibility over policies, personnel, and programs, but the only real leader is the senior pastor.
Scenario two: The elders don’t really lead the church because the staff have taken over that role. The staff run all the programs. The staff are most people’s point of contact in the church. If you have a question or problem, you’ll turn to the youth leader or women’s ministry director or discipleship coordinator.
Scenario three: At the other end of the spectrum, these theologically minded elders shy away from anything that remotely resembles administration. Patterning their ministry on the apparent division of labor in Acts 6, the elders devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer and leave everything else to deacons and other church members, from the church budget, to the contents of the worship service, to the selection of books in the bookstore.
In the first two scenarios, the elders need to grow into their role as shepherds (1 Pet. 5:2) and ministers of the Word (1 Tim. 3:2).
The elders in the third scenario are much closer to the mark, but I would suggest that there are some ways in which they’re still failing to truly lead.
ELDERS ARE LEADERS AND OVERSEERS
What does the Bible say about elders’ leadership?
- 1 Timothy 5:17 (NIV) says, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” The Greek term behind “direct the affairs” is proistemi, which has two basic meanings: (i) to exercise leadership, and (ii) to care for someone or something. The first is clearly in view here. The elders exercise leadership over the whole church. In other translations they “rule” or “are leaders.”
- This word also shows up in 1 Timothy 3:4 and 12, where Paul says that both elders and deacons must manage their households well. Managing a household involves comprehensive oversight, including making decisions, teaching, training children, setting a godly example, and competently managing finances. That this kind of leadership is a prerequisite for being an elder suggests that “administration” as such is not beyond the pale of elders’ responsibilities.
- Further, another common term for “elder” in the New Testament is “overseer” (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-2; Tit. 1:7). This Greek noun (episkopos) and its cognate verb imply the assumption of responsibility and care. Care for what? The church and its affairs.
Therefore, what can look like delegation of administration may in fact be abdication of leadership.
- What about Acts 6? True, the apostles devote themselves to the Word and prayer and refuse to allow administration to usurp those priorities (Acts 6:1-7). But that’s just the point—they don’t allow administration to usurp those priorities. So, they exercise their leadership to come up with a solution that serves the church. They don’t just say, “Distribution of food? That’s not our job!”
Taken together, these New Testament passages clearly teach that the elders have a general responsibility to lead and oversee the affairs of the church. That’s a broad, all-embracing responsibility. Given their primary focus on teaching and attending to the spiritual needs of the flock, elders shouldn’t allow administration to swamp those priorities. Yet on the other hand, they shouldn’t abdicate leadership either.
In general, the extent of their involvement will vary depending on how closely the matter at hand relates to the ministry of the Word and spiritual oversight.
PRACTICAL APPLCATION: TEACHING, WORSHIP, BOOKSTALL, BUDGET
What does this mean practically?
Preaching and teaching: The elders will likely do the majority of it, and they will exercise very close oversight over other teachers who contribute. The elders should also exercise oversight over the content that is taught in every area of the church’s life, from small groups to children’s ministry to evangelistic outreaches. This doesn’t mean the elders need to do all the teaching. But it does mean that the elders as a whole have a special responsibility for everything that is taught.
Corporate worship: The elders are finally responsible for the contents, since corporate worship is a ministry of the Word. A non-elder should not have full and final authority over what songs the church sings. The elders may decide to delegate much of the work to, for example, a theologically sound and musically gifted deacon, but it should be clear to all involved—including the congregation—that the elders are responsible for the contents of corporate worship.
Bookstall: The elders should have the say over what books are and aren’t included. After all, recommending books is an extension of the ministry of the Word. They may assign one elder or a theologically discerning deacon to manage the store, and perhaps do most of the legwork for selecting titles. But the elders should have veto power over what books are sold.
The church budget: This is trickier territory. On the one hand, the elders should work not to get bogged down in endless details. So it makes good sense to farm out much of the legwork to one or more deacons, or the treasurer, or other godly and trustworthy individuals in the church.
On the other hand, the elders should set the overall direction for the budget, since it reflects and embodies the church’s ministry priorities. So the elders should lead the church in considering how much money to give to missions, how much and what kind of staff should serve the church, what local evangelistic ministries to partner with and to what extent, and so on.
Also, it takes godliness and maturity to ensure that pastors are paid enough (1 Tim. 5:17; Gal. 6:6). Not every budget committee obeys Scripture’s clear command to provide for our pastors’ needs.
Thus, the elders should handle the aspects of budgeting that most directly relate to spiritual oversight and the ministry priorities which flow from the Word. And they should gladly delegate much of the plumbing work to other godly church members, who perhaps work together with a small subset of fiscally wise elders.
Of course this is a difficult balance to strike in practice. But my main point is that it should be the elders, not the deacons, or treasurer, or some political cabal, who are “in charge of” putting together the budget. As every leader knows, delegation is essential to leadership. Leading doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. But the budget should be, and should be seen to be, a matter in which the elders lead and exercise substantial authority.
My basic point in all this is that the elders should lead the church. This leadership flows from teaching the Word, setting a godly example, and attending to the spiritual state of the flock. But it also flows into all kinds of practical matters as those matters intersect with the church’s theological vision.