What I learned through serving as a church elder.

I have served as one of the elders at my local church for the past six years. I served as an associate member of the elder team for another year before that. It has been a very interesting experience.

During the seven years, I have served alongside eight other elders, with three different lead pastors, through at least 84 elder meetings. I helped lead the church through two lead pastor resignations (one under challenging circumstances), and two pastoral searches. We’ve had to prepare budgets during lean times and plentiful times. We’ve counseled people, encouraged people, and rebuked people. We’ve mourned as some people have left the church and rejoiced as new people have joined the church (and some of the people who left have come back). We’ve had to make tough decisions and easy decisions. I’ve seen the elder team perfectly united and strongly divided.

What have I learned through all of that?

(1) Being a shepherd of God’s flock is not a role to be taken lightly (1 Peter 5:2-4). Trying to be an under-shepherd who emulates the Chief Shepherd is a daunting task. As I sometimes became frustrated with members of the flock, I was reminded of how much more frustrating we all are to God sometimes. Yet He loves us, forgives us, is patient with us, and continues His work on us. Twice in John 10:11-15, Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (see also Acts 20:28). Sometimes I don’t even want to lay down an evening for the sheep. Ouch.

(2) The fact that the church voted unanimously that I am qualified to serve as an elder/overseer based on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9, while seeming laughable to me at times, challenged me to strive even harder for those ideals. I mean, really, who is truly above reproach / blameless (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6)? Elsewhere in Scripture, though, God calls all of His followers to the same character qualities. What 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 seem to be saying, then, is that elders are to be men who, while not perfect, are setting an example that can be followed (1 Corinthians 1:11).

(3) Being an introvert who prefers to deliberate before responding, I missed several opportunities to speak into situations. Looking back, if I had spoken up sooner, as I felt the Holy Spirit was leading me to do, some painful outcomes could have been avoided (or perhaps the pain reduced). When God places a person in leadership, He does so for a reason. And, I don’t imagine that reason is typically to be a deliberative peacemaker who observes conflict and wrong thinking and does nothing about it. On this, I am still a work in progress.

(4) Being an elder does not absolve you of serving in the church in other ways. 1 Peter 5:2 carries the idea of being a shepherd among the flock, not above flock. Serving as an elder can be difficult and time-consuming. But, in order to lead biblically, you have to be a servant, as Christ was (John 13:1-17). Yes, the flock should listen to you (Hebrews 13:7), and, when necessary, obey you (Hebrews 13:17). For an elder to be an example, though, requires serving alongside the flock (1 Peter 5:3).

My wife asked me the other day if I am glad that I agreed to serve as an elder. I responded with a strong “yes.” Then she asked me if I am looking forward to my mandatory time off. To that, I also responded with a strong “yes.” It has been a challenging seven years. While it has been a spiritual-growth-stimulating seven years, I am ready for a break.

At the same time, no longer officially being an elder does not release me from being a leader and striving to maintain the biblical qualifications. There is no break from following Jesus, the Chief Shepherd.

“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

“If anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:6-9).

S. Michael Houdmann

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