The eldership team needs to continue growing or else stagnation, discouragement or failure will occur. The following is a plan for developing spiritual and shepherding growth for the elders.
The Scripture says to elders, “Be on guard for yourselves …” (Acts 20:28a). This precedes “…and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” (Acts 20:28b). In order to guard the church, the elders must first guard themselves.
Elders need to be alert to the many things which can derail their ministry. For the elder this begins with having a growing, positive, inner spiritual life. In horticulture, a healthy lawn keeps out weeds. A good defense begins with a good offense. It is assumed that by virtue of being an elder, a man is spiritually mature. But the mature man knows his weaknesses and how easily Satan can sideline him with failure in the inner life. Since elders should already know the essentials for maintaining and growing their spiritual lives, we just list a few emphases here:
- Make nurturing your own inner life a priority. The one who gets overworked with the ever-demanding ministry of shepherding may neglect his own inner life. This is a formula for burnout. Preparing to lead a bible study is not the same as studying the Word for the nourishment of the elder’s own soul.
- Invite accountability. Elders should be open to being held accountable. They should be courageous enough to hold each other accountable. One example of how this could work is at every elders’ meeting to have each elder share one significant thought they have enjoyed during the previous weeks daily quiet times. Other ways can and should be developed to make accountability happen.
The elder must become a master of his own personal growth, because there are few who will watch over him in this area of life. As is often taught in basic discipleship courses, spiritual formation takes place by developing the spiritual disciplines. This involves, among other things, daily times of personal worship, prayer, reading and meditation. Personal worship necessitates a growing knowledge and appreciation of the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the one whose glory alone we seek to magnify.
“… grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:18)
…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death…” (Philippians 3:10)
Knowing Christ is transformative. This knowledge comes in a variety of ways as we walk through life experiencing his presence through faith. But it also comes through the concerted, spiritual exercise of reading his word and meditating on it. So, first, we recommend a regular reading program that takes the elder through the Scripture repeated over and over again, through the years. This is a long term effort, because mature shepherding arises from long-term personal growth.
Second, allowing others to minister Christ to us expands our understanding of the Great Shepherd beyond our own abilities to discern. To this end, we suggest a regular regimen of listening to recorded sermons and reading good books that take you deeper in your knowledge of Christ—both are indispensable. Here are a few books we recommend:
- “The Training of the Twelve,” by A.B. Bruce
- “Our Lord Prays For His Own: Thoughts on John 17,” by Marcus Rainsford
- “Spiritual Depression,” by D. Martin Lloyd-Jones
- “Worship, The Christian’s Highest Occupation,” by A.P. Gibbs
- “The Cross of Christ,” by John R.W. Stott
- “Search the Scriptures,” Alan M. Stibbs, ed.
Concerning prayer, there are many books and guides for developing the prayer life. For elders, we suggest a pattern of regularly praying for the people in the congregation. Make a simple schedule that includes everyone in your church including visitors. Depending on the size of your church, you could pray for a few each day covering the whole body of believers in a short period of time—then repeat. Constant prayer is key. Depending on the elder’s persuasion, fasting might be included as he is laying before the Lord the needs of the congregation. We recommend also praying at elders meetings systematically through the list of attenders at your church.
Ministry Skill Growth
While men become elders because of their desire and qualifications, there is much room for growth. If an elder is not growing, then he stops being fresh and effective. We recommend devising a specific plan to ensure that “on the job” development takes place. Even for long time, established elders, this on-going training provides a reminder and a refresher. Many companies in the business world have learned the value of regular training, even repetition of basic concepts as a means for ensuring quality service. How much more should this be the case for the most important “service organization” in the world, namely, the church.
Training should be well thought out. The old adage is still true: if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.
Here are some ideas for the ministry growth for the existing elders:
- Group studies. The elders study together a topic of doctrine or shepherding. One church, for example, purchased a set of videos from a “Preaching Conference.” The elders viewed one video per month, followed by a lively discussion time.
- Group reading. The elders read a suggested book related to being an elder or shepherding the church, with discussion on issues raised in the book. The specific books can be generally agreed upon or each elder in turns determining the book to be selected.
