How to Examine Qualifications in Elder Candidates
I was sixteen years old at my first job interview. I sat across the table from the McDonald’s manager, awkwardly eating my free meal which I had shamelessly accepted. He struggled to find questions to ask as I stared at him, putting yet another golden French fry in my mouth.
“What’s your work experience?” “One week at a carnival.” “Are you pretty good about showing up on time?” “No, but I think I could be.” “How would your friends describe you? “I play basketball and am a pretty nice guy.”
He hired me on the spot.
I’ve often thought job interviews are mostly pointless. What can I possibly find out about an individual in 30 minutes?
Okay, so what about elder interviews? Are they also pointless? Can I sit down with a man and interview him on 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and have any clue as to whether or not he’s qualified? If not, how can we be confident that a man makes the cut?
As a local church, we have an advantage McDonald’s didn’t have—we spend time with people. We spend years with them. We watch them. We pray for them. We weep with them. We rejoice with them. And, over time, we know them.
I remember Mark Dever’s first piece of advice to me when we were starting out as a local church. He said, “Discover elders in your church who are already eldering.”
That was mind-blowing. Instead of “making a guy,” I began looking for the guy God had made.
I discovered that examining a man is best done life-on-life. For example, if an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), then I should watch how he makes disciples with one-to-one Bible teaching. If a Christian man is to love and lead his wife into a beautiful relationship with God and himself (Eph. 5:25–33), then I should watch his marriage (1 Tim. 3:4). I should be able to observe that he’s not quick-tempered even as stressful situations come his way (Titus 1:7). I should be able to hear about his hospitality with church members flowing in and out of his home (Titus 1:8).
The qualifications of an elder are so deeply woven into a man’s actual life that they must be assessed over time, which includes not just what he says but what we can observe of his actual life.
With that said, after months (or years) of reading books together, discussing theology, praying together, and mutually enjoying one another’s company, there comes a time when I and the other elders of my church believe a man is qualified. At that point, we begin a “formal” process of evaluation. It consists of four steps.
1. READ ‘ELDERS AND DEACONS’
As a first step, I give the man Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile. I ask him to evaluate himself on each qualification. I then take him to lunch and walk through his own self-assessment.
The candidate often assesses himself more strictly than I would. When I first read through the book with Eric, our current chairman of the elders, Eric was humbly convicted by each line, and the thought of being elder-qualified left him feeling utterly inadequate. His tender conscience wasn’t a sign of disqualification, but rather insecurity. Eric needed time to realize God’s grace was evident in his life and that he was truly qualified.
Elders aren’t perfect, but they can be qualified—they must be qualified. This self-examination step is often refreshing and brings to light various weaknesses or insecurities which I may have never seen.
2. COMPLETE ELDER-ASSESSMENT QUESTIONNAIRE
When our elders are convinced we ought to move forward with a candidate, we ask the man to fill out a questionnaire. Ten pages of questions are emailed to the candidate, which usually ends up as a 30-60 page document once completed.
The questionnaire begins with personal references from family members and mentors. We ask for two references from a non-Christian coworker and neighbor. We call each one of these references, and they are always a joy to have. I remember calling Mike Roach’s coworker and ending the conversation incredibly encouraged. Mike’s public testimony had spoken highly of Jesus. His coworker was not surprised that Mike was being considered as a pastor. This helped to confirm that Mike was indeed a qualified elder. (“He must be well thought of by outsiders,” 1 Tim. 3:7.)
We also ask questions on personal practices such as confession of sin, use of pornography, habitual or disqualifying sin, and personal accountability. The document continues with questions on doctrinal convictions and pastoral theology. We include questions about personal integrity in finances, alcohol, food, and other substances. We ask for the man’s testimony and for a brief essay from the man’s wife, if applicable (about him, not her). The questionnaire closes with a series of pastoral case studies, so that we can observe his wisdom in handling different cases.
While this is a bulky and time-consuming step, it is invaluable. The questionnaire highlights the man’s own determination. His ability to follow through with the document itself says something. At times, it exposes stuff that may have never come up. Often, it serves to encourage us, leaving us with greater confidence that this is God’s man for this church.
3. EXAMINE PRIVATELY
Once our elders have sufficiently agreed we would like to nominate the man to the church, we have one final step: a private examination. This feels like a traditional Baptist “ordination council” in some ways, but it is different. A few years ago, I agreed to sit on an ordination council for a man I hardly knew. The elders of his church had already determined they wanted him to be a pastor. The council was a good grilling, but ultimately insufficient. I didn’t feel I could make a recommendation. Ordination councils may have their place (don’t stop reading if that is your tradition), but too often, they feel like a mere formality.
Our private examination, on the other hand, feels weighty yet genuine and personal. We know the guy. We are not merely a council; we are his pastors. This is a conversation among brothers about his theology, personal life, and experience. Some of the most sensitive topics you can imagine are engaged and carefully dealt with. The examination usually lasts two to three hours (and includes food). We ask hot-button questions and re-ask certain questions from the questionnaire.
We seek to examine his personal life: “Is there any sin in your life which, if known, would bring shame on him, the church, and the reputation of Christ?” We seek to examine his theology. I often hand him our doctrinal statement, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and T4G’s Affirmation and Denials (all of which he would have previously read). I ask if there are any points of known reservation. We examine his family life: “Describe your practice of family worship.”
The meeting can feel nerve-wracking for the man, and that’s not our goal. It’s important for us to begin and end with prayer and words of encouragement. It’s not our job to intimidate, but instead to love him and the church well through this step.
4. EXAMINE PUBLICLY
Finally, the elders nominate the man to the congregation at a members’ meeting. Once nominated, we schedule a public examination. This usually takes place on a Wednesday night. We even promote it on social media so that the “outsider” may have an opportunity to see it and attend. If the man has a bad reputation we don’t know about, it’s our goal to find out.
The public examination feels like a Q&A. I sit on a stool next to him and introduce the candidate, along with the main idea behind the meeting. My opening remarks seek to guide the conversation since questions too easily turn to his pet-concerns to visionary inquiry. I don’t want the meeting to turn into a “presidential town hall” asking for his “first 90-day plans” or his vision to increase discipleship in the church.
There can be room for ministry questions and his vision for the church but the main idea is to examine him based on 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. We print those passages on a handout and highlight each qualification. I will then pray and ask him to share his testimony. After that, the floor is open.
In summary, find the men in your church who are already eldering. Get to know them and, as you do, keep 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 in mind. Once you’re reasonably confident as outlined above.
We may make mistakes at times in elder selection. We probably will. But we can trust God’s qualifications for elders, and we can do our best to recognize the elders who God has raised up for his church.
For more on elder candidates, read: Assessment Questions for New Elder Candidates