Why be an Elder? In Response to Wendy

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Hi Wendy,

I was hoping that some people would respond by sharing their models of pastoral care.  Maybe they still will. 

Let me suggest that two fundamental problems (pastoral care model, people willing to stand for the office of elder) you are struggling with are common and solutions that genuinely solve the problems more rare.  I imagine this is why it is so hard to respond.  But this is precisely why we have this network, to try to work things out together.  

It does inspire me to reflect on a question: why is it that members of the congregation are not clamoring to serve in the office of elder? If everyone said this was a fulfilling and rewarding ministry, would we not have at least a few more people ready to embrace the work? 

You mention the practice of elder visitation (home visit).  Just one look on the forum and I realize that this is a major concern for many people.  Some see it as valuable. Some don’t.  The difference is reflected in any congregation.   But that raises an issue: why would I stand for the office of elder when I think that its primary work (Home Visit) is no longer a meaningful ministry in the congregation? 

Their experience has been that elders make poor visits (just a social visit),  do not provide useful counsel, and attend far too many meetings at which little happens.  While they may have heard of some who do an admirable job, they have had far too many other experiences.  When small groups and other caregivers become involved, whatever was of value seems to have been taken away.  So why do we have pastoral elders? Why home visits?  What value does the office of pastoral elder bring to the life of the community? It has to be more than fulfilling a requirement of the church order. 

Here are four distinct ways that this question has been answered: the purpose of elder visitation is

  1. To provide pastoral care, that is, to provide comfort (encouragement) in times of struggle.  The term, pastoral care, is usually associated with times of sickness, death, trauma, and other similar events.  In other words, if everything is OK there is no felt need for a visit. 
  2. To check up on people, see how they are and connect with them.  This seems lighter and perhaps not critical. 
  3. To see how they are responding to the ministry and community of the local church.  This is certainly an important task.   But it seems to be closer aligned with administration (feedback loop and evaluation).  When elders return with anecdotal conversations, they are precisely that- anecdotal.  And addressed – not to administration but pastoral elders. 
  4. To provide spiritual direction/ leadership in the household of faith.  I personally like this, but it also raises many questions.   First, what do we mean by spiritual leadership and direction?  They are not common terms in our community and at times are associated with harmful practices.  And second, what skills are needed for this ministry?  What practices need to be part of such eldership? While elders have practiced this in the past, it does seem to be more unfamiliar territory. 

I mention these because we need to know the why.   Busy, engaged members who already have a meaningful ministry in the life of the community are not so eager to engage in ministry that seems like a lot of sitting around in meetings, or doing things that seem less valuable. 

The fourth point I suggest is the central task of the elder.  It involves hearing the voice of God in the community and connecting that voice to the lives of the people of God – collectively and individually.  If that is the key purpose then we need to ask what practices would help elders engage in this work among the people of the congregation.

One can’t address the overlap in ministries or the difficulty in finding people to stand for office without naming the core ministry and value to the congregation for the office of the pastoral elders. 

Many things flow from this fundamental decision:

  1. If hearing the voice of God is critical, how do the practices of elders in their meeting reflect the call to discern God’s voice to the congregation?
  2. What does the agenda look like? 
  3. By what practices do we connect the word of God to the life of members? 

When the core value is named and the practices developed, then the perceived value of the ministry is enhanced.  Maybe then, people would be clamoring to join the pastoral elders.  

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Hi Neil, The process of nominating elders is often a issue too. If you are new or not popular, your chances of being nominated are greatly reduced. Maybe were asking the wrong people?

Thanks

Ken

Could it be that our whole process of electing elders and deacons neads to be changed? In our church (and I assume in most CRC churches) we serve 3 year terms, each year 2 are retired and 2 are elected to replace them. It doesn't take long in a congregation of around 200 members to exaust the list of possible candidates. You pretty much can expect to recieve "the letter" 3 years after your last term of service. Maybe, instead of going through this revolving door, we should examine the role of elder a little closer. As elders, we have been studying the book, "The Shepherd Leader" by Timothy Witmer, which is an excellent book on how to be an effective leader in the church. It talks about the importance of shepherding leadership in the Bible and how we can apply this in our roles today. When the church first began with the preaching of Paul and Peter and other apostles, elders played a very important part in the new churches. They filled the roles of teachers and administrators. Over the years, many of these responsibilities have been transferred to the pastor.

What I'm wondering is:

1) Is everyone quallified to be an elder? I don't think so. We have all been given certain gifts to use to God's glory.

