Every time I say the words of the charge I am struck by the breadth and significance of the responsibilities assigned to officebearers. Listen once again:
Charge to the Elders
I charge you, elders, to "guard yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). Be a friend and Christlike example to children. Give clear and cheerful guidance to young people. By word and example, bear up God's people in their pain and weakness, and celebrate their joys with them. Hold in trust all sensitive matters confided to you. Encourage the aged to persevere in God's promises. Be wise counselors who support and strengthen the pastor. Be compassionate, yet firm and consistent in rebuke and discipline. Know the Scriptures, which are "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16). Pray continually for the church. Remember at all times that if you would truly give spiritual leadership in the household of faith, you must be completely mastered by your Lord (1 Tim. 3:2-7). Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons
Listening to these words I respond with “woe is me.” Every age group is mentioned and a variety of responsibilities are listed. Conspicuous by absence is administration and leadership of an organization—the very thing we spend so many meetings considering. Besides feeling overwhelmed and inadequate (see Do I Have What It Takes), the charge is so comprehensive that we are doomed to experience failure along the way. Will we ever know Scripture well enough, pray faithfully enough, be wise enough? So how do we hear these words as a calling and an encouragement?
A Way of Being
While particulars are mentioned, the charge is not fundamentally about the particulars. We ought not to start by making a list of activities and checking them off as we go about our work. The charge reveals a way of being among God’s people. I trust that one of the reasons an elder is nominated for the office is because others have seen some evidence of a walk with God. The compassion of Christ, wisdom formed by Scripture, the desire to live in faithfulness to God and follow the way of Christ had begun to take shape in the life of an elder.
This is a way of being. It speaks of the values that shape our lives. The charge is a call to deepen this way of Christ in our lives. This raises a question: what are we doing as elders that will encourage us to be formed by Christ? According to HC Lord’s Day 33 -quoting Scripture – the way of deepening our walk with God is “putting off the old self and putting on the new self”. It is marked by prayer and gratitude (HC LD 32). These are practices and conversations that mark a way of being.
Relationships of Compassion
The charge does not speak of program management, but of people—people whom God so loved that he sent his one and only son to give his life for them. This is not saying that programs are unimportant and that the stewardship of the church as an organization is trivial. Both are significant concerns. But you will not find them listed in the Charge to Elders. We do hear about children and aged, young people and those struggling with pain and weakness. The Charge focuses on people.
So elders need to focus on their relationships with people. Building these relationships requires action on multiple levels, not just the less-than-annual home visit. Some have more and better relationships in the congregation at the beginning of their eldership. So the question worth exploring is “what are we doing as an elder that builds our relationships with people who are attending worship?” Are we welcoming people into our homes? Are we spending time with various sectors of the congregation or only with our ‘group’? Do we provide opportunities for conversations on matters of our life with God or do we stay with the easy conversations about weather?
Ruled by Word and Spirit
The Charge reminds us that central to the task is the Word. There we find guidance for life, promises to encourage and words of correction. In scripture we hear the story of salvation that informs our faith and shapes our own story. Knowing Scripture is not optional. So the question is simple. How is our knowledge of Scripture increasing? The Spirit guides us in harmony with this Word of God. Increasing in knowledge means reading Scripture and studying it. To take the Charge of elder seriously invites us to reflect on our practices that develop this knowledge.
Verbs: Calls to Action
This charge is filled with commands: encourage, guide, rebuke, shepherd. It means we act in our relationships. This is not easy. We all know the hazards of speaking when we should be silent and being silent when we ought to speak. We are well aware of the damage that can be done and of blessing that can be given. The wonders of an apt word are many.
So the question is: how are we growing in our understanding (gaining proverbial wisdom) in our practices? Over the years I have gone to workshops on listening, on dealing with addictions, on abuse in the home and community, on marriage. These workshops were intended to give insight and provide ways of encouraging and rebuking that genuinely lead to setting things right and providing encouragement. We are never done exploring the mysteries of our common life. We are called to act but need wisdom.
Learning does not just happen. It means seeking wisdom. That means elders need to have a practice that seeks wisdom. So it would be helpful for councils and individuals to ask what do (we) I need to learn to be a better elder? What is the learning plan so that the verbs of the charge are practiced with wisdom?
While the charge can be overwhelming, we are also given an opportunity to work alongside God and serve Christ in our communities. When we see people grow in faith and the church grows in devotion to Christ, we receive a marvelous blessing.
May God give you deep joy in your service.