A Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Selecting Elders

Article
03.01.2010

A Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum:

What lessons have you learned the hard way in selecting elders?

Answers from

 

John MacArthur

There’s a good and vital reason Paul said, “Lay hands suddenly on no man” (1 Tim. 5:22). The biblical qualifications for elders are all characteristics of godliness and giftedness that must be proven over time. A man may instinctively know how to make a good first impression. He superficially appears to be keen-thinking, knowledgeable, mature, or supremely gifted as a teacher. But he could actually have serious character flaws that would disqualify him from eldership, and these sometimes become plainly evident only through long-term patterns of behavior. It is vital therefore that church leaders “first be proved; then let them use the office” (1 Tim. 3:10).

In our church, elders serve for life. They are not elected to a term of office; they are recognized for their giftedness and calling. Since one’s gifts and calling are not subject to change (Rom. 11:29), the selection and appointment of elders is not something that should be done lightly or hastily.

Furthermore, the gifts and calling of an elder are ultimately far more important than any formal training track.

Now, obviously, as a seminary president, I am strongly in favor of formal training. If a man knows he is called to ministry and gifted to teach, he ought to pursue (as much as he reasonably can) the very best training available to him. He should take full advantage of every opportunity to study and learn and be mentored. He should gain a thorough and careful working knowledge of Scripture; acquire a solid understanding of sound and essential doctrine; learn in a hands-on way how to help people with the practical aspects of living for Christ; and do as much as possible to hone his skills as a teacher. Meanwhile, his spiritual leaders should do everything in their power to help him acquire such training.

But if he lacks the calling and the giftedness that are essential to eldership, no amount of formal training can possibly equip him for the task. In other words, while formal training is wonderfully helpful for equipping men who are indeed called to leadership and gifted by God for the role, no training program alone can guarantee that a man will be fit to serve as an elder.

So it seems to me that the process of identifying those who are truly called to eldership is at least as important—and certainly a prerequisite to—whatever formal training process we put in place to equip young men to be pastors and shepherds.

If I’ve learned anything “the hard way” over the years, it is that the best way to identify potential elders is in the normal flow of church life. They are evident by their response to what’s being taught; by their willingness to serve; by the abundance of spiritual fruit in their lives; and by the many ways their giftedness is manifest in the church before they are ever singled out for leadership.

In other words, our hands-on leadership-training programs should not been seen as the be-all and end-all of leadership development. Rather than always devising prefabricated ministry assignments and walking inexperienced young men through every step of what to do, it’s sometimes better to give them the freedom to demonstrate what they are made of by seeing how they take up duties that are not necessarily laid at their feet. Then we can give help and encouragement as they develop their own unique spiritual abilities. I find that when men who are gifted and called to leadership are encouraged to think that way, they thrive.

John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California and is the author of numerous books, including the booklet Answering The Key Questions About Elders (Word of Grace Publications, 1984).

 

Michael Lawrence

One of the lessons I’ve learned and re-learned in more than one church is the danger of selecting a man to serve as elder who has a history of protracted, repeated, and/or unresolved conflict. On more than one occasion I have overlooked conflict in a man’s life, reasoning either that it was justified by the circumstances, a function of immaturity that has been outgrown, or foisted upon him as the innocent party.

The fact is, however, that even when circumstances or theology vindicate his side of the conflict, a man can still be a quarrelsome man. This may demonstrate itself in a lack of gentleness, a propensity to taking rigid positions when none are required, an inability to lose graciously, or simply an over-love of debate. Whatever the form it takes, quarrelsomeness is a serious impediment to effective service as an elder; unchecked it is a clear disqualification (1 Tim. 3:3).

One of the reasons this is easy to overlook is that elders are to be the sort of men who can vigorously contend for the faith, to defend the flock from wolves and their errors, and to stand firm in the face of pressure or even persecution. A wishy-washy, compromising, easily swayed elder is a danger to the health of his congregation and the purity of the gospel. And so we look for men who have prepared their minds for action (1 Pet. 1:13).

