What does it take to be a good elder? When you think of selecting new elders what kind of person are you looking for? Of all of the words used for an elder in the Bible the one that is most descriptive is a shepherd.
They say the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. When you are looking for new elders look for those who are already in people’s lives. Look for those who are shepherding people without the title. If you don’t have anyone doing that start developing people as soon as possible.
One of the greatest qualities and criteria for being a shepherd is that the sheep must be willing to follow. Too often we appoint people no one is following. What we tend to do in practice is look for someone that fits the bill in Timothy and Titus without concern for their ability to shepherd. So we create an executive leadership culture and perpetuate that same culture by the people who come into the role over time. Ability to shepherd is just as much a criteria for eldership as anything in Timothy or Titus.
When we look for scriptures that describe elders and give qualifications we often overlook some of the most important ones. The first passage we need to take a closer look at is Acts 20:28-31,
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
This one is easy to miss because it doesn’t come in the format of a list of qualifications. But it is still truly descriptive of what an elder should be like and it is still instructive to elders today.
The elders and themselves:
Elders are to keep watch over themselves. They are to be vigilant. They are to be on point, in tune and in touch not only with the congregation but with themselves and each other as fellow elders. Who do elders get spiritual support from? They should be able to get it from each other. Elders can shepherd other elders. Elders can walk other elders through difficult times. This is not only biblical it is practical. Shepherding amongst the eldership allows the shepherds to develop their own skills in house. I have seen many instances where an elder needed another elder to walk with them through something to help them with their discernment but never reached out for the help. Ministers can help the elders but the power dynamics in play make it more favorable for other elders to keep watch over each other.
The elders and the congregation:
This assumes pastoral ministry. This is the ministry of love and concern for those in the elders’ care. As Lynn Anderson put it they should “smell like sheep.” They are to guide the congregation in truth (the Spirit can help with that), guard against false teaching, and be on their guard (which is what shepherds with sheep constantly have to do) in order to help the sheep as much as possible. Shepherds who are shepherds in title only but aren’t present with the sheep put the flock in a dangerous position. People think the shepherd is on duty but no one is looking after the sheep. That is when wolves move in. No one seems to notice this until it is too late and the damage has been done.
The elders and the Spirit:
Paul tells the Ephesian elders here in Acts 20 that the Holy Spirit himself has put these people in this role. This should be front in center in our discussion of elders. Elders don’t appoint elders. The Spirit appoints elders. We should be seeking the Spirit’s lead in appointing new elders. Have you ever heard that mentioned or seen that reflected in an elder selection process? If so, that would be unusual.
The elders and Jesus:
Not only did the Spirit put them in the role over the church but this is the church God bought with the blood of Jesus. This is a serious responsibility!
The other passage I think we need to pay close attention to in terms of the pastoral role of elders is 1 Peter 5:1-4,
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
The role of elder is connected with the glory that will be revealed one day. That is Peter’s way of saying this is serious business. What one does as an elder has eternal ramifications. The congregation is under the care of the shepherds.
This is a ministry of love.
It is also a ministry not just of qualifications but of willingness. Attitude in the role makes a big difference. Peter says not only should elders be willing they should be “eager to serve.” The job of elder is a hard one and it is only natural that over time that eagerness will subside for some. Peter’s instruction here might prompt elders who have lost their willingness and their eagerness to reconsider their fit for the role of elder. In my experience the elders who are no longer willing and no longer eager but who feel stuck in the role are the ones most likely to do what Peter says not to do next, “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” What kind of congregation would we have if people become younger versions of the elders?
Peter ends with an encouragement to shepherds and so should we encourage our elders. Let us take the job of elder and convert it from a thankless job to a respected job, from a burden to a blessing. That might just help make those in the future willing and eager to serve rather than perpetuate a church culture that under appreciates our leaders.