Advice to a New Elder: A Few Starting Points, Part 1

shepherd3Pray. We all sometimes get too busy to pray as we should, and this is always a mistake. Make the time.

There’s always one elder who just loves to stop the conversation and insist that everyone stop to pray. He’s right.

Keep your priorities straight. The family counselors make a point of telling husbands and wives that keeping their marriage healthy is more important than worrying with the kids. That is, you can’t be good parents unless you’re first good husbands and wives.

Just so, you can’t be a good elder without first being a good husband and father. It’s okay to miss an elders meeting to take care of family needs. Don’t let your family come to resent the time you spend on church matters.

The elders managed to get along without you these last few years, and they can get through another Wednesday or two on our own if we have to. One benefit of having more elders is the elders can better cover for each other. Take advantage of the blessing when you need to.

Don’t let the members get you down. Our church is actually pretty easy to shepherd, as congregations go. We have little divisiveness. The worship wars were largely fought by others some time ago.

However, even here, there will be times you suffer unfair criticism. Worse yet, this will generally happen in a situation where you can’t very well defend yourself. Sometimes you have to keep your reasons for making a decision a secret, and some of our members will inevitably assume the worst possible motives. The more you insist that you have good and righteous reasons for keeping a secret and making the decision you made, the more they’ll be convinced that you’re guilty of some sort of a cover up. It’ll hurt.

Take comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our members don’t think like this and in fact give you the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, my experience is that the members who indulge in conspiracy theories are really just venting their unhappiness over your decision—in a deeply pathological way, of course—and they’ll get over it.

Communicate! Better yet: Over-communicate! We sometimes forget that just because the elders, or the elders and the staff, know something, this doesn’t mean the church knows it. We often assume that someone else will remember to send an email or publish a bulletin article. Of course, these things don’t just happen.

Don’t ever make a decision without following the decision with a direction to someone to put the word out to the right people.

People fill their lack of knowledge with their worst fears. Silence will inevitably lead to speculation and rumors. Put the word out and do so quickly.

Then do it again. Not everyone read their bulletin. Not everyone was at the meeting where the announcement was made. Repeat the announcement!

Also: explain your rationale. If you want to cancel children’s classes for a month, tell the church why. Use email to approve an agreed explanation. Don’t wing it. Not ever.

In fact, if you’ll discipline yourself to always talk about how to make the announcement, you’ll sometime realize that you don’t really know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Some staff member made the recommendation and you agreed based on your faith in the staff person. Or because the votes were obviously there. And none of this will sound good or wise to your church.

If you take the time to figure out how to explain it to the church, you may realize that you were just about to make a huge, public mistake.

So make this a routine discipline — and stay as late and work as long as it takes to put together a compelling explanation.

Do not delegate to the preacher — unless you require that he give you the explanation in advance and you all approve it. It’s not about control. It’s about making good decisions and then having the church realize that you are making a good decision.

You see, you are in the —

Perception management business. Being right is not enough. The fact that God smiles on your brilliant and wise decision does not mean the church will. In fact, if you don’t bother to explain your thinking, they’ll think you’re high handed and arbitrary — or under the thumb of the staff. They’ll fill the vacuum of their knowledge with their fears. And you cannot change this. You can only avoid it by anticipating and answering their questions.

Don’t do everything you wish you could do. Elders are expected to meet, teach, go to all the church events, set an example of service to the community, attend visitations and funerals, visit the hospital, know everyone’s name, know why each sick person is sick, repair every broken marriage, know the meaning of the most obscure Bible verses … and the list goes on. You can’t do it all.

And you’ll feel guilty for being less than perfect. When the church wants to add more tasks to your list—expecting you to work a fulltime job, spend some family time, and then add untold volunteer hours on this or that—get comfortable saying no.

More precisely, get comfortable with dividing the work up among the elders and ministerial staff and church volunteers. We don’t have to all attend every funeral. We don’t have to all know every member. But the church leadership together ought to be able to cover all the funerals and know all the names.

And delegate!!! Let your members learn to lead and maybe one day be qualified to be elders themselves. Don’t hog all the decision making.

Don’t procrastinate making hard decisions/Take all the time hard decisions require. It’s easy to let the hard decisions slip to the next meeting … and the next and the next. Elders are, by nature, pleasers. They want to make people happy. And some decisions inevitably will make some members unhappy, no matter which way you go.

Waiting too long only makes it worse. Make the best decision you can, grit your teeth, and get on with business.

But sometimes the talking and thinking and praying seems to take forever. You want to just make a decision and get on with life even though it’s really just not time yet. Taking the time to build consensus among the elders is worth the time. Waiting on God to move–to answer prayer, to give assurance—is worth the time.

Dig in. Take whatever time you need to get it right. Don’t procrastinate.

Never forget how important teamwork is. You are not so much an elder as a part of an eldership. The authority is in the eldership, not the individual elders.

I’ve frequently mentioned Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team as the template for how an eldership should work together. Read it once or twice a year.

Teamwork requires that you voice your doubts and questions. Don’t leave the table unconvinced. Don’t worry about hurting feelings if you are unpersuaded and need to talk about it more. Say what’s on your heart.

Be polite but don’t let fear of confrontation keep you from asking the hard questions. That’s your job. Do it.

 

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: A Few Starting Points, Part 1

  1. “If you take the time to figure out how to explain it to the church, you may realize that you were just about to make a huge, public mistake.” A M E N and again I write A M E N

    Think it through all the way. Keep asking, “and then what happens?”

    Another question to ask is, “And if we do this, how will this better the congregation and bring us all closer to Jesus?”
    And then when you have an answer, ask the question again about that answer.
    Repeat a few (dozen) times if needed.

  2. Monty says:

    Jay,

    No longer able to access recent comments on some of the different topics such as : Born of Water. Not sure if it’s on your end or my computer. Thanks.

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