Raising Up Elders: Four Foundational Principles
The first time we sat down to talk, his life was a mess. His marriage was hanging by a thread, he was struggling with porn, and he was in a dead end job. If you would have told me that five years later, this man would be one of my best friends and a fellow elder in our church, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Thankfully, the Lord did abundantly more than I could have asked or imagined.
Finding faithful elders is an essential part of building a healthy church. Without godly pastors to lead, feed, and protect the flock, the congregation will suffer. But how do we raise up new elders? Is there a special potion we can put in the water to make them magically appear? Should we just sit back and wait for godly, theologically trained men to come knocking on our office door?
FOUNDATIONS FOR RAISING UP ELDERS
I believe God’s Word provides principles that can help identify and train men to oversee Christ’s church. Here are four.
1. Remember that Jesus gives elders as gifts to the church.
In a very real sense, we do not make elders, Jesus gives them.
Ephesians 4:11-12 says that Jesus “gave…shepherds…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up the body of Christ.” Jesus builds up his flock by giving them qualified men who will lead them into maturity.
Similarly, Acts 20:28 points out that elders are men whom “the Holy Spirit has made…overseers to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Jesus, who shed his blood to purchase the church, then gives his bride elders to care for her.
So when you look for elders, remember what you are looking for. You are looking for gifts—men whom Christ raises up though his Spirit to love, instruct, and defend his beloved bride.
Practically, this means you do not need to feel the pressure of forcing an outcome, like King Saul who often pursued an unfaithful path due to fear or social pressure (e.g. 1 Sam. 15). Instead, you can be patient, trusting God to provide what your church needs. God may not always give us what we want when we want it, but he will always give us what we need when we need it. Trust him to provide the gift of faithful men to lead his church.
2. Prayerfully ask God to help you see whom he is raising up.
When Samuel went looking for the man God was raising up as king, he was tempted to look at the wrong criteria. We often do the same when trying to identify elders. First Samuel 16:6-7 recounts:
He looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Many times the men we least expect wind up being the Lord’s choicest servants, while those we expect will be mighty in his kingdom prove to be less useful. To guard yourself from missing God’s man, make sure your elder-identifying process is prayerful.
Prayer is easy to give lip service to, but are you really seeking God’s will in this area?
As you seek to identify elders, ask God to help you see what he sees rather than being impressed with what first catches the eye. People skills, persuasive speech, and worldly success may endear someone to us for fleshly reasons, but we must ask the Lord to help us see not as man sees, but as he sees.
3. Remember that elders grow best in rich soil.
I’m not much of a gardener, but I do know that nutrient-rich soil is the best kind of soil for a crop. In the same way, we should cultivate an environment conducive to spiritual growth. This means leading our people to pray. It means explaining and applying God’s Word in the pulpit, in counseling, and in everyday discipleship. It means building deep, authentic, sin-opposing relationships. We should also give away good books and God-glorifying articles.
As we do these types of things, the soil of our church becomes prime territory for a harvest of life to sprout up.
In my friend’s case, God’s Word, prayer, and honest, uncomfortable conversations began to take their toll on his flesh. He began to hate sin and turn from it. He began to love God’s Word and share it with others. He began to have compassion and patience with others. He began to do what elders do, because he was growing in Christ-like maturity.
First Corinthians 3:6-8 reminds us that as we sow, plant, and water, God will give growth. In his mysterious way, the Lord works though our feeble efforts to display his faultless faithfulness in making people grow. And this is how elders are raised up. We sow with the gospel, we water with prayer, and we trust God to make it grow. So as you cultivate the soil of your church, do it in faith, trusting that in his perfect timing God will bring a harvest.
4. Invest your best efforts in faithful men.
While we are called to care for all the members of our church, we must guard our time and invest the best part of our ministry in those who will minister to others. What this means is, watch where God is working. If you see him raising up a man, make sure you or another elder invest time with him to fan the flame that God has sparked.
This idea of being intentional in our discipleship efforts is not rocket science, it is a basic leadership principle. Jesus had the twelve, but he invested extra time with Peter, James, and John. Paul had the churches, but he always had particular men with him like Timothy and Titus and Silas. Paul also told Timothy to be mindful of whom he invested in when he said, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
We should faithfully care for all the flock, but we must always watch out to see who is already exhibiting elder qualities. Who already takes initiative in evangelism and discipleship? Who already serves as a model in leading and loving his family? Who has good pastoral sensitivities and highly values God’s Word? Watch for these men and invest your life into theirs. Eat meals with them. Talk about Scripture with them. Pray with them.
Along with those basics, try to view your daily ministry duties as opportunities to develop these men. If you’ve recognized a potential elder, help him grow in caring for people by taking him on hospital visits or to funerals you perform. Help him grow as a counselor of God’s Word by having him sit in on marriage counseling that you are leading, or allow him to counsel people while you sit in. Help him grow as a teacher of God’s Word by giving up time in the pulpit, or at a Bible study, or in Sunday School. Finally, help him grow in understanding how elders think through difficult matters by allowing him to observe elders’ meetings.
JESUS WILL HELP
While the task of raising up elders can seem daunting, we know that Jesus will help us to do it. However, we must keep trusting and sowing and watering and waiting upon him. Jesus loves his church. Because of that, we have great hope that even now he is raising up men to love and lead his flock.