What Lay Elders Need to Know
I served as a lay elder for over five years. When I was ordained, I was in my twenties and had much to learn about shepherding—and of course I still do.
A few years back, my family moved to a town about 45 minutes away from our church, and though we’d remain members at our church, I knew I couldn’t shepherd a flock I wasn’t among. So the elders and I collectively decided it was time I step down.
That night was memorable—and a little hard to describe. While the weight of pastoring was lifted from my shoulders, another weight became all too apparent in the form of a terrifying question: Had I served our church well?
In many ways, I realized I hadn’t. None of my fellow pastors had negative feedback for me, and our members were incredibly gracious. But I knew how often I took the office too casually. I knew that I didn’t pray enough. I knew I didn’t measure up to the standard of Christlikeness.
And yet, I also recalled the grace of Christ which covers failures like mine. And so stepping down from the eldership was both a moment of regret, and a moment of relief. I was so insufficient, but God was able to use my service for his glory and others’ good.
Looking back, there are four things I wish I could have told myself before I became an elder:
1. MUCH OF YOUR WORK—PERHAPS MOST OF IT—WILL BE UNSEEN BY THE CONGREGATION
No one will see those late-night meetings. No one will see you getting up before the sun to meet and pray. In fact, there are many people who won’t even understand you’re their pastor. They’ll think you’re just a glorified board member. Instead, they’ll look to the guy with the mic, the front-man. Your work will be done in the shadows. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
2. YOUR REWARD IS NOT GLORY HERE, BUT GLORY HEREAFTER
Lay pastoring involves the hard work of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry amid the responsibilities of another job. The reward for your labor is not glory or recognition by others, but rather delight in the glory of God. Delight in the glory of God is plenty for today, but even more is promised to those who labor in shepherding the flock of God. Consider the promise in 1 Peter 5:4:
And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
I don’t know exactly what an unfading crown of glory is, but I want to find out.
3. YOU’RE NOT A BOARD MEMBER; YOU’RE A SHEPHERD
Yes, you’ll have to make business decisions from time to time. And yes, like a board member, you do have some degree of separation from the daily goings-on of the church. But eldership shouldn’t feel like board membership; it should feel like tending to sheep, like parenting. So tend to the needs of your fellow church members, and make sure you devote the bulk of your time to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4).
4. YOUR CHURCH NEEDS YOU
A healthy board of elders is vital to a healthy church. Biblical eldership fosters accountability and mutual support; it encourages a healthy distribution of power and the hearing of a multitude of voices. Each elder—each shepherd—is needed by the church.
Imagine sheep in a field. Let’s say there are 100 of them, bleating and grazing and carrying on. The flock is constantly in motion, looking for good forage or running from potential predators. Now imagine there’s only one shepherd to tend to them. He cannot spend time with each sheep to inspect them. He cannot leave the flock to fend off predators or bring back a straying ewe. This is the overwhelming model of the solo pastor. It’s not biblical and—surprise, surprise—it doesn’t work. The church needs multiple shepherds to flourish, and there’s just too much work to be done for one man.
Eventually, my family moved back to the town near our church. This past Sunday, I stood before our church as an elder candidate. And I can tell you, this candidacy has afforded me a fresh outlook on the office. I felt the holy gravity of it, yet grasped the lightness of relying on Christ. If installed as an elder once again, despite my earnest efforts to shepherd our flock well, I’ll once again plead the grace of Christ when my time is up. Start with grace, operate in grace, and finish with grace.
Lay eldership is a high calling, and should be valued as such by both the elders and the congregation. Elders must recall, however, that while the office they hold is important, they’re merely there to do Christ’s bidding. They’re undershepherds—in fact, themselves sheep—who are being led along with the congregation into the lush pasture of God’s grace.