2) Does the term of elder need to be limited to 3 or 4 years? Is there evidence in the Bible that there were elections for the office of elder or were they annointed to this office for life?

3) If we are going to continue with limited terms of service, there should be a better way of preparing men and women for this office than simply letting them stumble through their first year. I'd like to hear stories from other churches on how they train their elders and future elders.

Before I became an elder, I knew it was an important job in the church. What I did not know, were the admonitions in Scripture for leaders of the church. As God's chosen leaders, we have a great responsibility to care for the flock. It takes time to build a relationship with the members as a shepherd leader. Is 3 years enough time to do that?

Looking forward to replies,

Steve Nyenhuis

Steve you didn't say whether the 200 members were adults or included all the children.   If it is 200 total, with about 100 adults, then you could probably expect about 25 or so to be able to serve as leaders, (elders/deacons).   This might depend on the maturity of the church.   Some younger churches are more mature than some older churches...   Anyway, if you have six elders, they could rotate every four years and you would be okay.   Occasionally a new elder would come in, and an older elder would pass away, or would simply be a "retired" elder, helping only on specific occasions when requested. 

The twelfth apostle to replace Judas was elected, but it seems other elders were appointed, although scripture does not indicate what methods were used to appoint them. 

Training happens partly at congregational meetings, where procedures and leadership are demonstrated.  Then it happens also at the initial consistory meetings.  But the real training for the spiritual leadership, must be a lifelong thing, starting while children are learning about scripture and participating in a relationship with their Lord and Saviour.   It is then that they learn about caring for others, initiating projects that build up the community of faith, as it builds up their family in their christian response.  The training should occur in sunday school, catechism classes and boys and girls clubs, where they learn about leadership and responsibility and learn about the significance of the practices of their church, and about the various aspects of worship. 

The building of relationships also ought to occur before, perhaps long before an individual is appointed as a leader/elder.   Then the responsibility of eldership will naturally outflow from the previous roles and relationships. 

I think your idea on terms is a key point. To be a Elder, you should want to be there in that role. Second, the church should screen the prospect on there attitude and knowledge of what a Elder is supposed to be and third open the opportunity to women who express the qualities.

  Elders should concentrate spiritual health and care of the church and not on physical  church needs. Besides what is the purpose of having a church other than saving and  caring for souls of people so they can worship the Lord.

Community Builder

Hi Steve, I noticed this article from the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  Not so long ago they adopted a policy that allowed for elders serviingfor a term rather than for life.  In this article they reflect on their experience.   http://www.presbyterian.ca/webfm_send/4215

Neil

As a small church, we have generally stopped having elections for elders and deacons.  Rather, we have affirmation votes by the congregation.  We do not seem to have difficulty finding elders even though we have never had females for nomination.  I think possibly the reason, is that elders are seen to be leaders, and are respected for their work.  The fact that they are elders does not mean that they stop being sunday school teachers, lead services in the seniors home, join in with the band or choir, or whatever else they are doing.  As elders and deacons, they are expected to be leaders, to teach, to pray, to lead services, to decide on offerings and promote mission efforts, to take responsibility for various activities, to make decisions.   They may or may not make home visits, but their decision is basically respected.  Perhaps the role of elders and former elders in leading services, reading or preparing sermons also helps to highlight the role of elders, as this happens often in our church; between 25-50% of services are led by elders/deacons. 

More respect for the office of elder might help.   For example, there is no biblical reason why elders could not administer Lord's supper without the help of a paid pastor.  There is no biblical reason for not encouraging more elders to lead bible studies and prepare sermons (under guidance of consistory).   There is an overabundance of distinctions made between the role of pastors/ministers and the role of elders, and this is unscriptural, and leads to an abandonment of christian leadership responsibility. 

One of the distinctions is that "miniisters' have a lifelong calling while 'elders" do not.  This is artificial, unbiblical, elitist, and makes it seem that elders can barely carry out their duties for two or three years before begging for relief.   While there may be some benefit to having on-duty and off-duty elders, there is no scriptural basis for removing them from office simply because time has run out or they will not be required to attend meetings, or re-installing them as if being re-ordained, simply because they are again attending meetings. 

I've been at churches where the preachers do not administer the Lord's Supper, but elders do that instead.   And at churches where as many as four or five other people (possibly elders/deacons) will lead in prayers and where elders give the blessing and benediction, rather than the pastor.  This reinforces the respect for the office of elder, which is really the office that receives the most attention in scripture in the new testament.   (Not the office of pastor.)   And all offices are referred to as ministries (service), not just the preacher/pastor.