What’s Right About Elders? Part 2 of 2 on Finding a Pastor
Click here for the first of two articles: “What’s Wrong with Search Committees? Part 1 of 2 on Finding a Pastor”
As I mentioned in the previous article “What’s Wrong with Search Committees?,” a pastor should feel a strong obligation to help find his successor before he goes. What shepherd waves good bye to his sheep, wishes them luck, and skips off to greener pastures?!
Sometimes the Lord calls shepherds away precipitously, as when a man dies. Generally speaking, however, a shepherd shouldn’t assume his charge is complete until he does everything within his power to secure a worthy successor. Does he love the sheep or doesn’t he?
Beyond the pastor’s own work, it’s the elders who should lead a church toward finding the next pastor. They have the character and biblical understanding to lead out in making this momentous decision. Biblical understanding and pastoral discernment are key, and biblical understanding and discernment are the very qualities which should define elders as elders in the first place.
WHY ELDERS SHOULD LEAD THE PASTORAL SEARCH
Elders won’t be perfect in this, and they can fall prey to some of the same pitfalls listed in “What’s Wrong with Search Committees?” But God has charged this biblical body with leadership in the local church.
Now, the New Testament does teach that the congregation as a whole has responsibility for its membership, discipline, and doctrine (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; Gal. 1). In line with this, it seems that there is good biblical precedent for viewing the congregation as owning final responsibility for recognizing its leaders (Acts 6:3). Yet within this congregational framework, God charges elders to teach, shepherd, and lead the congregation, and the congregation is to submit to its elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-5).
With this basic structure in mind, here are a few reasons why elders, rather than a search committee comprised of a demographic cross-section of the congregation, should lead a church through the process of searching for a new pastor.
1. Elders are best qualified to assess a man’s preaching and teaching.
The Bible charges elders to teach sound doctrine and to ensure that no false doctrine is propagated in the church (Tit. 1:9), which is why all elders must be apt to teach (1 Tim. 3:2). Further, since a pastor is simply an elder who is set aside to preach full time, his most important job is to preach the Word faithfully (2 Tim. 2:15, 4:2). This means that the elders should be the best qualified group in a church to judge the soundness of a man’s preaching, and the soundness of a man’s preaching is absolutely central to his being a good pastor.
2. Elders are best qualified to assess a man’s character.
Another crucial issue when considering a potential pastor is the man’s character, and here again the elders are best qualified to lead.
Elders are men whom the church has recognized as possessing exemplary character (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). Through their godly character, elders serve as examples for the whole flock to follow (Heb. 13:7; 1 Pet. 5:3). As they teach, disciple, counsel, and chase down errant sheep, it’s the elders who share many of the same day to day ministry burdens as the senior pastor.
It’s also the elders who may well have had confidential conversations with members of the congregation, such that they would best recognize which issues a new pastor would face as well as any matters that might disqualify a man from eldership or even from playing a large role in choosing an outside pastor. By virtue of regularly having such conversations, they are probably most prepared to have the kind of careful conversations which a church should have with any prospective pastoral candidate. They should have a more practiced ability to detect weak spots.
By both qualification and experience, a church’s elders are best able to assess a potential pastor’s character.
3. Elders are charged to raise up other elders.
In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul writes, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” God intends for those who teach the Word in the church to raise up others who will be able to teach the Word as well. While Scripture doesn’t tell us whether Timothy held the office of elder in the church in Ephesus, this verse clearly seems to establish a pattern which elders are to follow today. After all, if Timothy was to teach reliable men who would be able to teach others, those men would have understood from Timothy’s example that they were to raise up other teachers themselves.
This means that elders should always be raising up other elders. So what about when the church needs to find an elder who is particularly gifted in preaching, whom we often call a “senior pastor”? Of course a pastor who is leaving should have already raised up a replacement for himself. But if he hasn’t, there should be a whole group of biblically qualified men who are already in the habit of recognizing and cultivating godly men to be elders. When the need arises for the church to find a particularly gifted elder to set aside to preach full time, shouldn’t the group who have already devoted themselves to the business of raising up elders take the lead?
Finding a new pastor requires wisdom, discernment, theological acuity, and more. If you’ve got elders, this is when you need them most!
TIPS FOR ELDERS LEADING A PASTORAL SEARCH
So then, if elders are the ones who should lead in the process of finding a new pastor, how should they go about this work? Here are a few tips.
1. Involve the current pastor.
First, assuming that the current pastor is leaving on reasonably good terms, involve him as much as possible. He should have taken the lead in identifying and training a successor before he ever had plans to leave, but even if he didn’t, he should be involved in the process now. So, ask your current pastor if he has anyone to recommend. Ask him to tell you other people to ask for recommendations, like old seminary professors or likeminded friends in ministry.
2. Ask other trusted pastors for recommendations.
Faithful pastors should be raising up other faithful pastors. So think of a pastor whose life and ministry you trust, call him, and ask him who he would recommend. The sober judgment of a seasoned minister will be a far better guide to a good pastor than an impressive résumé.
3. Ask probing questions about the man’s character, theology, and philosophy of ministry.
When it comes time to assess an individual candidate, focus your efforts on learning as much as you can about the man’s character, theology, and philosophy of ministry. Ask probing questions about each of these areas, and be ready to follow up with more. Here's a list of questions to get you started.
Click here for the first article: “What’s Wrong with Search Committees? Part 1 of 2 on Finding a Pastor.”