If there is one thing pastors know well, it is the pain that can stem from a poorly run elder team. Long meetings, arguments, back stabbing, meetings outside of the meeting, gossip, politicking. The list goes on and on.
On the other side, you hear about elder teams that care for each other, love and serve the church well, care for the pastors and their families and work together to fulfill what God has called the church to. This side of the equation is seen by many pastors as a unicorn. There are rumors, sightings and rumblings, but few actually realize it.
Those elder teams do exist, but they take specific steps to get there.
Here are seven things you must do as a pastor to build a healthy elder culture.
1. Make building a healthy elder team/culture a priority.
Too many lead pastors don’t make this a priority, and their elder team and the culture of that team shows how little effort this gets. In fact, in many churches the lead pastor has little to no say who is on the elder team, yet that team determines more about the health of the church than almost every other team.
If your by-laws have a nominating committee that doesn’t include the lead pastor, change your by-laws. If you have a nominating committee for your elder team, change your by-laws and take that out. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)
For too long at our church I saw leadership development as something that would just happen because I cared about leadership, but for leaders to be developed and a culture to be built, the lead pastor must carry the flag. Don’t mistake this, a culture will be built, whether you try or not, so make building a healthy culture a priority.
Why does this have to be a priority?
A healthy elder team brings security, health, care and development to the whole church. When the elder team knows what it is doing (and not doing), when they care for the staff and leaders well, when they are connecting to new people in the church, praying with and for the church, protecting the church, keeping them on track with the vision as well as financially and doctrinally, everyone wins.
When this doesn’t happen, you see carnage, hurt, pain and disillusionment all over the church.
2. Know what you are looking for in an elder.
If you ask most people in a church what an elder does, you will hear a few different answers. Those answers determine what you will get in an elder team.
They should be financially and business minded. In this case, the elders act more like a board of directors simply checking and balancing things.
You will hear someone pull out 1 Peter 5 and talk about shepherding and pastoring. This team is highly relational, caring and functions to make sure the church is warm, discipled and no one falls through the cracks.
Eventually someone will pull out 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and talk about the qualifications of an elder.
Many pastors simply look for friends to put on their elder team because they know the carnage that can happen if they have enemies on that team.
You will find whatever you are looking for in an elder, so look wisely and know ahead of time what you are looking for.
Does an elder preach? Counsel? Make budgets? Decisions? Do they shepherd everyone? Are they there to protect the pastor? Protect the church from the pastor? (I had an elder say that once.)
Again, your answer will determine what you get because you will go looking for that.
An elder is a man with character, someone who fits the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5.
An elder is a man who will protect the church, who will keep the church on mission and on track financially and doctrinally. A man who can see the whole field of the church.
This last part, seeing the whole field of the church, is one of the most important things to ask when considering someone to be an elder. Someone can be a great community group leader but not a good elder. Someone can be a good businessman but not a good elder. Someone might be a great volunteer in an area, but that’s the lid of their leadership. None of those are bad things. In fact, they are good things. It just means someone is not an elder.
Too many times we put the wrong people on that bus. We think, “He’s a good shepherd, so he should be an elder.” But as a church grows, shepherding isn’t the only thing an elder does. They also oversee staff and budgets (that begin to have a lot of zeros after them). Other times we think, “He’s good with numbers, but he might be a jerk.” You need to know.
3. Always be on the lookout.
You as the lead pastor are always on the lookout for great leaders for every part of your church. The moment you stop, the moment you delegate this, is the moment your church begins to suffer.
You must also have your antennae up for the guns blazing awesome guy who comes into your church and can hurt your church.
4. Start training an elder three years before they become an elder.
If you take responsibility to always be on the lookout, you will begin training an elder well before they become an elder to see if they can handle it. Give them leadership and shepherding opportunities to see how they handle them. Give them decision making responsibilities to see how it goes.
I lead a leadership development group every week with up and coming leaders in our church. Every elder in our church goes through this group. I want to see them interact with a group, argue over a case study, discuss theology, see if they’ll be on time for a meeting, if they’ll come prepared, speak up in a discussion, watch how others interact with them and see if they have the respect of the group.
This is so important, has low risk for the church but brings so much fruit.
5. Have a long process to become an elder.
Why a long process? Honestly, protection.
Three years allow you to see a man’s character, his marriage (if married), his parenting (if he has kids), his generosity and desire to live on mission. You hear him pray. You watch him serve. Read #2 again. You can’t know if you someone meets the qualifications in a month.
Three years also bring perseverance. A wolf who will destroy your church and eat the sheep won’t wait around that long; they’ll move on.
This process also helps you know if someone has what it takes to be an elder.
Now, they aren’t in a process for three years (at least not officially), but you should make someone be at your church at least two years before they become an elder. What’s the rush?
Depending on what you determine you are looking for in an elder, what they will do (and this changes some as a church grows), your process must help you see if someone can do that job. Don’t be swayed by charisma, a desire to not be alone, filling a spot or keeping a big giver. Those do not end well.
6. Know how unique an elder is and what they do.
Elders do what no one else in the church does.
Yes, they serve, shepherd, pray, evangelize, give and disciple. That’s a role all Christians play.
But elders do something that is unique and builds into #7: they shepherd and care for the lead pastor and his family. This is unique.
Many people in the church care about the lead pastor and his family. Many people are fans of his and put him on a pedestal. Elders, though, see the man for who he is. They know him and his struggles. They know his hurts, pressures, frustrations and joys.
This doesn’t mean the lead pastor is special, only that his role is unique. Not everyone can shepherd and care for him. Most people are used to getting something from a pastor, so it is hard to think differently about the lead pastor. But it is a crucial, yet often overlooked role of elders.
When an elder team is working well and fulfills this, it brings great joy to a pastor and his family. This joy is felt throughout the church. This does not happen over night and takes training.
7. Always (almost) keep paid pastors off the elder team.
I expect some disagreement on this, but hear me out. Some churches make any paid pastor an elder. The qualifications for an elder and pastor are the same. I get it.
Here’s the dilemma.
The lead pastor leads the staff, is the boss of the staff. On an elder team, he’s one of the team. Yes, first among equals, but elders do not have power apart from the team.
It is very difficult for a student pastor or worship pastor to sit in a meeting with the lead pastor on Tuesday morning and be reviewed, be given an assignment, and then on Tuesday night sit in a meeting where they are equals in that meeting.
Are there exceptions? Yes, but less than you think. It is difficult for everyone to change the hats they wear. It is also difficult to discuss the salary and benefits of people sitting in the room.