Should Elders Ever Walk Away?


A pastor friend recently emailed me with the following question:

In a pastoral counseling or shepherding situation, when do you say, “I have nothing else to give,” and move on?

My elders are working very hard on a seemingly endless list of hard cases. Sometimes I wonder if a few of them do too much. It is very likely I am just less of a pastor than some of my elders, but I fear that they throw themselves into hard cases and never get out. They will in deep on a case and then get texts and emails and calls throughout the day. And when cases drag on they never feel like they can leave.

Where does “shake the dust off your feet” come into play? What does it mean for elders to be diligent but not try to be the Holy Spirit? We don’t want to give up on people, but it is hard to help people who don’t want to change. Our elders are feeling like fire fighters—putting out people fires all the time—and I’m afraid they’re getting burned out!

Good question. So I emailed a few brothers to see what they thought. Here are a couple of replies:

Jeramie Rinne (South Shore Baptist, Hingham, MA)

Elders minister in order to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). But could there be rare occasions when an elder needs to back off from shepherding a member for the sake of that member’s maturity? What if a member develops a heavy dependence on an elder, flooding him with emails, voicemails and texts and turning to him with every latest development in his struggles? Though well-intentioned, an elder’s continued attentive care can subtly encourage a member to lean on the elder and dwell on the struggles rather learn to stand firm in Jesus and focus on his glory.

Maturity in Christ also includes participating in the mutual care of Christ’s body. A deeply involved elder might inadvertently keep the needy member from experiencing the love and gifts of the broader congregation. An elder might even model a kind of maturity by pulling back in order to protect himself and his family from ministry burnout.

Just as parents must sometime say a painful “no” for the sake of shaping a child’s character, so elders must wisely discern when a “no” might be just what a member needs to hear.

Mike McKinley (Guilford Baptist, Sterling, VA):

I think the right impulse is to be patient with someone. Sanctification can take a long time and progress can be difficult to discern.

But if someone is stubbornly unrepentant, won’t take or implement any of my counsel, or seems to be uninterested in growing and changing, then I will move on to sheep that really want my help. I will continue to call that person to repentance and change, but I won’t invest a lot of my (limited) time in them anymore.

I also think that it’s wise to put limits on how much time you spend on any one person or situation. While there are certainly exceptional cases, I find it helpful to let people know at the outset that my goal is to wean them off regular meetings with me.

So, for example, if a couple comes to me with an acute marriage situation I will meet with them frequently for a month, then maybe once every two weeks for the next couple of months, and then (hopefully) they won’t need to meet at all.

I think Jeramie and Mike are right on. Proverbs talks about not responding to a fool in his folly (Prov. 26:4), and Jesus talks about not throwing your pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6). I certainly don’t think we should ever use the word “fool” casually, yet nor do I think we should be unwilling to ever use it. One of the purposes of Proverbs, as I understand it, is to help us know how to recognize a fool when we see one.

In my own experience, there have been times when, in the course of a counseling relationship, it has become increasingly clear to me that I was interacting with—I hate to say it—a fool.

Yes, yes, I can be foolish, too! In all seriousness, ask my wife. But that’s just the point: God has given her to me, in part, to help me learn how to recognize my folly, so that I can repent and be wise. I pray that I would have ears to hear.

A fool, according to Proverbs, is unwilling to recognize his or her folly. Or, even if he or she verbally acknowledges it, he/she is unwilling to change: “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool” (Prov. 17:10).

It would be worthwhile to read through Proverbs and come up with “a pastor’s guide for how to spot a fool.” But let me sum up some of what I’ve seen in my own words:

  • Either: The person loves to talk about all their grievances or hurts and will talk to anyone and everyone about it. Or: the person will only talk to one specific person because no one else “can be trusted.” (At the same time, this latter person quickly finds reasons not to trust the latest advisor, and quickly adds people to the black list.)
  • The person never takes the counsel given. He/she might outwardly affirm the counsel when we’re together. But nothing changes back in real life: “You say you want to stop getting drunk, so why do you keep going into the bar?”
  • The pattern of bad decision-making not only continues, it sometimes gets worse.
  • The person is selective about what information to share, because, ultimately, he or she is unwilling to come fully into the light or risk losing the ability to do exactly what he/she wants to do.
  • The person is unwilling to inconvenience him or herself in anyway, or to make any changes to his or her lifestyle.
  • The person shows a pattern of continually prioritizing something besides repentance (e.g. the addiction, not looking bad in front of others, etc.).

What’s more, the characteristics described here occur over a prolonged period.

Sometimes fools are outwardly successful, and their worldly success keeps them from seeing their folly. But often, they are outwardly miserable. They complain and lament and even weep with grandiloquence. They talk about “how awful” they are, “how unhappy” the world is, “how unfair” circumstances seem. And often they are right. There are awful and unhappy. And life has been unfair to them.

Still, quietly hiding beneath the surface is a granite-hard bedrock layer of pride. At the end of the day, they refuse to trust. To believe. To surrender control. They’ve made their lives an absolute mess, but they still insist on being king. It’s almost unbelievable to behold.

And somewhere along the way, maybe after two counseling sessions, maybe after twenty, you figure this out. They are not going to listen. You are banging your head against the wall. And you do better to stop spending time with them. You do better for the sake of those who are teachable and would be better served by your time (there are only so many hours in a day). And you do better to move on, frankly, for the sake of the fool. Your present system of letting them air their grievances, receive counsel, and then do nothing, very well could be strengthening their ability to ignore wisdom.

Am I saying that pastors/elders should not be long suffering with fools? No, I am not saying that. I am saying that pastors/elders (and Christians) need to realize that this is one of their options. It’s one possible tool. Once again, listen to Proverbs 26:

  • Verse 4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
  • Verse 5: Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

Sometimes you need to be long-suffering; sometimes you need to walk away.

Ultimately, humility recognizes that people are not ours to fix, which in turn means that there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. There is nothing we can do to guarantee a certain outcome. Instead, we need the wisdom to know when to stay, when to move on.

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