Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to walk with many elder groups as they have reflected on their roles and work. In nearly every situation – no matter the size or location of the church – elders feel overworked and overwhelmed with the tasks at hand and the dilemma of serving well. In recent months, while helping a church prepare for “onboarding” a new group of shepherds, many of the things that I have been learning from and with elders began to converge. Let me share some of that with you.
In seeking to find the essence of what it means to be an elder for a local congregation, it is helpful to focus on three things – being, doing and process – framed in the three questions I explore below.
Who are we? One challenge for elders comes with the rush to be faithful and responsible for congregational life. In that rush, elders and church leaders can neglect or avoid a fundamental reality: before anyone becomes an elder, they are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Being a disciple, a humble follower, does not go away when one is identified as a shepherd. Rather,, discipleship takes on a deeper and more profound reality for those called shepherds. David Benner says it well of leaders: “The single most important lesson for the leader to learn is that he/she is first a sheep and not a shepherd; first a child and not a father or mother; first an imitator, not a model.”
What do we do? If leaders understand discipleship as their foundational identity, then it begins to shape the practice of leadership. What we do grows out of who we are. As persons committed to following Jesus, the practices of leadership needed in congregations and communities fall into three broad activities. First, leaders are persons who pay attention to what God is doing. Often language about vision and mission emerge in discussions about leadership – and rightfully so. Such conversation requires persons who have the capacity to read and reflect on Scripture, culture and contexts. Such persons pray and listen for God’s voice because the church needs persons who are paying attention to the True Leader. Second, leaders are persons who care for and nurture others. The word shepherd is apt – shepherds make sure their flocks are fed a healthy diet, and they provide care so sheep mature well. Third, leaders are persons who provide oversight and monitoring to make sure the community is moving toward God’s mission. Let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about “making decisions” – though often there are decisions to be made. What I am saying is that leaders are paying attention to God’s agenda and are ensuring that initiatives adequately serve that mission.
How do we do it? Shared leadership is not easy. However, the wisdom of communal leadership, rooted in the witness of Scripture, demonstrates its value as leaders with differing gifts come together to discern God’s work and to share the burden of that work. Determining how to do the work is a deeply contextual thing. There are healthy models in play (see this collection of governance models), and those of us at the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry are happy to serve as guides – don’t hesitate to reach out to us. But we encourage you to work toward a process of shared leadership that allows elders to do what no else can do and allows ministers to do what they are best equipped to do. The principle plays out well in the early church when the apostles claimed, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2, NRSV). Pursue ways of working together that allow for leaders to pay attention to God, pastor and care for people, and provide necessary monitoring for the sake of mission.
May God bless you – first and foremost as disciples and then in your practices of leadership!
Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.