How Much Time Can a Lay Elder Give to Ministry?
Serving as a lay elder is an awesome privilege and responsibility. As my good friend Ryan Townsend says, it’s “glorious hard work.” It also can create serious challenges for managing time well, since a lay elder also has a full-time job and (usually) a family. What I want to do in this article is briefly outline how much time a lay elder should expect to spend in shepherding his congregation.
TIME CRUNCH: JOB AND ELDERING
One of the greatest challenges of serving as a lay elder is that you live with a permanent tension between your job and your ministry in the church. Unlike a full-time staff elder, spending time as an elder normally can come at a cost of spending time at your job. And, while there may be some overlap between these roles, as a lay elder you’ll need to exercise wisdom in how you allocate your time.
Let me give you a simple example of this. If I have a lunch slot open, I can use it to network with another business owner or to get to know a new member at my church. While there is some ministry value in reaching out to another business owner, it’s primarily a networking lunch. Likewise, while there may be some “professional” value in getting to know a church member, this lunch is primarily a discipling lunch.
These types of tradeoffs also occur also the macro level. For example, while a staff elder’s schedule is driven primarily by what’s happening in the church, a lay elder’s schedule is largely driven by what’s happening outside it. And so scheduling by the week and even over seasons can require a more complex set of calculations.
This tension can sneak up on a lay elder. And it can lead a lay elder to feel frustrated that he can’t do more at church, or even grow discouraged that he’s not having more professional success at work. My advice is for lay elders to think realistically on the front end about where they are personally in their marriage and family, and professionally in their jobs, and to make overall time allocation decisions about eldering based on these two factors.
I’ve seen lay elders at my church make wise decisions which have led in each direction: One brother stepped down as an elder because he needed to spend more time at work in order to pursue becoming a partner in his firm. He did this in conversation with and with the blessing of our elders. Another brother was able to double-down his efforts as an elder when he lost his job, only to scale back his time eldering once he was back in a busy job.
The bottom line: while serving as a lay elder is in many ways similar to serving as a full-time staff elder, one area where it’s drastically different is the overall amount of time that you can realistically spend on ministry. So recognize this going in and order your days accordingly.
FACTORS THAT CAN MAKE THINGS CRUNCHIER
A lay elder’s responsibilities to his job, family, and church create a time crunch. But there are some factors in the life of a church that can make things even crunchier.
First, the size of a church. Often, the smaller the church, the more time a lay elder should expect to give. Why? In part because members of smaller churches tend to expect more personal time from their pastors or elders. Also, growing churches normally grow in the number of full-time elders. As a result, some of the work can now be handed off to full-time elders. One example of this at my church is budgeting. What was once handled largely by volunteers, including lay elders, is now driven primarily by an associate pastor. In our case this is a good thing, as it coincides with how complicated our budget has become.
But a growing church can also make more demands on a lay elder’s time. Quite simply, there are more sheep to care for, including ones who are hurting and wounded.
Second, the stage of a church. As a general rule, a church plant or church revitalization will require more time from a lay elder. Why? In the early stages of a church, big, direction-setting decisions are being made. When a church has been healthy for many years, there are fewer plate-shifting decisions that need to be made, fewer painstakingly-worded documents that need to be created.
Finally, regardless of size or stage, a church experiencing any sort of crisis will require more from a lay elder. Typically crises require more Bible study, prayer, elders’ meetings, and private conversations than normal. This is only to be expected as crises require special wisdom and discernment.
DUTIES OF A LAY ELDER
Now that we’ve considered a few factors that shape how much time a lay elder can give, let’s consider the general shape of what a lay elder will do. If you are considering serving as a lay elder, what should you expect to do?
First, expect to teach publicly (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:9). At our church, this means:
- Teaching Core Seminars (our version of Sunday School);
- Giving an occasional Sunday evening message (a 15-minute devotional);
- Occasionally providing specific, topical teaching. Our elders give talks when they see a particular topic that the congregation can benefit from, such as “How to Honor a Difficult Parent” or an annual talk for single men on dating, marriage, and sexual purity.