But if we are to care for the flock after the pattern of the Good Shepherd, and if we are to do so even as we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph 5:21), then we must be careful of selecting men who fail to combine a toughness of mind with a meekness of heart. Meekness is not weakness. Moses and Jesus were both described as meek (Num. 12:3; Mat. 11:28). Rather, meekness is power under control, humbly deployed for the benefit of others. In service of self, strength of mind (including correct theology) inevitably breeds conflict. Joined with humility and meekness, that same strength carries the burdens of the weak, gently restores the fallen, and accurately distinguishes between the wicked and the weak.

A history of conflict should not automatically disqualify a man from service. But it should invite further and careful investigation. Has the conflict been resolved? Was it necessary? Is it a weapon of first or last resort? Is it always self-justified? These and other questions should be honestly explored before selecting a man as an elder. Proverbs 15:1 notes that “A gentle answer turns aside wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Nowhere is this more important than in the work of an elder.

Michael Lawrence is an associate pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

 

Phil Newton

Eagerness to establish elder leadership or to fill the gap of elders rotating from active status may create issues that can take years to surmount. As our church moved toward elder leadership, selecting the initial group proved daunting. After teaching extensively on elder qualifications, the church nominated men thought to demonstrate biblical qualifications. The small list eventually narrowed to three that met with church approval. These completed a rigorous written questionnaire as well as interviews before presentation to the congregation. However, I learned through the process that questionnaires effectively test knowledge of basic doctrine but lack the precision to test motives and ambitions. These inner qualities are learned only in the crucible of church life.

Each of these men was bright and had reasonable grasp of basic doctrines. Yet none had the commitment level to the local church necessary to walk through adversities and threatening times without bailing out. One man viewed the role of preaching in church life as more tangential than central. I recall a very heated—though not ugly—dialogue that we had in elders’ meeting over my exposition of 2 Timothy 4:1-5. I made the point that ultimately, the pastor’s chief audience was God. He could not see this in spite of biblical argument to the contrary. No stomach for controversies marked the second man. Though biblically adept and probably the best student of the three, he lacked the boldness to confront those needing correction. The third man approached the church with a business model perspective. His perception of success amounted to increased numbers. When trials came, and the numbers declined, he abandoned ship.

What lessons have these incidents taught me? First, regularly instruct the congregation on both the qualifications and heart of an elder. Demonstrate that more than doctrinal knowledge and high visibility is needed. Second, cultivate future elders through interaction in a variety of settings, e.g. discipleship groups, prayer, visits, meals together, reading/discussion forums, critiquing their teaching. Listen to the way they interact with others. See how they respond to correction. That way you have time to observe the passions and ambitions of men before they are set apart as elders. Third, observe who and what most influence elder candidates. Fourth, as you pray for discernment, be conscious of the Holy Spirit setting off “alarms” concerning the character, conduct, or qualities of those aspiring to eldership. If you are hesitant to approve someone, then don’t until your reservations are cleared.

Phil Newton, author of Elders in Congregation Life (Kregel, 2005), is the senior pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

 

Ed Roberts (real name hidden for security purposes)

From a church planter’s point of view, there are two contexts for recognizing elders. First, there are mature believers who decide to become part of the new church plant and are potential elders. Second, as in a pioneer setting, there are only relatively young believers who have never exercised leadership in any congregation.

Where there are mature men who have served as leaders in other contexts, and they have served only as deacons “under” a paid single pastor who did not share leadership appropriately, they may or may not be good candidates. Be sure they understand plural leadership, and be sure that they are biblically qualified.

In either context, I look for proven faithfulness, particularly in discipling one’s own family. This does not mean that single men cannot be elders, but a married man must be modeling, teaching, and training his own family. Properly managing one’s own household is a prerequisite for serving as an elder in church. If a man is not discipling his wife and children, I would not suggest recognizing him as an elder, regardless of how fruitful his ministry might be in other arenas.

