Elders: Developing shepherds in God’s image
The ancient church leaders illustrate that appointing elders was an important part of the health, growth and establishment of the Christian congregations. For Paul, developing and appointing elders was a major task in establishing and developing new and healthy churches.
Today, however, many churches exist without elders. For some, elders seem like a luxury. For others, they are a hassle. Still others make the position unattainable for any imperfect human being.
However, few churches intentionally train and develop Christians for this leadership position. While we do an outstanding job identifying, training and developing evangelists, elders seem to be an afterthought. Even worse, on the mission field, few evangelists see training and developing elders as their role, even though they spend time training other preachers.
As a church planter who left an established church, I see the need for good leaders who are gifted at shepherding. The early church teaches us important lessons concerning elders.
First, elders are relational. The verbs for bishop/overseer in Hebrew suggest “giving attention to” people. Pastor/shepherd is also a relational word, indicating a personal involvement in the lives of people under his care.
Both words describe God’s actions with his people. God gives attention to, is concerned for and guides humans. He develops and nurtures those who are weak. He protects the oppressed and confronts the oppressor. Likewise, Jesus is both shepherd and bishop of our souls. Elders who shepherd and give attention to the congregation reflect the ministry style of God Jesus, and the Spirit. Elders are necessary to the health and growth of the church because people need relational leaders.
Second, elders were affirmed by both God and people. They lived among the community and led by example. As part of the community, they were able to identify those who were weak and in need of guidance. Since the word for bishop also means “to visit,” elders — like God and Jesus — intervene personally to meet with people and encourage them.
Third, elders were intentionally developed by other ministry leaders. From the early stages of a church, Paul and the other evangelists sought out leaders to shepherd the congregations.
We intentionally train evangelists for new churches. We build preacher training schools in new mission fields. We encourage young people to enter ministry. We should carry this same passion into training others to shepherd churches. Few churches, and elders, can tell the congregation who will be their elders in the next two, five or 10 years. Being intentional about elder development gives a church hope for their future.
Fourth, elders were primarily family men and reflected a compassionate character. Often I am told, and observe firsthand, that elders are chosen if they are successful businessmen, community leaders, good speakers or from an influential family in the church.
However, the biblical text emphasizes family men and men of compassion as those candidates for this ministry. Elders are to be committed husbands and family men. Concerning families, Paul does not use the common Greek term and concept for managing their families but a unique term that suggests involvement.
Most Roman/Gentile males hired slaves to raise their children or delegated the child rearing to their wives. However, Paul expected elders to be involved in their home. They are to be gentle, peaceable and hospitable and have a good reputation in the community.
The church today has an opportunity to grow by focusing energy on these leaders who are absent from many churches. In my work with men in ministry and with domestic/sexual violence issues, I have found that a quality missing in the normal behavior of males is empathy and compassion. The ancient world, like today, also lacked this empathy and compassion. Modern church leaders need to reflect these ethical qualities to young people seeking acceptance, support and healing.
First, elder development must be intentional. As an evangelist, I have been taught that training, appointing and developing elders is one of my main tasks in ministry.
Now as a church planter, I experience the freedom to seek out and develop healthy couples to shepherd people who come to the Agape Church of Christ for healing and hope. However, we must be intentional and share this vision with those who may be gifted to lead in this ministry.
Second, we live in a world deeply affected by dysfunctional marriages, father wounds, violent males, sexual shame, self injury and addictions. The modern church cannot nurture the faith of men and women scarred by these dysfunctions if elders are emotionally distant, spiritually immature, abusive, lack empathy and compassion or fail to be loving husbands or fathers.
We need healthy role models for our marriages, sexual purity and definitions of manhood and womanhood. This comes through people of compassion and empathy.
Finally, our ministers and their families are among the most neglected people in our churches. Articles that list Top 10 low-paying jobs/high-stress jobs routinely include ministers. Ministers and their families are vulnerable to rejection, sin and burnout. They depend on the church and elders to be their families and provide models of healthy behavior, support, guidance and spiritual development.
Unfortunately, many elders see the minister as a threat rather than an ally.
Ministers are also expected to shepherd people, which prevents them from becoming active as community leaders and a prophetic voice in a dark world.
Elders who shepherd ministers and their families help them develop their giftedness for evangelism and provide a safe place to grow, find support and gain acceptance and strength.
RON CLARK is the lead church planter for the Agape Church of Christ in downtown Portland, Ore. He received his doctorate in ministry from Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., and serves as an adjunct faculty member at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland. He is the author of the book “Emerging Elders: Developing Shepherds in God’s Image,” published by Leafwood Publishers. He and Lori, his wife of 22 years, have three sons.