Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 10 (Smelling Like Sheep)

shepherd3I am a fan of the work of Lynn Anderson, the author of They Smell Like Sheep. And I’ve been blessed to have had a couple of phone calls and meetings with Lynn in which the elders of my church sought his advice. He was very generous with his time and wisdom.

And I’m a fan of his book They Smell Like Sheep. I just wish more people would read it rather than assuming that it says what they wish it would say. (I do disagree with his studies regarding the supposed lack of authority of elders for reasons previously stated.)

Availability, commitment, and trust

Church leaders who shepherd well will foster congregational infrastructures that leave them plenty of time and opportunity for flock-building. A good deal of their leadership will be hands-on and personal — for this is how flocks are formed. The shepherd and flock relationship eloquently implies at least three qualities of spiritual leadership: availability, commitment, and trust. This is how spiritual flocks are formed today.

Anderson, Dr. Lynn. They Smell Like Sheep (p. 23). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

Amen. Notice that Lynn realizes the need for “congregational infrastructures” that free the elders to be more pastoral and relational. And this where we almost always fail. Rather, most elderships decide that they need to be more pastoral and so they add pastoring to their already overwhelming list of duties. Doesn’t work.

Availability requires that very careful thought be given to how to delegate enough other matters so that the elder is in fact available to his flock. This doesn’t just happen by accident — and many elderships structure their meetings in a way that separate them from the flock.

Lynn points out that trust is built over time, which is true, of course. I would add that there are two kinds of trust at issue. First, the members should trust each elder as an individual. In fact, it’s unlikely that a church would ordain a man that the church doesn’t think they can trust.

But trust is also necessary at the eldership level. That is, the elders as a group will act differently from their individual personalities. They may all be individually men of the highest integrity and very trustworthy — but as elders acting as a group, they may make decisions that cost them that trust. And the stink gets on them all, regardless of how they voted.

We’ll talk about the peculiarities of elder group dynamics that drive this behavior in a future post, Lord willing.

Commitment is, in my experience, rarely an issue. In fact, most elders I know are badly over-committed — but they seem to be uncommitted because they aren’t doing things that need to be doing. But it’s rarely a heart problem; it’s usually an organization problem.

Mentoring

Leaders of the church are charged to “encourage the timid [and] help the weak” and to serve and care for the flock. And while it may not be possible for the shepherds to personally, intentionally, hands-on mentor each sheep who needs mentoring, they, along with other church leaders, are to help these needy sheep find godly mentors. To provide for the mentoring needs of their local community of faith, the leaders must be intentional, continually expanding the circle of mentors by equipping others to mentor (we’ll talk more about equipping in future chapters).

Anderson, Dr. Lynn. They Smell Like Sheep (p. 54). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

As Lynn acknowledges, there is no way the elders can mentor every other member of the congregation. I find it helpful to look at the different needs for mentoring most churches will have.

  1. First, the elders need to be mentored. I mean, if they aren’t trained by mentors, where will they find the training they need? This is the most overlooked of all the mentoring needs — and likely the most needed.

Where would a new elder find a mentor? Well —

  • Among the existing elders.
  • Among retired elders.
  • Among elders at another congregation that has been through whatever my church is going through.
  • Among Bible professors at the Christian universities. Many of these men have served as elders and even teach continuing ed course for elders.

This is a novel concept in the Churches of Christ, but it shouldn’t be that hard in theory. The practical problem is the time demands already placed on many of these men. But it could work.

2. The ministers need to be mentored. And it’s increasingly common in the Churches of Christ for a minister to have created a formal network of friends to turn to for advice — which is a great thing.

I would be very cautious in having an elder mentor a minister that his church employs because (a) unless the elders was once in full-time ministry, he likely doesn’t have the experience needed and (b) it can lead to serious fracturing among the elders when the minister’s mentor has grown too close to him to be objective.

3. The next generation of elders. In theory, the elders would intentionally prepare men who are likely to become elders, but doing so would risk appearing to usurp the congregation’s role in nominating and affirming elders. Nonetheless, the elders can certainly make sure that likely future elders spend some time on the Ministries Team and teach enough classes for the church members to get to know them better. Being named a deacon does not necessarily prepare someone to be an elder. But running a major ministry of the church while having to deal with the other members and the staff will.

4. Newlyweds and new parents. Many of our members grew up in broken homes and have never seen a healthy marriage or wise parenting. Mentoring relationships are invaluable — and it doesn’t have to be an elder doing the mentoring. Rather, the elders might look for a way to create these relationships connecting experienced, proven parents with new parents or newlyweds.

5. New Christians. What better way to learn how to live the Christian life than to be mentored by an experienced Christian?

Now, in the law world, we largely train young lawyers through mentoring — and it takes years. It helps to be next to each other in the office so questions can be asked immediately and feedback given when needed. But church is part time for most members, and mentoring at that level is just not possible.

Rather, it’s more about being available and having the discipline to schedule regular meetings to talk.

Assimilation

As in many similar cases, lack of love and commitment on John and Mary’s part was not the problem, nor lack of love and commitment on the part of Friendly Countenance Church. Rather, as is frequently the case, the problem was simply that there were no people designated as equippers and no infrastructure that encouraged assimilation. Thus, they were never brought into a meaningful connection with Christ, his body, or his ministry at Friendly Countenance Church. Ineffective equipping and ineffective assimilation are two of the most critical growth-stoppers in many churches today.

Anderson, Dr. Lynn. They Smell Like Sheep (p. 80). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

Getting new members connected with the ministries and social life of the church requires a plan. Sometimes new members are able to push their way in, but in most churches, new members struggle to feel like they belong.

Although the assimilation process is often handled by a staff member or committee (committee is usually a better idea, but the committee may need the support of a staff member), this is at the heart of pastoral care. After all, if we expect our members to help pastor each other, then our new members have to be quickly connected with the systems that help this happen.

Equipping

Many gifted but inactive Christians ride the pews of nearly every congregation— just waiting to be challenged. They will not feel challenged, however, by busy-work assignments that give the superficial appearance of “involvement.” But they can and will become and remain excited if they are involved in the congregation’s ministry dream and given opportunities to exercise their own unique giftedness— and to be difference makers.

Just think what this could mean for you, weary leaders. As the members of your congregation feel a sense of ownership of the church’s mission and as they experience a sense of meaning and significance in their own efforts, a good deal of the stress will be taken off your shoulders. Some works of ministry can be spread around to others, who may indeed be far more suitably gifted than you are for many of the tasks you are now attempting.

Anderson, Dr. Lynn. They Smell Like Sheep (pp. 85-86). Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

Amen.

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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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One Response to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 10 (Smelling Like Sheep)

  1. Gary says:

    Congregational infrastructures that would allow elders to focus on pastoring the flock usually don’t exist in small congregations. When they do exist they may be frequently disrupted by loss of strategic members due to job moves. This is a real problem for small Churches of Christ which are by far the large majority of Churches of Christ. If a small congregation even has elders they are of necessity usually heavily involved in what should be the work of deacons and the minister is by necessity a pastor.

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