- Attending conferences together. Nothing improves the value of attending a conference than when a group of like-minded individuals attend together and follow it up with discussions.
- Identifying individual gifts, strengths and weaknesses. An elder should function primarily in the areas for which God has gifted him. But an elder may need to grow in his abilities and at times serve in an area in which he is not particularly gifted or has a weakness. This development can be accomplished in a number of ways:
– Mentoring One Another. One elder with experience or who is particularly skilled in one area can help others develop that area. For example, new elders could be paired up with experienced elders to learn how to visit the sick or do pre-marital counseling.
– Being Mentored. Existing elders can seek a mentor from outside the church. We have the biblical example of Timothy, Titus and others who continued to be mentored by Paul long-distance. The wise elder will find godly, wise elders elsewhere to whom they can go for help and counsel.
Discouragement can happen with conscientious elders. Overwork, criticism, conflict, tiredness, lack of appreciation or “results” can wear a man down. Discouragement needs to be combatted on two levels:
- Encourage yourself. The elder needs to learn to encourage himself in the Lord. Young David when he was on the run from King Saul, provides a model for this:
"Moreover David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered, each one because of his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God." (1 Sa 30:6)
To encourage means “to give courage to.” This is what is meant by “strengthen” in this context (and in fact, the KJV translates this, “David encouraged himself in the Lord”). To strengthen oneself is to give oneself courage to carry on and not give up. An elder may not necessarily quit, but he can easily go into “neutral” or adopt a passive attitude toward the flock of God. He must, therefore, exercise his faith to encouraging or strengthening himself in the Lord.
- Shepherd one another (1 Thess 5:11). Who shepherds the elders? Who knows and understands the pressures and burden that an elder experiences than another elder? Only the elders do. Therefore, elders need to shepherd one another. This requires humility and love. Following are some considerations on how to shepherd one another:
– Pray for one another
– Watch for signs of stress and burnout in your fellow elders
– Remind each other of what the aged apostle Peter told the scattered elders of Asia Minor,
"And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory." (1 Pe 5:4)
– Remind each other of the truths emphasized by the Apostle Paul to weary workers:
"Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. (Gal 6:9)
"But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good." (2 Thess 3:13)
– Remind each other of what the writer of Hebrews put as central to carrying on for the long term:
"For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." (Heb 12:3) d.
– Seek to understand what specifically encourages each elder.
– Be in the habit of sharing words of encouragement, acknowledging the work of the other elders, celebrating their gifts and skills.
Retreats & Sabbaticals
In his training of the twelve apostles, our Lord Jesus Christ, the model of shepherding, said, “Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while” (Mk 6:31). The text does not tell us how often or how long these times of respite were, but the idea of taking a break with the Lord is mandated. In the practice of shepherding the people of God, spiritual retreats are needed. Two kinds can take place:
- Elder retreats. The shepherds of the church ought to get away for a day or a weekend together, say, once or twice a year, for a time of spiritual refreshment and encouragement. This can include shared devotionals, prayer and relaxing-fun time together. Some elder teams plan this into their regular yearly schedule. Having an outside speaker can provide fresh insights that can minister to the souls of the elders. Or the retreat could entail an in-depth study together of a particular theological, doctrinal or practical issue of ministry.
- Individual Sabbaticals. The constant wear and tear of shepherding the church can accumulate. Some churches have a policy that each elder must regularly take a year off from the responsibilities of eldership. The Scripture does not address the issue of term lengths for elders, so godly wisdom must prevail. One example is to have one or more elders (depending on the size of the group) rotate out of elder responsibilities every five years for one year. The sabbatical elder(s) is still included if large decision are necessary, but is largely absent from the normal elder responsibilities. This time off will give him a chance for needed rejuvenation—simply put, a break from the load of responsibility.
The above may seem overwhelming. But with careful planning and scheduling, and pruning unnecessary things from your life, these suggestions are do-able. In fact, they are necessary for healthy and effective shepherding for the long term. An eldership team that is vigilant in guarding themselves and growing in their shepherding skills will be able to adequately shepherd the church of God that is under their care.
Sustaining existing elders is important, as we have noted. However, plans should be made for a continuous identification and training of new elders. For this, go on to the next section, “Adding New Elders."