[I’m sticking this post to the top of the stack for a few days to encourage further comment — pro and con.]
Jim K has put a challenge to me to figure a way to actually do something about our need for an elder-training problem.
The first task would be to design a program that actually meets the need.
The models that come to mind are —
* One day annual seminar
* Half-week annual seminar
* Week-long annual seminar
In my business (lawyering) we have to get a certain number of continuing education hours to keep our licenses. CPAs have to get 40 hours per year! It’s hard for a businessman or professional to take that much time off. And it’s even harder for an elder to schedule that much time away from home when he’s having to take vacation time — and perhaps pay his own way — to do it. Of course, some elders are retired, but many — maybe most — hold down a fulltime job and family responsibilities while taking on the work. And so I just can’t see a week-long program being very attractive.
ACU and Lipscomb have a joint program called ElderLink that does a one-day annual seminar across the country, it’s quite good, and yet sometimes poorly attended. I greatly appreciate the ElderLink program — and I attend religiously — but in my experience it’s not nearly enough.
The other model that’s out there is the half-week university lectureship — and there are several out there that are excellent. The Pepperdine Lectures are the best attended, and it’s a half week, running from 7:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night in a truly beautiful location (stairs notwithstanding). Many elders attend, and there are hundreds upon hundreds of classes, very well taught. And there are other lectureships equally well taught at other campuses, such the Abilene Summit and the Lipscomb Summer Celebration. And there’s the Tulsa Workshop.
All these lectureships are put on free of charge, and yet most elders do not attend any of them (although many do). In many churches, the preacher attends — the church generally pays — but not the elders, meaning that the elders aren’t exposed to the training, ideas, and experiences the preacher has.
We like to talk about being elder-led and not having a “pastor” system, but we train our preachers and don’t train our elders, with the result that either the preacher leads or the church is led poorly and the preacher is frustrated. It’s nuts.
I’ve attended all these (except the Tulsa Workshop). They are truly excellent, and yet there’s something lacking. I’ve been trying to put my finger on it. Let me run a few ideas past the readers and see if you all agree.
* I think the lectureships aren’t as well known among elders as they should be. There are far more churches represented by their ministers than their elders.
* The programs are often very practical and informative. Some even have elder tracks — designed for elder training.
* On the other hand, it seems clear to me that — as a rule — these programs aren’t designed by or for typical elders. Rather, they are designed by university administrators and ministers for what they figure elders need. And it’s not so much that they’re wrong as they’re incomplete.
* The lectureships try very hard to be cutting edge — dealing with today’s issues, the latest books, etc. — while most elders are still trying to catch up with issues that have been around for a long time. Where is the class that covers on a book, chapter, and verse basis whether we should fellowship “the denominations”? Where’s the class on how to help your church escape legalism — with book, chapter, and verse theology? I’m sure that these topics have all been taught, but the progressive universities seem to have blown right past the issues while the conservative churches are still arguing for our traditional position, and no one is explaining the Biblical basis for change. It’s either damnable heresy or too obvious to have to explain. Surely there’s a middle ground!
* The elder training at the lectureships often misses the real nitty gritty. Where’s the class on how to fire a minister with grace and compassion? Or handle the transition of a new minister in when the beloved, retired minister stays at the congregation? Or how to oversee a missions program? How to discipline members scripturally and with love?
I practice some as a bond lawyer, and in that business, we offer two main continuing education programs a year — one for cutting edge issues and one called “Fundamentals” for new bond lawyers. It’s a good model.
So here’s what I’m thinking — but I’m really not very confident in this, so I’m looking for ideas and criticism —
* Set up a half-week class on the basics of eldering. You can’t cover it all in half a week, so you have three curriculums that rotate year by year. After three years of attending, you’ve finished with the basics.
The natural place for this would be at several of the universities around the country, as they have the resources and every reason in the world to want to encourage institutional loyalty. You’d offer the course around the country at multiple campuses throughout the year.
* Thereafter, elders get “continuing education” at the lectureships. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. But the lectureships should have an advisory committee made up of practicing elders from the area the lectureship draws from to come up with practical topics needed by the elders. And I don’t just mean elders at 1,000-member churches. We need to meet the needs of elders in congregations of 200 or less, which is likely over 90% of our congregations.
* The preacher gets a discount, free lodging, or other incentive if he brings half or more of his elders with him to the lectures. I mean, we need something to break the mindset that elders don’t need training, and getting the preacher to push the idea seems a sensible path
Let’s see. There are several barriers to this idea that come to mind.
First, elders do not like to ask the church to pay for their travel costs. It seems like a conflict of interest (it’s not), and good elders are humble men who would rather the church’s resources go to other people. And yet many elders aren’t willing or able to pay their own way to Pepperdine or Nashville. Right attitude; wrong result.
We need to change the church culture so that continuing education is standard and in the church budget.
Second, many elders can’t go because they are in churches that consider ACU etc. “liberal.” Therefore, our more moderate schools need to be a part of the program. (Harding, this means you have a God-given opportunity to serve in this way.)
Third, it’s just really hard to get the word out in a fellowship where the periodicals aren’t read by many of our members — and the progressives don’t have a print periodical at all. There’s no central repository of elder names. The only list of Churches of Christ omits churches with an instrumental service (really, really wrong). Marketing will be a challenge.
There’s no easy solution, but I’d start by —
* Making the involvement of elders a central focus. I’d have on the cover of the lectureship mailing “for elders and ministers” — in that order, nice and big.
* Inviting elders to participate in the planning. Each lectureship should have a committee of respected elders from small and large churches helping to set the curriculum.
* Recruiting respected congregations in each community to recruit their sister congregations. Maybe you have lunches scheduled for the elders from Central Alabama to all meet on Thursday at the Lipscomb lectures and have two or three churches from the area send invitations to their sister congregations. We elders have a desperate need to meet with the elders in our sister congregations. And a little peer pressure goes a long way.
* Working Facebooks and the blogs and the forums.
* Avoiding the temptation to be sermon centered and therefore preacher centered. Search out the elders who are excellent teachers and let them teach. It’s fine to have some great sermons. Elders like sermons better than most. But I think elders will respond better to being instructed by elders or other experts most of the time. I mean, why don’t we ever have a human resources expert teach us about managing people? We are soooo inside-the-box.
* For the Fundamentals seminar, making a point of working the middle without catering to either side. Maybe you offer competing viewpoints.
* Encouraging gifted members who aren’t yet elders to attend — and figuring that after a few years the men with training will so excel that the training will sell itself.
So … what do you think? What would work better? Would such a model work at all?