Ever since I was a teenager in ministry, I have believed that “success is determined by how much I am not needed.” I don’t mean to suggest I have not struggled with other priorities, but as I look back on my life, this theme of “growing strong replacements” comes up again and again.

When I was doing initiative evangelism with Campus Crusade for Christ, I only felt totally successful when I taught someone else how to do what I was doing. When I was in youth ministry, I believed success would come only when I mentored someone to take my place and do what I was doing. When I teach a class or preach, I am always looking for that Spirit-gifted-someone whom I can train for the future. When one role is filled by a gifted and equipped disciple, I move onto the next work and begin the process over again.

The problem for many people I know in pastoral ministry is that their self-worth is attached to how much they are needed instead of how many people they have brought to maturity of faith. This unfortunate tendency fosters a system where one man sits at the top doing everything and is constantly needed by everyone. It leads to stress, isolation, and burn-out. It leads to a church that cannot survive without the one man who leads. Eventually the pastor leaves, and the church is left to flounder. Yet even in these crippled congregations, there are people still gifted by the Spirit, but their muscles have atrophied for lack of use.  So they sit, and wait, for someone else to get hired and take charge of the church and do the work of ministry.

One-man rule is very natural, for there are few natural leaders. The process is usually gradual, and this leader may not even consciously desire it. He takes charge because “no one else is doing the job.” This type of rule can occur in spite of the fact that there is nominally an oversight or eldership in the meeting. It sometimes happens when an eager person senses that the nominal leadership is doing little leading or shepherding. It can also happen with a person who feels a need to be in charge. One-man rule in an assembly is the result of a breakdown of leadership. But we should not be quick to blame that person alone. It is the rest of the elders who have relinquished their responsibility by letting that person take control. The New Testament pattern for churches is plural leadership, and that means shared leadership. If the rest of the men in leadership have relinquished the decision-making authority to one man, they have failed in their responsibility to the church and to God.

Emmaus Bible College, Emmaus Journal Volume 1, 1:174-175 (Emmaus Bible College, 1992; 2002).

Generational Leadership

Ultimately the Elders are meant to be the catalyst used by the Holy Spirit to grow healthy disciples, who become healthy leaders who in turn reproduce more healthy Families. Elders are appointed by the Spirit to serve as the big brothers of a community; not the Fathers. As the mature brothers, Elders are the ones who help every member of the Body discover, explore and use their giftings. In short, Elders reproduce themselves.

What this diagram shows is that no matter what title, or specific role an Elder has in the Body, his greatest goal is the development of generational leadership. Paul raised up Timothy and then Paul tells Timothy to raise up more. Passed down to us by example of our big brother Paul, Elders must mentor others to follow their example and eventually take their place.

Those who are leaders in an assembly have to realize that they must continually nurture leadership from other men whom the Holy Spirit will raise up. A pattern can be seen in the demise of several of the assemblies which no longer exist. The initial eager leadership characteristically did not establish methods for passing leadership to the next generation. Some men seem to have been very reluctant to relinquish control as they grew old and their vigor diminished. They also do not seem to have passed their own evangelistic zeal to the next generation–only a set of rules to be followed. The vision was lost. Only a sense of duty remained for the next generation, and that is not sufficient to sustain a work of God.

Emmaus Bible College, Emmaus Journal Volume 1, 1:175 (Emmaus Bible College, 1992; 2002).

This basic mission, in and of itself, is an important arguement for the pluarality of Elders in every church. The Scripture gives us a firm foundation for this goal of shared-leadership that reproduces.

The record is everywhere consistent in indicating a plurality of leadership in each church. Elders are seen in the Jewish churches of Judea in Acts 11:30 as well as the church in Jerusalem at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; cf. 21:18). When Paul and Barnabas revisited the newly formed churches of South Galatia on the first missionary journey, they appointed elders (plural) in every church (Acts 14:23). In Ephesus there was a plurality of elders (Acts 20:17). Philippi in Europe (Macedonia) was a church with a plurality of overseers (Phil. 1:1). Titus is told by Paul to appoint elders in every city in Crete (Tit. 1:5). James says that those who are sick are to call for the elders (plural) of the church (singular) (James 5:14). We also see the leaders of those addressed in the book of Hebrews referred to in the plural (Heb. 13:7, 17, 24).

Emmaus Bible College, Emmaus Journal Volume 2, 2:132 (Emmaus Bible College, 1993; 2002).

Not a Beginning, but an End

But in arguing for a plurality of Elders, it must be recognized that not every church will begin with multiple pastors.  Paul took several years in his first churches in Galatia to appoint Elders. It took time for these future overseers to observe, and be observed, by Paul and grow into their Spirit-giftings.  As months passed, the Spirit moved, and when the time was right, Paul appointed Elders to lead.

There are many smaller churches today that only have one pastor (elder). Is it fair then to conclude that these churches are somehow unfaithful to God’s plan? No. I would suggest to you that while the biblical ideal is a plurality of Elders, there is also nothing unbiblical about having only one Elder at a time. However, there is something unbibiical about an Elder who is not serving as a community catalyst.  Even a solo-Elder must raise up the younger brothers into maturity of faith. Your church may have only one Elder, but the most important question is, “is he reproducing himself?”

A Person; Not a Program

As to how an Elder is raised and selected, there is no one “right” process for how this must be done.  The emphasis, as always, is on the person whom the Spirit has called not on developing a program that produces leaders.

How were elders chosen in the New Testament? The fact is that the evidence is not very clear. Paul refers in Acts 20:28 to the Holy Spirit as the one who ultimately makes a person an elder or overseer. Theologically we could say that the Holy Spirit is the agent of Christ, the head of the Church, in appointing a person to the oversight.

But how does the church recognize those whom the Holy Spirit has appointed? There are only two examples of the human involvement in the process. In Acts 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in those churches which they had previously established. In Titus 1:5 Paul instructs his emissary Titus to appoint elders in every church.

The only other evidence comes from the list of qualifications for elders/overseers in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Presumably those who meet the qualifications of an elder are to be recognized as appointed by the Holy Spirit, but nowhere is the specific process spelled out as to how the church is to do this.

Emmaus Bible College, Emmaus Journal Volume 2, 2:135-136 (Emmaus Bible College, 1993; 2002).

A Community Catalyst

My goal in this article is not to establish a process, but a vision for Elders to become catalysts for growing the young in faith into mature brothers and sisters who themselves can become leaders who reproduce more leaders.

Yet the Elder’s job does not stop with reproducing individual disciples. Elders must embrace community and be active in the life of the church.

As this diagram illustrates, every Elder has their own sphere of influence. In a larger church, this may mean participation in one of the many small groups that meet in homes. In each case the Elder develops relationship with those outside of leadership and beyond the men he is mentoring. This includes a more diverse cross section of the Body, but also non-believers to whom he can be a living witness. Elders do not have to be the leaders of these smaller groups, but they must be a catalyst to ensure these groups provide opportunity for every member to use their giftings and build up the church. As these smaller groups grow in maturity, the Elders must again become the catalyst who leads these communities to reproduce and grow many more communities.

As we close this series on Elders, I am struck by how important these men are to the work of the church. Are Elders greater than others? No. But they are great servants who shepherd the flock along the path of maturity. I pray all who read are encouraged to serve your church with integrity and discover first hand how Elders lead a healthy family.

In the final post in this series, I will look briefly at what the future holds for Elders in the Church.

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 

Pin It on Pinterest