Church planting is the best time to implement biblical eldership; there is no history in the church to overcome and no existing leadership structure that needs to be changed. Of course, if there is a “sending” or “mother” church, its leadership structure may affect the new church, but the implementation will be easier than changing an existing church. Yet at the same time, church planting has its own initial leadership challenges, which we will address.
There are three primary questions that need to be answered, which will affect everything else.
1. What or who is the impetus behind the new plant? The answer to this question will affect everything else. There are three possibilities:
a. A “mother” church sponsors or plants the new church. In this case, the mother church provides the guidance and accountability for the process.
b. A missionary or church-planter initiates and then guides the new church plant. He may or may not be accountable to a commissioning church or group.
c. A group of individuals independently plants the church. This group goes out without direct accountability to or guidance by any other church or organization.
2. What is the priority for establishing biblical eldership? Are elders identified prior to the beginning of the church plant or are they identified at some time after the church is established
3. Who should appoint the first elders?
We will address these questions below.
The Impetus For the New Church Plant
New plant by a “Mother” church
If the mother church practices biblical eldership, then the concept is already familiar to those planting the new church (presuming the planting team all come from the mother church). However the core planting team should study anew the biblical teaching on eldership so that they embrace it not simply to copy the mother church, but because of conviction from their own study of the Word. The elder team of the mother church would most naturally be involved in guiding the process of training and appointing of the first elders of the new plant.
If the mother church has not embraced BE, then the initial leaders of the church plant need to work with the pastors and/or leaders that are sending them out to the new work. In many regards this process may overlap with the guidelines for one of the scenarios for implementing BE in an existing church. In that case, we refer you to one of those four (see the “Identify Your Scenario” menu) and adapt as appropriate to your situation.
We assume at this juncture, then, that the mother church endorses BE for the new church plant. There are many church planting programs promoted around Christendom—we do not wish to duplicate those. Our concern is mainly how to establish BE in the context of a new church plant.
The mother church will in all likelihood identify and appoint the key leaders for the new work. These may or may not become the elders of the new church, but they are the primary catalysts for the work. We recommend the key leaders work through the “Church Planter Motivation” and “Church Planter Preparation” material. This will be essential in setting the foundation for genuine, spiritual leadership in the church. These men will then take the lead in the education, developing and training of the first group of elders.
New plant by a missionary or church-planting individual
In this case, one person is already the de facto leader, and he is the one who will facilitate the education and training for implementing biblical eldership. In a purely missionary environment, he is the primary teacher and authority for the new work, and the church is built up through new believers being added through evangelism. In this case, the growing church body most naturally follows the teaching of the church-planting leader readily. It is important that the teaching on leadership be firmly rooted in Scripture so that in time the church becomes less dependent on the planter, and ultimately independent from him. The missionary must train the new believers to transition from relying on the missionary or church planter to looking to pastoral elders for leadership and shepherding. In some regards he serves like an apostle. Based on his judgment and sense of the Spirit’s guidance, he will identify and appoint men as the first elder group.
Independent team church planting
This is a team made up of a variety of Christians who have come together for a common purpose, to bring a new church into being. Working through leadership structure issues becomes crucial particularly if people join the team from churches with differing perspectives on church leadership. Christians join church plants for a variety of reasons, and they tend to bring their traditions with them, or their reactions to traditions they want to eliminate. In light of all this, it is essential to address the issue of pastoral eldership early in the church planting process. Conviction about this truth and installing qualified elders at the earliest stage will go a long way to avoid some leadership struggles when the initial allure of the “new church” wears off.
Whichever church plant scenario is involved, we recommend the key leaders work through the church planters motivation and preparation material.
Priority For Establishing Biblical Eldership
When in the process of church planting should biblical eldership be implemented? Should elders be trained and appointed right away, or should the church grow under the singular leadership of the missionary or church planter until the new church has grown to a certain size? At what point should a church planting team give way to biblically qualified and appointed elders? There is no right answer, but a case can be made below for each of the two main church-planting approaches. You will need to decide which is best for your situation:
Approach #1: Appointment of elders should wait.