The other less obvious area in which to look is in his generosity (and perhaps our own?). When Paul writes to Timothy, he mentions that an elder must not be a lover of money; and in 2 Timothy 6, he says that those who are rich in this present world ought to do good, to be rich in good deeds and to be generous and willing to share. Not being greedy, but eager to serve is also mentioned in 1 Peter 5. I would do some probing of any potential elders about their financial stewardship, particularly generous giving (not just their weekly offering!), regardless of whether the evangelical culture finds this acceptable or not.

Be careful about recognizing an elder who has an unhealthy interest in theological disputes. Of course, an elder needs to be able to teach sound doctrine and refute those who oppose him, but this must be done gently, and we are warned in 2 Timothy about quarreling over words. So I look for one who is teachable and able to teach with good biblical theology, but does so with a gentle spirit and proper theological humility.

In recognizing elders, it would seem wise to recognize those like-minded men who are able to minister to particular people or in particular ways that other elders may not be so gifted. It is a mistake to have a team of like-minded elders with like personalities, like interests, like family situations, identical backgrounds, etc. The team of elders must be biblically like-minded, but they need not be alike according to every other measure of a man.

Mr. Roberts has planted a church in the U.S. and has been planting churches and doing leadership development in Central Asia for awhile.

 

Sinclair B. Ferguson

9Marks of Eldership. Elders can advance or retard a congregation’s spiritual health. Their selection therefore is vital. The few comments below are limited to the question, How do we recognize who should serve as an elder?

1. While we will regret setting the bar below the standards of Scripture in recognizing men called to the eldership, we can also in our zeal set it artificially higher than the Scriptures, and fail to recognize that some of the best gifts grow in ministry.

2. Especially remember that “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:3), with its corollary of being able to “rebuke” (Tit. 1:9, i.e. to use the Scriptures for the ends for which they were given [2 Tim. 3:15-16]) does not specify an arena. Some are “able to teach” who are not suited to regular public preaching.

3. Look for men whose lives exhibit the spirit of, as well as an intellectual grasp of, sound doctrine. Orthodoxy with approachability is a great desideratum in an elder (approachability being the very least that “hospitable” means; Tit. 1:8).

4. Pose the most neglected question—”Do outsiders think well of him?” (1 Tim. 3:7)—and ponder why that question is important.

5. Choose those who are already “among” the flock, and the flock “among” them (1 Pet. 5: 2). Moral, domestic, occupational, didactic qualifications being met, ask, “Does this man love the flock and is he beloved by them?” Commitment to corporate prayer is often a litmus test.

6. Avoid appointing those who would commit to loving the flock if they were asked to be elders. Better by far to have men who love the sheep than men who love being shepherds (the former will become the latter, but not vice-versa).

7. Seek men who are simultaneously gentle but prepared to be courageous, and prepared to suffer if need be—to get in front to protect as well as behind to follow! An elder must be capable of both biblical rebuke and gentle restoration (Gal. 6:2). Quieter men, with quiet hearts, are worth their weight in gold and may astonish us by their wisdom.

8. Ask the question, “Would our church be willing, if need be, to pay this man a stipend to labor among us as an elder?” The answer may tell a great deal about his ministry in the flock and his esteem in their eyes.

9. Consider how well a man’s life echoes the principles of the Lord’s shepherding in Psalm 23.

Sinclair Ferguson, who teaches regularly for Westminster Seminary and authored multiple books, is the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

 

Bruce Keisling

I have learned that the church’s ability to recognize elders is strongly correlated to the number of teaching opportunities they have had in the church. In our situation at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, we were without a pastor at the time we were nominating our first slate of elders. Even though I am not the pastor, the church gave me de facto status as an elder and charged me with the duty of nominating our first candidates, to then be confirmed or denied by congregational vote. I began the process by asking the church to send me recommendations for consideration. I wanted to know who they were viewing as elder material. I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I received, but I was.

For the last several years, our church has enjoyed able teaching on Sunday evenings for fifteen minute devotionals by over a dozen men. And I expected a fairly even distribution of support for these many men who are gifted to teach. A number of men did garner one or two nominations. But what I found amidst the recommendations given to me with nearly universal clarity were three names in particular—the three men who gave not only brief devotionals on Sunday evenings, but who had shared the responsibility for Sunday morning sermons due to our lack of a pastor. The church had found the preaching of these three men particularly encouraging.

