If you’ve been through an elder selection process recently, I suspect you heard one word more than any other: “No.”
Not from the existing elders. Not from the congregation. Not from the staff. No … the “no” you probably heard repeatedly came from elder-candidates who reasoned that “now, is not the time” for them to take on the role.
(Let me pause here and offer three caveats, before we explore the increasing tendency among men to decline serving as elders. First, there is a very worthwhile conversation to be had about female elders, but I’ll focus on men in this piece to raise a particular presenting issue relevant to them. Second, I’m tremendously grateful for the elders who serve selflessly in my context. Third, there are very legitimate reasons for delaying or declining a role as a congregational leader. I trust the discernment of those who have made that decision.)
If you have received one, or several (more likely) of those “no”s, you’ve probably scratched your head wondering why. Why does it seem that fewer men are willing to serve as elders these days?
There are probably a host of reasons. Undoubtedly, one is the sense that being an elder is an “indefinite” assignment. Many churches don’t have natural or scheduled times to step-down or cycle-off the eldership. There is much to be said for continuity in the eldership. For example, some of our best elders have been serving in the role for over 40 years. And yet, that example represents a daunting commitment for someone considering the role.
So, one way to improve your “on-ramp” to the eldership is to establish readily accessible “off-ramps” as well. When are the natural points for someone to step down? Are there term limits? Elder sabbaticals? Answers to these questions may help some who feel called to the role, but may also feel called to other roles in their future.
Other reasons are less easily treated. Among those are the biblical elder “qualifications” and their application in our modern era. Those Pauline guidelines are great tools, but their interpretation and application is difficult today.
For instance, one common reading is that an elder should have at least one baptized child. But more and more men are delaying marriage and starting a family. Whereas in the past, we had elders who met this criteria in their late 30s and began to serve then, most men today would be well into their 40s before this is the case. This effectively narrows the pool of candidates.
Secondly, divorce is commonly a disqualification. Yet, the numbers for divorce are increasing among unchurched and churched alike. Rightly or wrongly, I suspect that many elderships are reconsidering their posture towards divorced men in leadership. Does this mean they support divorce? No. It means they are thirsting for leaders in contexts where “no” is so common.
Those reasons are all likely contributors. However, I think there is one main culprit.
Recently the Siburt Institute at ACU hosted Randy Harris for a Ministers’ Lunch Hour, where he spoke on the topic: “Does the Church Matter?”
Randy mentioned a conversation with a church leader who had this to say about their church and the young men there:
“We have done a really good job at conveying to them the notion of the importance of family. They have their jobs, and they have their family, and we can’t get them to do anything else.”
I’m convinced that the fundamental reason more men are declining roles on the eldership is that the church has elevated the priority of the family. In many ways this is to be celebrated. My grandmother often reminds me that my grandfather never changed a diaper in his life. He is a great man, but that was a different era. I’m sure my wife would not like us to return to that era.
However, unless you accept this premise, it is difficult to explain how men in their late 30s and 40s became elders at my (and your) church a generation ago, and we have not heard a “yes” from someone below 50 in a long time. Nearly to man, their “no” resulted from family responsibilities.
It seems the elder selection process is just the litmus test for what we have been preaching for a generation. How you read the test depends on your vantage point. We’ve made better fathers, who will hopefully contribute to more faithful disciples in their home. But we’ve made worse “churchmen,” who struggle to find the space (or desire) for serving the church in an official, daunting, and often thankless position.
Have we idolized the family to the detriment of the church? Or have we saved men from rote busywork for the betterment of the Christian family?
What do you think?
Eric and his wife Lindsey have been at Highland Church in Memphis since 2012. You are likely to find them walking the local Greenline with their sons Noble, Foster, and dachshund Tucker. Eric cares deeply about preaching and social justice. He has a BA in Biblical Text and a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Eric is a board member for HopeWorks, an organization that provides hope and job training to the chronically unemployed and formerly incarcerated in Memphis.