Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 5 (What is “administration”?)

shepherd3But doesn’t the Bible say that elders should be shepherds rather than administrators?

No, it most certainly does not. In fact, administration is listed as a gift of the Spirit in 1 Cor 12, and leadership is a gift of the Spirit in Rom 12.

Ancient kings were referred to as shepherds of the people — and they also had very real administrative duties. The two are not inconsistent in biblical thought.

Consider such passages as —

(Heb. 13:17 ESV) 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

(1 Thess. 5:12 ESV)  We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,

“Are over you in the Lord and admonish you” and “obey … and submit” clearly imply very real positional authority (even if you prefer to translate “obey” as “lead”).

“Overseer” in the Greek refers to a superintendent or supervisor. Middle management.

“Elder” refers to a community leader much like a combination city council member/mayor/city court judge. The elders of Jewish towns had authority to banish criminals, to decide disputes, and to determine who could enter the city through the gates. When the early church adopted this term, they were seeing the church in a Greek or Roman city as a city within a city — and the Christians had their own government, settled their own disputes, and held one another to account by their very different standards.

As a result, we want to push “shepherd” as meaning “consoler” or “counselor,” when in fact the ancient world saw things very differently.

Regarding John 10 and Jesus’ “I’m the Good Shepherd” discourse, Leon Morris comments,

Nowadays we think of the shepherd in terms of tender care and concern for the flock, thoughts that are legitimate for the ancient world as for the modern. But we should not overlook the fact that for people in biblical times other associations were also aroused by the term. The shepherd was an autocrat over his flock, and passages are not lacking where the shepherd imagery is used to emphasize the thought of sovereignty. Jesus is thus set forth in this allegory as the true Ruler of his people in contrast to all false shepherds.

Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 443–445.

Jesus is, of course, the ultimate model of a Shepherd over his people. Eze 34 and John 10 are about Jesus and God as ultimate Shepherd over God’s people. When we apply these passages to mere mortals (which we should do), we can’t re-interpret them so that mortal “shepherds” take on radically different roles from Jesus and God. There must be differences, of course, but we start by reading these passages in light of God and Jesus.

Elders should be shepherds — under-shepherds — in the way that Jesus is Shepherd. Right? And so our problem in defining the role of mortal shepherds results in large part from our having a very poor, very weak Christology. That is, we in the Churches of Christ were largely raised to be legalists, and so we see the Kingship of Jesus as being primarily about authority and control — and so we see our elders in these very same terms.

The solution is to build a better Christology — to understand Jesus and his relationship to his church better. But I’ve covered this ground many, many times. I’m going to skip to end.

First, this from NT Wright —

In many Eastern sheepfolds, the shepherd lies down at night in the gateway, to stop the sheep getting out and to stop predators getting in. Here Jesus seems to indicate the way in which the shepherd keeps the sheep safe, and, like God himself in Psalm 121:8, watches over their going out and their coming in. The emphasis is on the safety, and the fulfilled life, of the sheep. The shepherd has no business looking after his own interests. His priority are the sheep. Find a king like that, and you’ve found the Lord’s anointed.

Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 150.

So we have this tension: Jesus is the ideal Shepherd, and he has very real positional authority. He is not just a good example and comforter in times of distress. He is King. But he is a King who has died for his flock. He puts the flock above himself to care for them, love them, and do what’s best for them. He is a leader with real authority, but a self-sacrificing leader. He gives himself up for the sake of the flock.

Mortal elders will never measure up to Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we ignore Jesus as a model. Rather, we should expect our elders to put the needs of the church ahead of their own needs and preferences. Ideally, the church has no idea what kind of music the elders prefer — because it’s not about their taste and preferences. They have power but power under submission (as we’re considering in the parallel series on mission).

Organizations need leadership to be effective. Mission doesn’t just happen. Rather, the church has to be organized to encourage and support mission. (By “mission” I’m talking about everything covered as the church’s mission in the concurrently running series on The Mission of the Church.)

Now, that doesn’t mean the elders have to tell the members what and how to do mission. Rather, their job is to equip the members and empower them for mission — whether it’s taking food to someone in mourning or feeding a thousand families a week in the name of Jesus.

So the administrative elders (which may be all of them, of course) are charged with the church’s vision — and making certain that the elders, staff, and members stay on task. This requires sometimes saying “no” to a very good idea. Indeed, you’ll quickly learn whether the staff has a heart for the congregation (rather than their ministry or themselves) by observing how well they stick to the vision.

This is not what we think of as pastoral, but it’s self-sacrificing service. The elders may have to say no to each other, to their best friends, to their family — and they have model the discipline to work the plan that’s been made.

But if they have the hearts of shepherds, the congregation will have been brought into the visioning process. This is not routinely done — but the church will not take ownership of a vision imposed from on high. Staff will be impatient with the process, but taking the time to include the members in your planning will pay huge dividends in the long run.

On the other hand, the board of directors model would have the elders meet in secret, find a vision, and announce it to the church. The staff will usually be involved, but the members will ordinarily be cut out — and the result will be a very poor response from the church. People will not get excited about a vision that they weren’t involved in finding.

Hence, I’m no fan of preachers who fancy themselves as “vision casters,” meaning they read and book and went to a seminar but didn’t bother to talk to the flock. Elders can make the very same mistake.

So process matters, and if the goal of shepherding the flock is the spiritual formation of the flock (and that’s the biggest thing, I believe), the best way to mature the flock in the faith is to include them in planning and discernment process. But we just don’t know how.

So is this making sense? I mean, we have to stop thinking of “administration” and “leadership” as meaning “make the decisions for the church and tell them what to do.” Rather, administration and leadership is equipping and empowering the church to be on mission — so that the membership is sent out into the world on God’s mission for your congregation.

And this requires a very different way of doing business.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

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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3 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 5 (What is “administration”?)

  1. Mark says:

    My suggestions to a new elder include do not contract the oft-contagious illness of group think. Have an opinion. Don’t be afraid to disagree with the current elders and current thinking. Please don’t give the ordinary people reason to believe that you were made an elder because you think like the current ones do. I saw elderships as self-perpetuating and, thus, the thinking remains the same.

    Please represent and consider all people in the congregation, not just a faction. Congregations should not be a zero-sum game. Congregants should not feel like they need to get a lobbyist to reach you.

    Jesus wanted everyone to come to him and created room for all who wanted to join. While you may want to grow your congregation with traditional families with children who donate well, that may not be what you get. Please don’t contribute to the selectivity where churches don’t want people who are different and who don’t fit the mold.

    Please try to get to know the people who aren’t really wanted, even if you have to take time to go to dinner with them during the week or go to one of their Sunday brunches. I am coming from the perspective of the highly-educated young (urban) professional, politically center-left, pro-choice, with gay and atheist/agnostic friends and who sees men and women as totally equal. Listen to them. Answer their questions. Ask them questions. Some might think at first that you are there as a spy. Over time they might open up and let you in on what they really need. It might be something like how to defend the faith or argue for the existence of God. It might be about how to work in the secular world and have faith at the same time.

    Please read the gospel (and not by taking it out of context) to the congregation every Sunday and try to get the minster to preach on Jesus the majority of Sundays. I grew up hearing nothing of Jesus and everything about Paul. Please read the corresponding Gospel on holidays such as Pentecost, Easter, Palm Sunday, etc. Yes, I was jealous of the Christians (Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics) who got to hear the gospel read and traditional hymns sung on holidays.

  2. David says:

    These posts are good for elders and non-elders, alike. They give non-elders a look at what its like to be an elder,

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