Raising Up Elders: Three Areas to Address
Like most church planters, I was concerned about church growth from the beginning. While the size of the congregation is not the most important thing about a church—and it’s not nearly as important as most of us assume it is—there is nothing quite like preaching to eleven people on a Sunday morning to motivate you to go out and find more people.
My thinking was that if I poured myself into the hard work of getting more people, then eventually my burden would be eased. After all, many hands make light work. So I invested a lot of my early effort in getting people into the church, spending one-on-one time with visitors and potential new members.
A BODY WITH NO SKELETON
Over the course of our first year to eighteen months, the congregation grew steadily, if not spectacularly. What began on the far edge of single digits moved solidly into the triple digits. But while I had expected that having more people in the church would make my life easier, I found that I was more exhausted than ever. There were simply too many visitors for my wife and I to continue having everyone over for a meal. While good friendships had developed between members of the congregation, most of the church was relationally connected to my family and me. When people had a question or a problem or a suggestion or a complaint, they came to me.
It was at this point that I realized that I had made serious mistake. Instead of spending all of my energy on getting more people into the church, I should have invested a significant portion of my time into developing new leaders for the congregation. What I had done was work to build a church with insufficient leadership. It felt like a body with no skeleton. There was no structure that could support future growth.
Looking back, I can see why I made the mistake that I did. First of all, I’m not naturally very good at training people; I’m better at doing the work myself. Secondly, it takes foresight to develop leaders for a church that does not seem to require them. (It turns out that I’m not big on foresight either). And thirdly, training leaders does not feel like the most effective use of time when the church’s most pressing need is more people.
Even though I came late to the party, I began to invest my time, energy, and resources into training men who could serve our church as elders. I started a leadership-training group that met on Saturday mornings. Any man who was a member of the church and willing to do the work was invited to attend. One might wonder if such an all-comers policy might raise false expectations about automatically becoming an elder at the group’s end, since not all men will have the gifting or character to become an elder. But this has not been a problem. God has used the original group to raise up godly elders, deacons, small group leaders, and generally fruitful husbands and father and church members as a result of the training.
THREE AREAS TO ADDRESS
What I learned from that experience (and from picking the brains of other pastors who were better at it than I was) is that developing new leaders requires addressing three main areas.
First, content. Scripture requires that an elder “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit. 1:9). A church needs leaders who can explain what the Bible says and instruct people who don’t understand. My goal was to train men who could explain what we believed about various doctrines such as the doctrines of election or inerrancy and why such doctrines are important.
So any training program for potential elders should provide instruction in major points of doctrine. That said, you should resist the temptation to require all of your elders to be as invested in theological investigation as you are. They don’t need to be able to outline Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics in the original Dutch; they just need to know what your church believes, why you believe it, and why it matters. I find Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine to be just the right blend of depth, readability, and length for the task.
An elder must be morally above reproach and personally disciplined (Tit. 1:7-8). Putting men, even theologically learned men, in positions of leadership when they lack godly character is simply suicidal for the church. Christian leadership must be exercised in word and deed. And so training potential elders requires both careful instruction in godliness and an honest assessment of the candidate’s personal holiness.
In our training program, we assigned readings that fostered reflection on some of the sins that seem to particularly plague men and cripple leadership, like lust, anger, and pride. Then as a group we would have frank conversations, some lasting for two or three meetings, about where those sins manifested themselves in our lives and how we could put them to death. We also focused on ways that the gospel helped us to cultivate positive character traits like love, hospitality, and the ability to take criticism.
An elder also must able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). It’s not enough to have knowledge and character; he must be able to usefully minister the Word to other Christians. While books and resources can be helpful (Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands comes to mind), the only way to discover whether or not men are able to do this is to give them opportunities to teach. This teaching can take a number of different forms and should be followed up with specific feedback so that they can improve. In our context we have given men an opportunity to teach Sunday school, preach on Sunday evenings, lead small groups, and disciple and counsel people in particular need.
INVEST FOR THE FUTURE
It may seem like your church has needs that are more pressing than training new elders. The regular life of a congregation will almost always generate more than enough work for a given week. But unless you are content for your congregation to be limited by the pastor’s personal abilities, you would be wise to invest in seeing men grow in these areas.