How To Have Elders Without Actually Having Elders
Many young men are leaving seminary to pastor their first churches. They’re full of excitement and vigor, having learned from the value of qualified elders in a local church. Unfortunately, time and time again, these young men find themselves in churches with no knowledge of or even some antipathy toward the idea of elders.
In these cases, what should you do? Should you abandon what you know? If not, how can you be true to Scripture? Well, here’s one way—I’ll just speak from experience.
I first heard about elders in California in January 1974. That month, I put all my belongings in my Ford, left the Deep South, and moved to Hollywood (actually Burbank) where I joined Central Baptist Church. I look back now on that first Sunday as a life-altering moment. For on that same Sunday morning, the new Associate Pastor Cliff Howery and his wife Nancy also became members of the church.
Cliff became a dear brother and mentor to me, as well as preceding me in the church I would go on to pastor for 32 years. But for the purposes of this article, he was the first person to mention elders to me. I had no idea what they were or what they did. Cliff handed me a copy of a small paperback book titled When All Else Fails, Read the Directions, written by Bob Smith, a pastor at Peninsula Bible Church in San Jose. That book had a profound effect on my thinking about church and the biblical way of doing things.
I also learned about elders from John MacArthur and Grace Community Church. I attended there from time to time on Sunday nights and also took one class at the Logos Bible Institute. This deepened my understanding of elders and the importance of a plurality of leaders in a local church.
Needless to say, by the time I went to seminary three years later, I was firmly convinced of the need for biblically qualified elders in a local church. This is why I found it so odd that at seminary the subject of elders hardly ever came up—and when I brought it up, I was often directed away from the subject.
But thankfully, during those seminary days, my pastor Paul Burleson talked about elders. In fact, it was from him that the first seeds of this article were planted. Why? Because Paul encouraged the idea of having elders . . . even when the church doesn’t have elders.
This idea stuck with me when I graduated and moved to my first church, a county seat Baptist church in northeast Mississippi. On the subject of elders, reality set in quickly. If I wanted to transition the church toward being elder-led, then I knew I faced a long, uphill struggle, if not outright war. So I did what my old pastor suggested. I had elders without having elders. Let me explain.
WHAT DO I MEAN?
I began to pray and look for men in the church whom I believed met the biblical qualifications for elders. Three men soon stood out—and so, for the rest of my time as their pastor, I used Grayden, C. D. and James as my elders. No, I never told them they were elders; I just treated them that way. No, I never had an “elders meeting” with them all together, not that this would have been a bad idea; I just never made a significant decision without going to them for spiritual counsel.
I remember one instance when I wanted to do something rather brash concerning a cantankerous member of the church. Each of those men wisely and gently said, “Whoa, boy.” They helped me slow down and because of them I gained a more godly perspective on the situation. I’m forever indebted to the Lord for his provision of those “elders.”
In my next church, I took the same approach. And in my third and final church, I followed Cliff Howery (yes, the same guy from Burbank) as pastor. Thankfully, he’d already begun to lay the groundwork for an elder-led church. Shortly after I became pastor, the church voted almost unanimously to move to an elder-led polity.
What a joy it was to minister alongside those godly men for more than 30 years!
WHAT WOULD I CHANGE?
As I look back from the benefit of three decades in an elder-led church, I think about those early days where I had my “secret” elders and wonder what I would have done differently. More than anything else, I should have told them that they were my “elders.” I should have met with them as a group. One of the great blessings of having biblical elders is the synergistic wisdom of the group. Indeed, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A plurality is always better than a singularity.
I also wish I’d shared the load of ministry with them. I should have encouraged them to visit the sick, care for the troubled, and teach the flock at every opportunity. Generally speaking, when you notice a man who’s truly qualified for ministry, he’s already shepherding the flock, even without being asked. Countless times over these 30 years I’ve been on my way to help someone and learned that a certain elder or elders had beaten me to it.
On somewhat of a side-note, don’t get hung up on the term elders. Call them shepherds, overseers, or leaders. All these terms are biblical. Choose the title that best suits your context, but make sure it’s biblical. That way, your defense of the practice is always tied to the Word of God.
1. Take your time.
Don’t be in a rush to “appoint” someone as an elder, even if it’s just in your mind. Ask God to give you clear discernment as you get to know your flock. “The cream will rise to the top” is true in church matters also. Let God lead you in his timing.
2. Invest time.
Spend time with these men. Get to know their hearts, and let them know yours. Be transparent. Encourage them to have the freedom to speak directly with you at any time. Listen to what they say. In every way, treat them as equals in ministry.
3. Request their feedback more than you think you need to.
Always, always, always seek their wisdom and counsel on significant matters, even when the right answer seems obvious to you. You may be right. It might be obvious. But there might also be hidden minefields they can help you avoid.
Remember, young pastor, God wants his church to have biblically qualified elders more than you do. He has probably already prepared them. Look for signs of the Lord’s preparation, and use them. Don’t refuse a church solely because it’s presently not open to the idea of elders. You can begin to practice a version of biblical polity with full integrity, even if it persists under the radar for a season.