In short, I learned that concentrations of teaching opportunities (assuming an individual teaches well) will heighten the ability of a church to recognize its elders. As we have considered recommending new elders, we have intentionally scheduled more teaching opportunities for individuals being considered for nomination. That way, we—and the church—can discern their calling among us.

Bruce Keisling, head librarian at the Boyce Centennial Library at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

Philip Pedley

Plural leadership in the local body of Christ is as beautiful as it may be rare. In 2002-03, God was pleased to lead First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman step by step into an understanding of eldership, and the church appointed its first elders in February 2004. Though we have faced many challenges over the past three years, these have brought home to us the wisdom and strength of plural leadership. Week by week we have discovered that principles like mutual submission and the blend of spiritual gifts among a plural eldership are God’s design for the awesome task of shepherding the flock.

The main lesson I would draw from our experience is this: conviction about eldership must be rooted in Scripture and not seen as a pragmatic option selected from a menu of models for leadership. Probably the greatest danger to biblical eldership in my experience is the widespread belief that the pastor or senior pastor should be the CEO of the local church. We might call this the “business model” of church leadership. Because it is the dominant model in our working lives, it exerts a powerful influence on the Western church.

In place of such human alternatives, we have pondered afresh Christ’s words on worldly leadership: “It shall not be so amongst you.” We have learned how important it is to immerse ourselves in what Scripture teaches about plural leadership and to be vigilant about ways in which the biblical pattern can be subtly eroded. For example, members not fully committed to eldership may still be seduced by the siren song of single leadership, eyeing the deceptive attractions of powerful preacher-pastors around them and longing like ancient Israel for “their own king.” New elders or pastors, though grounded in plural leadership, may need to adjust to the way a principle like mutual submission, which has broad application across different cultures, must find local expression amongst a particular group of elders. We know that ahead of us lie the dangers of established eldership: the risk that plurality may relax its watch and dwindle by degrees into a comfortable club which, in effect, abdicates leadership to a CEO pastor.

“Guard yourselves,” says Paul, “and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). This warning, given specifically to all the elders of Ephesus, is part of the longest recorded address to any Christian audience in the whole book of Acts. Eldership is important. The Ephesian elders knew that the divine pattern of plural leadership had been established on Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:23), widened on his second journey (Acts 16:12-40; Philip. 1:1), and was now being deepened on his third. Timothy almost certainly witnessed this poignant, farewell address. We can imagine him, years later, weaving its lessons into his own preaching after reading out Paul’s well-known instructions for elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3:1-15. It’s a scene that reminds us that the true pattern of effective church leadership rests on Scripture alone and not on extra-biblical models, however appealing.

Philip Pedley, the chief policy advisor to the head of the civil service in the Cayman Islands, is an elder at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman.

 

Sir Fred Catherwood

Paul’s letter to Timothy concentrates on the inherent quality needed in elders who, in the urgency of the new churches, had none of the formal training which today’s church has time to give. But in today’s church, those inherent qualities still matter. Elders still need to be godly, patient, the husband of one wife, good parents, and steeped in the Word of God. No amount of training can offset gaps in these areas.

Any church is full of people with problems, and the minister cannot take all their calls. The elders are there to surround and support the minister. There is a lot of stress in the ministry and not every minister is strong enough to take it on his own. Ministers need men they can talk to freely who will not abuse that intimacy. We may not have women elders, but we should have elders’ wives. Between husband and wife, elders should be able to take the calls of all who are anxious, uncertain, or just plain ignorant and be able to talk through their problems.

It may be easier for church members to bring a non-Christian friend to an elder than to the minister, so it helps if elders have some experience of one-to-one evangelism.

Above all, elders and their wives and families should be role models for the church.

Sir Fred Catherwood is a British author and politician. His most recent book is The Creation of Wealth: Recovering a Christian Understanding of Money, Work, and Ethics (Crossway, 2002).

