Family Size: Lessons for Large and Small Elder Boards
I was an only child until age fifteen, when God blessed my parents with a daughter. As a family of four, our meals were quick and decisions were relatively easy. Not so with friends of mine who came from families of eight or more siblings. For them, bathroom time was coveted and possibly scheduled. Meals were a production rivaling a military mess hall. And their family vans looked like Noah’s Ark. The lesson was simple: the number of people living under one roof greatly influences the dynamics of how things get done in that family.
The same is true of elder boards. Elder dynamics vary considerably with the size of the board.
I have had the privilege of serving on both large and small elder boards: in one church we had over thirty elders; my current church has around seven. Whether you serve on a large or a small elder board, it is good to recognize the dynamics that vary with size.
FIVE LESSONS FOR LARGER ELDER BOARDS
Here are five lessons drawn from my experience for larger elder boards. By “larger” I have in mind elder boards of more than ten men.
1. Value Organization
First, value organization. Plan ahead with a thoughtful agenda that ranges from ministry oversight to doctrinal matters to member care. A large elder board is typically a response to the needs of a large church. Such a sizable ministry needs to be accounted for, which cannot be done haphazardly or spontaneously.
2. Delegate Decision-Making
Second, delegate decision-making. Does the entire elder board need to be involved in the decision to reduce the membership class from six sessions to four? Does the elder board as a whole need to approve every new small group? Arguably not. So mark out clearly delegated areas of responsibility and then let those assigned elders lead. This shows you trust your peers’ wisdom and are content to defer.
3. Appreciate the Moderator
Third, appreciate the moderator. The elder meeting moderator or chairman needs willing participants who both know their contribution is valued and exercise discretion. The goal is not to simulate a junior high lock-in and stay up all night. Feel free to contribute, but ask yourself what would be missed if your contribution was not shared.
4. Remember Where You Are
Fourth, remember where you are. All this talk of efficiency and delegation might tempt some of your elders to feel like they are in the boardroom at the office. They are not. They are under-shepherds of Christ’s church. Meaningful times of prayer, sobered accounting of the lives entrusted to you, and patient leadership of a congregation should be hallmarks of your elders’ meetings.
5. Regard Relationships
Fifth, regard relationships. The men you are seated with, praying for, and shepherding alongside are your brothers. You have a vision for how your sheep will relate to one another; practice that yourself. Yet elders’ meetings alone will probably not give you the chance to do that. So be intentional to privately pursue each other with your spouses, and plan group times where there is no agenda except to strengthen the bonds of partnership in the gospel. Ways to do this include an annual elders’ retreat, a Christmas party, a summer BBQ, or competing in a Tough Mudder.
FIVE LESSONS FOR SMALLER ELDER BOARDS
Next, here are five lessons for smaller elder boards. When I say “smaller” I’m thinking of the two- to ten-man range.
1. Prepare for Impact
First, prepare for impact: verbal impact. Smaller environments lend themselves to intimacy and free dialogue. However, this can come at the cost of inefficient and ultimately ineffective meetings. So review your church’s goals and intentionally move in that direction in your planning and ministry development. In other words, work to keep your meetings from going around in circles.
2. Realize Your Limitations
Second, realize your limitations. The size of your elder team can make you feel like Seal Team Six: small, capable, and efficient. While a smaller elder board certainly has its strengths, it can tempt you to take on more than you should in a single meeting. So prioritize and pace yourself. Ideas are usually not the problem. Eagerness to implement them rather impulsively can be.
3. Clarify Responsibility
Third, clarify responsibility. Because smaller elder boards are often engaged in so many discussions together and find their relationships with the sheep overlapping, it is not uncommon to assume one of the other elders is caring for a person or overseeing a ministry need. Meanwhile, other elders make the same assumption. So direct elders toward specific people and responsibilities accordingly.
4. Remember the Sheep
Relationships on small elder teams can grow close and personal. But this can come at the expense of remembering why you are there: to “shepherd the flock of God” (Acts 20:28). I have seen ministry teams grow so close together that if none of the people they were leading actually showed up at church, they might not have known. Make member care an important part of your meeting agenda.
5. Value Congregational Communication
Fifth, value congregational communication. Smaller leadership environments benefit from the time they afford for lengthy discussions and deliberate decisions. Yet the transition from deliberation to declaration needs to be thoughtful, clearly defined, and owned by every elder.
FIVE LESSONS FOR ALL ELDER BOARDS
Whether you are serving in a small church with a small elder board or a large church whose membership rivals the population of a small town, your work as an elder is equally important. The value of your work is not in the size of your ministry but in the charge given to you. A small flock has just as great a need of green pastures. It too needs protection from lurking wolves. With that in mind, here are five lessons for elder boards of all sizes:
1. Pray…for Real
First, pray…for real. Your time of prayer should not be a spiritual good-luck charm. Prioritize it. Purpose to pray for each other, individual members, and the church as a whole. Consider devoting entire meetings to prayer.
2. Remember Your Charge
Second, remember your charge. Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God. This involves teaching, discipling, counseling, confronting, and comforting. Use your meetings as a chance to remind each other of these things and equip each other in them. Spend some time looking into a passage together, reading a brief article, or discussing a chapter of a book that you are reading together.
3. Value Confidentiality
Third, value confidentiality. Pastoring members can be both encouraging and discouraging. Elders often deal with broken marriages, personal addictions, warring factions, and a host of other sins. This is part of your calling. Such information, though, can tempt one to gossip. Be sure to convert that impulse into a prayer for the gospel to transform those who are struggling with sin. Also, be discerning about what you share with your wife. Her love and care for you does not mean she needs to bear those full burdens too.
4. Be Patient
Fourth, be patient. Help your fellow elders transition from a business environment to a church environment. The Lord’s work is not the same as your work. “Efficiency” and “expediency” can conflict with the patient, gentle work of shepherding people in local churches. Remember it is always easier to make a decision in a room of likeminded men than it is to lead the entire church through the change that such a decision will bring.
5. Let the Members Minister
Fifth and finally, let the members minister. You equipped the people; now let them do what you have taught them to do: minister to each other. Too many churches’ elder boards exhaust themselves feeling the need to inquire about, approve, and manage all the ministry their members do. Doing so stunts ministry capacity. Instead, teach your people of their ability to minister in a real and valuable way to one another.
A GREAT PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY
Elders, the Holy Spirit has made you overseers in the church (Acts 20:28). This is a great privilege and responsibility. Pray that God would use your investment of time and gifts to make an impact into eternity. For it is in heaven that the ultimate family reunion will eventually take place.
Recommended Resource: Meetings That Work: A Guide to Effective Elders' Meetings, by Alexander Strauch. For a condensed summary download this pdf.