I thought I’d get your perspective on what a biblical eldership looks like. Our current elders are using the Lynn Anderson material (DVD, workbooks, etc) “They Smell Like Sheep,” to try to become better shepherds, but it seems there are some on our visioning team (not elders) who feel that the shepherds should be prayer warriors and spiritual counselors/mentors, but should step away from the ‘business’ side of church leadership.
So my question is, what is the leadership structure of your church like? Do you know of any churches of Christ that are leading with either some type of committee, or even staff as its principal ‘business’ leadership while the elders serve strictly in spiritual, prayer, counseling, mentoring roles? How is it working for them? And how did they make the transition to that type of leadership structure?
Thanks in advance, and God bless,
(btw, I love your website, it is such a wealth of information, I read it often. Thanks for taking the time to share that information with the rest of the brethren!)
That’s a really good question. It’s one we’ve been wrestling with at my church for years. So I have to say in advance that what I say is not the official position of our eldership or church or anyone but me — and I might change my mind tomorrow — or before I finish this post. This is going to be a little scattershot, but it’s the best I’ve been able to do.
There’s a wave of thought in the Churches to go to what some call the “shepherding model,” where the elders become “shepherds” only and the staff picks up much of the rest of the church operations — such as ministry oversight, budgeting, and sometimes even hiring and firing. While theories vary, the gist of the idea is that the elders spend their time in prayer and in counseling and mentoring, while turning the rest of the leadership over to the staff, deacons, or volunteers.
There are in fact congregations that have done this whole hog. Other congregations have moved some elders to a pure “shepherd” role leaving two or three elders to handle the ministries, staff, and money, typically together with the preacher and/or an executive or administrative minister. I think the second structure is more common than the first — as it’s very unusual in the Churches of Christ for the elders to delegate hiring and firing to the pulpit minister or an executive minister. But that’s been done — and sometimes with great success.
Here’s how I’ve got it figured. There are three words used in the scriptures to describe the work of elders.
1. “Shepherd” certainly requires elders to be far more than business managers or a board of directors. Lynn Anderson’s excellent They Smell Like Sheep: Spiritual Leadership for the 21st Century is a great book and argues well that elders must be more involved in the members’ lives and deal with far more than the budget. Amen.
2. But elders are also “overseers,” and that word really means “supervisors.” I’ve checked every use in the Septuagint and the New Testament.
3. And elders are, of course, “elders,” and that word refers to the leaders of the synagogues and, before that, of the Israelite cities. These were men who were a combination of city council and city court. They literally sat at the city gate and decided who could come into the city, and they decided disputes among the inhabitants. During the time of Jesus, the elders of the synagogues had considerable authority, although we don’t have much detail —
(Mat 16:21 ESV) 21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
(Mat 21:23 ESV) 23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
(Mat 26:3-4 ESV) 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.
(Mat 27:1 ESV) When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
(Mat 27:11-12 ESV) 11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer.
(Luk 22:66-68 ESV) 66 When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes. And they led him away to their council, and they said, 67 “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, 68 and if I ask you, you will not answer.
(Act 4:5-7 ESV) 5 On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
(Act 24:1 ESV) And after five days the high priest Ananias came down with some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus. They laid before the governor their case against Paul.
The elders in Jerusalem (presumably, elders of the Jerusalem synagogue) do not come off well in the Gospels or Acts, but they clearly were men of considerable authority and were called on to judge disputes, including religious disputes. The Roman government considered them representatives of the Jewish people.
And yet, despite how badly they come across in the scriptures, Acts calls the leaders of the Christian congregations “elders” with no irony. Indeed, even in Jerusalem the church is led by the apostles and elders — so the church clearly followed some elements of the pre-existing Jewish practice, setting up a parallel system of elders. They could have chosen another word, but Luke prefers “elders” despite his frequent references to the elders in Jerusalem who were enemies of the kingdom.
The idea seems not to be to end the authority of elders, but to have elders who are truly men of God filled with the Spirit, exercising servant leadership as Jesus taught. Of course, the elders of the church would not have any recognition by Rome and would have no political authority. But the church surely used the term intending to continue the ancient practice — although with changes appropriate to the new covenant and the kingdom.
4. Oh, and “shepherd” means shepherd, and shepherds not only comfort and heal and protect the sheep, they lead the sheep to find good food and water. The sheep go where the shepherds lead.
5. Elders are specifically charged with protecting the church against false doctrine (Acts 20:29-31; Tit 1:9). And this seems to be consistent with the Jewish elders of the day.
And so, it appears clear that elders/overseers/shepherds are to have authority in the church and to exercise oversight. However, it’s also clear enough that they can delegate that authority — as in Acts 6, where deacons were appointed to care for the Hellenistic widows, and as Moses had done.
Therefore, elders cannot abdicate their ultimate responsibility, but they can delegate to staff, to members, to teams of members and staff — as the Spirit and wisdom require. So the question is what is wise and where does the Spirit lead?
Now, I should add that delegation of responsibility also means delegation of authority and discretion. The elders have to empower those they delegate to to do their jobs without being second guessed and micro-managed, but without capitulating and abdicating. It’s no easy thing.
The wise course, I think, is for the elders to carefully explain to the staff or volunteers to whom they are delegating what they want and what the expectations are — and to then hold them accountable for just that and to not second guess decisions made within the authority delegated.
It’s not that the elders can’t override decisions, but that it’s very demoralizing to people have their decisions overruled when the volunteers were doing as instructed.
On the other hand, occasionally it will be necessary to step in a gently and lovingly make corrections, re-train the volunteers and staff, or even work with them to re-vision the ministry. The elders are ultimately responsible, need to let those things delegated stay delegated, but need to correct sufficiently severe problems before things get entirely out of hand — but they should do this rarely.