- Additionally, in our church only the elders teach the membership classes.
2. Discipling and Hospitality
Expect to disciple others. This means you’ll be in a few regular one-on-one discipling relationships, and that you’ll possibly lead a small group.
Since an elder must be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2), part of your eldering work will mean showing hospitality to others. Often this means having church members, newcomers, and other guests into your home. Some seasons of life might require you to show hospitality in other ways.
Expect to counsel people through difficult circumstances and through habitual sin patterns. A big part of shepherding is walking through life with people whose lives have been affected by their sin or the sin of others. These messy situations can take up a lot of time, but it’s glorious to see the power of the gospel at work in people’s lives.
Additionally, as an elder, people are more likely to seek you out when they face bigger life questions. For example, they’d like wisdom for questions about pursuing marriage, changing jobs, or switching churches. You are going to be a natural go-to for these types of questions.
These three initial responsibilities are in essence the “organic” parts of serving as an elder. They should be similar to what you were doing before you were an elder and are things you will likely continue to do even if you’re no longer an elder in the future. However, the public nature of eldering means these organic parts of the job will increase if and when you are formally recognized by the congregation as an elder. You may find more young men asking to spend time with you, or more young women asking you and your wife for relational advice.
These next three are new responsibilities that may come with the office, depending on how your eldership is organized.
4. Elders’ Meetings
Our church has an elders’ meeting about one every three weeks (so, 17 per year). They last from about 7 to 11 p.m. In addition to the four-hour meeting, I set aside another two to six hours of prep time (and possibly longer if there is a thorny issue) to read and study, prepare a memo, or discuss an issue with others.
We also have some “mini-meetings” in which we meet as elders for one hour before a members’ meeting and at other times if we need to address a specific issue. So, to be safe, a lay elder at our church should budget ten hours every third week for the regularly scheduled elders’ meeting. Obviously the time commitment will vary church to church, but in many churches the elders’ meeting will require a substantial commitment of time from lay elders, especially since they will not be able to use time during the workday to prepare the way staff elders can.
Our elders have organized a few sub-committees to oversee specific areas such as compensation, outreach, and administration. These committees are like special forces in which some elders think more carefully about an issue before bringing it to the whole board of elders. None of these are required, but depending on your personal and professional expertise, you will likely be called into duty for at least one of them.
6. Extra Credit
A final category to be aware of is what I’m calling “extra credit” responsibilities. What I mean by this is that because you are an elder in the church, you’ll now have a higher public profile than you did before. This isn’t a matter of lording it over anyone or promoting yourself; it’s just a fact of being a leader in the church. Your increased visibility is a stewardship to be embraced—it’s part of how God means for you to lead the church. Practically, it means you will likely be invited to more weddings and asked to participate in other events.
These can be wonderful opportunities to serve, but remember that they are not part of the “required” job description, but are more like extra credit. This means that they should be the last things on this list that you agree to do. If you are feeling stretched in shepherding your family and your church while also serving faithfully in your workplace, don’t feel guilty if you have to say no to these things.
I’ve taken you through some of what it means to be a lay elder in the local church I serve. It’s going to be different from church to church, and circumstance to circumstance. But, big picture, as a lay elder you might expect to spend up to 10 to 15 hours per week teaching, discipling, counseling, and prepping for and attending elders’ meeting.
If you are considering serving as an elder in your church, discuss your schedule with the current elders and learn their expectations for lay elders’ ministry involvement. Further, lay elders need to be wise in what they can handle at various stages of their lives.
Serving as an elder shouldn’t be an ambition we should have because we want a notch in our belts, a trophy on our mantles, or a success on our resumes. Instead it should be a godly ambition born out of a desire to serve the sheep in our care.
So, if you desire to serve as an elder for the right reasons but can’t during a specific season, there is no reason to feel guilty about this. God has given you other callings for a season to pursue faithfully.
But remember that Paul calls this a “noble task” (1 Tim. 3:1). If you are qualified and your schedule permits, then throw yourself into eldering. Our churches need qualified men who are willing to pour themselves into the lives of others for their spiritual good.