 

Thomas R. Schreiner

First, we merged with a long established church a few years ago. This church had a number of men in it who were friendly and nice but were either doctrinally naïve or held views contrary to what we considered essential for anyone serving as an elder. If we had nominated one or more of these men to be elders, some of the older members of the congregation would have been pleased. But we would have saddled ourselves with serious problems in the future because we would have sacrificed harmony of doctrine and vision.

Second, we have faced situations where men were “almost” qualified to serve as elders, but they lacked at least one important qualification to serve with us. Again, it was tempting to include them because they were involved in the church, and feelings were hurt when they weren’t nominated. Yet the wisdom of not appointing them became evident as further situations arose in their lives that would have made it difficult for them to serve with us.

Third, it is also tempting to appoint someone who is theologically brilliant and agrees with the doctrinal position of the church. But we need to remember that Paul especially stresses character qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). We need elders who are theologically faithful and who live out the gospel in their everyday lives. We must not sacrifice the latter simply because the former is present, for the words of elders must accord with a godly life.

Thomas Schreiner, professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of a number of books, is the preaching pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

Alexander Strauch

Stop thinking short-term. Like a good shepherd of sheep, think and plan long-term. Look for young men in their teens and early twenties who show spiritual interest and potential. They are your future leaders. God has placed them in your care for molding. Don’t fail them!

Start giving them life-changing books to read, such as J. C. Ryle’s Thoughts for Young Men. When I was fifteen years old, the staff director of the camp I attended put a biography of Hudson Taylor in my hands. Hudson Taylor himself was a teenager when preparing for missions. I was never the same after reading the inspiring story of his life and founding of the China Inland Mission. Books change lives. I’ve seen it happen many times.

Also, make use of the many excellent sermons by renowned preachers of the Word that are readily available (on audiotape, CD, or Internet) to inspire young leaders. Challenge their minds before the world does. Begin with expository teaching on Paul’s magisterial epistle to the Romans. Tell them to master Romans. In the process, Romans will master them. And that is what you want.

Another way to influence future leaders is by taking them or sending them to Bible conferences such as the Shepherds’ Conference at Grace Community Church in California. And sending them or taking them on short-term mission trips is an excellent way to broaden their perspective and expand their thinking.

Give potential leaders gradually increasing responsibility in serving, leading, and teaching. Strategically open doors for ministry for them in the church. This is the best training ground. Monitor their service. Communicate with them regularly about how they are doing. And invite them, for a specified period of time, to visit your elders’ meetings. This is another significant training ground. Cast the vision before them that shepherding Christ’s blood-bought flock, the church, is truly fulfilling work. It is a high calling and privilege to care for God’s people.

Part of the responsibility of pastoral oversight is to see that there will be qualified shepherds to lead and teach the flock in the future. It is your job to take the initiative in this matter, to reach out to young, potential shepherds, to be proactive and not reactive, to take interest in their lives and future, to spend time with them, to direct them, and to warn them of the many dangers young men face (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:2, 15, 22). Continually be mindful that you are an example to them, and encourage them in their own spiritual growth. You have the power to influence key individuals for God and the future of your church. Use that influence or you will lose it.

I remember watching Dr. Vernon Grounds, chancellor of the Denver Seminary, come down the main hallway of the seminary at the same time two young students were walking toward him. As they were about to pass, he reached out with both hands and placed one on each of the men’s shoulders, stopping them in their tracks. Looking authoritatively at them, as if God were speaking, he said, “Soon the church of Jesus Christ will rest on your shoulders; be prepared.” He then went on his way, leaving them speechless. I’m sure they never forgot Dr. Grounds’ startling exhortation from heaven. Maybe you, too, should send some lightening-bolt charges to the young men of your church.

Alexander Strauch, who has taught philosophy and New Testament literature at Colorado Christian University, is an elder at Littleton Bible Chapel near Denver, Colorado. He is also the author of Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leaderhip. Go to lewisandroth.org to see more resources on equipping elders, including study guides on this book.

 

February 2007
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