Developing Healthy Eldership Patterns
By Berry Kercheville
“Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock…and do not lord it over those entrusted to you.” (1 Pet. 5:2-3, NET)
The longer I live and work within local churches the more I am amazed by what it takes for elders to do the shepherding work that is entrusted to them. Simply considering the time involved is overwhelming. Those of us who are evangelists are accustomed to a certain amount of “shepherding” work because we are often involved in teaching new Christians and keeping those who are vulnerable from falling. There are few things more time consuming than saving souls and building them up to maturity or rescuing a Christian who has fallen. Since a large percentage of elders must work a full-time job, the challenge for them can be daunting.
These time constraints can create a dangerous tendency of turning an eldership into men who are reactive instead of proactive. In other words, elders can fall into a habit of “stamping out fires” because there is little time to do anything else. And there are always plenty of fires to stamp out. Soon elders have become managers who keep the “organization” operating smoothly, but lack shepherding skills and vision to move the church to maturity (Eph. 4:11-16). As new generations arise, this “eldering” pattern becomes entrenched as younger Christians lose sight of the art of shepherding because they do not see it happening. I have repeatedly observed men who desire to be elders but have not demonstrated any shepherding skills, and yet the church appoints them anyway. They are good men who have raised good families, but they have never practiced seeking the lost, raising up the weak, and healing the spiritually sick (Ezek. 34). This is especially true when elders cannot or do not relate to younger Christians, those who are most susceptible to falling, are the future leaders of the church, and have the greatest need to be nurtured and equipped. Brother, we love you, but until you practice these things you should not be a shepherd.
As I mentioned in a previous article, deacons have nearly identical qualifications as elders. They should be quite capable of handling the needs that do not fall into the role of shepherds (Acts 6); but elders need to shepherd. After all, there is not time to be a manager in the church and at the same time connect closely enough with vulnerable Christians to lead them to become strong or have any influence over them when they stumble. The “stamp out fires” pattern of being an elder is counterproductive to shepherding. Without a relationship with weaker members before they are beset with trials or fall into sin, an elder has little or no real influence with a needy member. In these situations, an elder is seen as an authority figure, like going to the principal’s office when one has misbehaved in school. Here is where a shepherd especially needs to be proactive and not reactive. In any church, there are at least a third of the members who have a strong potential for failure or a strong need for maturity. These are the Christians upon which shepherds and other mature members should be focusing. Instead, too often we see shepherds primarily connected to mature members who are also hanging out with other mature members. This is not the pattern we see in Ephesians 4:11-16.
Lording It Over the Flock?
In 1 Peter 5, you will notice the command for elders to shepherd and be examples to the flock instead of being a lord over the flock. When elders fall into managerial roles, instead of fostering shepherding relationships, they lose the ability to know the personalities that make up the flock. In so doing, they lose the personal, compassionate touch needed to shepherd. When elders and other mature members see the church as an organization to be managed, the result is to govern the church instead of looking out after spiritual needs. Manager-elders are more externally focused, primarily giving their attention to Sunday and Wednesday assemblies and those who lead those assemblies. There is also a tendency to micro-manage the work of the members. There is a culture of needing permission to do God’s work or criticizing work that is done. This even spills over into worship where managerial rules are multiplied until every part of worship follows the same “template” from week to week. There is no room heartfelt expressions of faith or scriptural variations. Did the Lord’s Supper talk go too long? Let’s make a rule against that. Did the worship leader lead six songs instead of three? Let’s tell him to stop doing that. Anything that is a little out of the ordinary or doesn’t quite fit the tradition must be reigned in.
We can easily forget that we are not performing a “worship service,” but are a group of Christians coming together to stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). We have come to worship and honor God in order to grow to be more like Jesus, not polish up five acts of worship to look as pretty as possible. On the other hand, what is being neglected? Have the elders laid out spiritual goals for the church and how those goals will be met? Is there some plan for how we will evangelize the lost in the coming year? In what ways do the members need to be equipped for the work of service? Managerial elders cannot answer these questions and therefore can easily strain gnats and swallow camels.
We have all quoted 1 Peter 5:3 and the warning against becoming lords over the flock, but we rarely ask, “What would that look like? When has an elder gone from being a shepherd to being a lord? Lording is not just a bossy elder. It can be more subtle as when elders’ opinions are turned into rules. I think a better question is, how does an elder keep from lording? The answer is in the text. Shepherds don’t lord. Shepherds aren’t rule-makers. Shepherds lead, protect, seek the one astray, and bind up the wounded (Ezek. 34). When an elder is connecting and caring for the vulnerable in the church, he does not think about making his opinions into rules. In other words to avoid lording, don’t manage, shepherd.
If you are wondering what that looks like, consider how a husband relates to his wife. The home is where an elder learns his skill of leading the church. As a husband and father, I have not developed healthy leadership unless I have an ongoing relationship of love and nurturing. I must lead from the foot of the table. As a husband, do I force my opinions on my wife? Do I tell her how to hold the broom or dictate which pan she should use when cooking eggs? Do I complain my egg’s yoke is too runny or my hamburger lacks pink in the center? How do I speak to my wife when there is a problem or when I would like our family to make an adjustment? Do I bark orders? Or, do I say, “I have some ideas I would like to discuss with you so I can hear your suggestions and take our family to a better place”? Shepherds follow this latter procedure because they know God desires the church to function as a family not as a corporation where authority is exercised over others. Thus an elder should shepherd the church as he shepherds his family. Matthew records, “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave (Matt. 20:25-27).
I sympathize with the challenge elders face in using their time to primarily be shepherds, but the plea of the apostle Peter is, “Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock…”