- This approach gives priority to the natural impetus of the new church plant, namely, evangelism and growth. To focus at the beginning on taking the time to study BE and training elders could hinder the effort needed for outreach. Indeed, there is an exciting synergy that leads to sacrifice and significant time commitments. It may be better to spend that energy in training for and doing the actual work of evangelism and discipleship of new Christians.
- Focusing more on outreach in the early stages will help determine the viability of the new church effort. This gives opportunity to see whether God is truly blessing the church planting effort before large amount of time goes into the infrastructure of educating and training of elders.
- Waiting to appoint elders allows more time to observe who has a genuine desire for the work of shepherding and who is qualified for being an elder.
- During the early stages of the church, men could serve in the shepherding role without being so named as elders. In time, a group of men functioning like this can become elders with appropriate study and training.
- The new churches Paul (and Barnabas) established didn’t have recognized elders right away—they were established on subsequent visits (Acts 14:23).
Approach #2: Recognition of elders sooner
- If the new church is planted from another church, the key leaders for the new work are already known and therefore their spiritual qualifications are already observable.
- Education and training can take place before the start of the new church’s outreach, or can continue over time (a kind of on-the-job training) simultaneously with the outreach.
- Involving men in eldership roles at the earliest stages of church planting can be an ideal time for them to begin and grow in their pastor-leadership abilities. There are fewer members in the church, and everyone is highly motivated—and people tend to be more forgiving of leadership mistakes at this early stage.
- The sooner elders are in place and functioning, the sooner those men begin growing as shepherds of God’s people and the less dependent they will be upon the mother church or the singular church planter.
- In the case of churches begun by Paul (and Barnabas), while it is true that elders were not appointed right away, they were appointed on the return trip which was only a short time later (probably no more than a few months).
We know of churches that have approached eldership in each of these ways. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Which one is used in a particular church plant situation is a matter of wisdom and guidance from the Lord.
Appointing the First Elders
Appointment by an authority “above” the church plant
What we mean by this is the appointment is made by the sending church or by the missionary/church planter. This follows the pattern of Paul and Barnabas who appointed elders in the churches they planted (Acts 14:23). Paul instructed Titus: For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you… (Titus 1:5)
Therefore, the first elders, in this approach, should be evaluated and appointed by the authority over them. There are too many variables to outline the specifics, but the wisdom of the church planter or sending elders will guide in this evaluation process.
Appointment by Spirit-led consensus
Independent church plants happen for a variety of reasons, but by definition no clear authority structure exists to appoint elders. There is no one in the role of “apostolic” authority to appoint elders. This can happen as a result of church splits, non-sanctioned hive-offs, or simply Christians from a variety of churches who feel a need to being a new church in a new area. Or it may simply be that the original church or churches simply gave much freedom to the church planting team.
Usually in a team effort like this, a few individuals will naturally take on leadership roles, but it could set a wrong precedent for them to automatically presume to be elders without adequate evaluation and preparation. Further, we do not advise an election by popular vote as this also could set a wrong precedent for elder selection.
Here is a suggestion that can help bring congregational involvement in identifying whom God raises up for eldership:
- The de facto key leaders should provide teaching about eldership to the planting team (see our “What is Eldership” section of this website).
- The church planting team then prays for God’s choosing and leading (following the pattern of Acts 13:1-3).
- The key leaders make it known which of the men they recommend to be elders.
- The whole planting team is given opportunity to provide feedback on these suggestions.
- The key leaders then call for an elders’ meeting, with the challenge that whichever men felt the Lord was prompting them to be elders, should come and attend. This is based on the team feedback and on the sense of God’s prompting.
- Those who attended then become elders with a strong sense of God’s calling them. From this point, the elders provide the leadership for the new church.