The Shepherding Ministry of Elders

By Donald J. MacNair. For the church to be healthy, it needs healthy leadership. In my experience, leadership is one of only a few keys to being a church that God blesses. But what counts as “good leadership”? Is there a kind of leading that conforms to the Bible’s vision of a healthy church (as over against a kind of leading that does not)?

Emphatically, yes: there is a kind of leading that both conforms to Scripture and increases church health. The Bible gives two complementary directives that together imply a rather definite leadership structure. The first of these two biblical directives is that the church is a group of believers, each of whom should be exercising his or her gifts for the spiritual good of the group. [Paul] exhorts the Roman congregation: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us…” God wants us to treat other members’ gifts with integrity.

Many leaders don’t treat members’ gifts with integrity. In many churches with “strong leadership,” the church’s elders are perceived as a board of directors, as leaders who tell the people what to do. Such an attitude indicates to me that this church has failed to implement the Bible’s commitment to the integrity of members’ gifts.

Often a church exhibits a double imbalance. On the one hand, it views its elders as a board of directors, telling everybody what to do. On the other hand, incongruously, it believes that the congregation has a right to vote on everything-something near and dear to the hearts of Americans!

The Bible’s other directive is this: regard a church’s leaders as accountable to God for its members. “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” (Heb. 13:17). The elders oversee the church’s life and ministry in order to give an account to God of the people He has entrusted to their care. Does that mean that the elders are supposed to tell everybody else what to do and how to do it? I believe that Scripture in no way supports that interpretation.

But how can church leaders exercise accountability and at the same time treat members’ gifts with integrity? [They must] realize the difference between accountability and responsibility. To be responsible for something means that it is included in your job description. To be accountable means that God looks to you to see to it that it gets done, whether by you or by someone else. To state it positively, the elders must find a way to delegate to ordinary members the responsibility for key decisions in the life and ministry of the church, while at the same time maintaining accountability for the affairs of the church.

If the congregation perceives the elders as dictators, it will perceive itself as those who are dictated to. If it perceives the leadership as nonexistent, it will perceive itself as on its own, probably bereft of focus and unity. If it perceives the elders as shepherds along the lines of the biblical model, members will see themselves as sheep (in the best sense!): cared for, nurtured, following not by coercion but free to serve creatively in an orderly context. As elders strive to develop a shepherding relationship with members, that church’s infrastructure develops into one that both allows divine directives (use of members’ gifts, elders’ orderly accounting) to be implemented, and allows God to work through it.

Whatever else an elder says or does, whatever jobs he carries out, whatever words he utters, programs he administers, visits he pays, or decisions he makes, the orientation of his life and the heart of his ministry before God consist in shepherding the people whom God has entrusted to his care. I became convinced that when sacrificial love and care motivate elders to enable the saints to grow in Christ, not only do those elders become in fuller measure the leaders God meant them to be, but also the congregation grows and serves in the way God meant them to. Caring, loving, equipping-these three words express the essence of Christ’s lesson about shepherding. A good shepherd is one whose care for the sheep drives him to equip them for doing what sheep do best, even at the cost of his own life.

In the church, members should follow the lead of elders, not because the elders tell them what to do, but because the elders have cared for them. What the members should feel is not compulsion, but care. As they experience the depth of his commitment to them, they know him and trust him completely.

It is important to see that all these wonderful benefits do not do for the sheep what the sheep are meant to do for themselves. Rather, they furnish an optimal environment in which the sheep can grow and flourish. Shepherds provide the safe environment. Secure sheep are sheep that produce wool, lambs, and meat. In other words, elders nurture church life, but cannot produce it. Their goal is the spiritual growth and ministry of their members, and this they can encourage and enhance, but cannot program.

Building this mind-set requires the same activities as maintaining it. This means that all elders, at every stage of shepherd maturity, must be doing the same things. Simply stated they are:

  • Mediate, individually and as a session, on this model of Christ’s.
  • Pray, individually and as a session, for the Holy Spirit to actualize the shepherd model in all aspects of your life and ministry.
  • Develop a strategy to hold one another accountable to think and minister like shepherds.
  • Devise and implement plans that actualize this kind of mind-set and ministry. For example, devote regular meetings to these activities.
  • Devise a way to assess your efforts. Your session must devise a practical way to listen regularly to the sheep for their testimony as to your shepherding them.

I have made my case that the shepherd model shapes the elder’s ministry from the roots of his being to the things he says and does, and that the session should fashion an optimal environment for the congregation’s spiritual growth and ministry.

I utilize the acrostic G-O-E-S to help elders identify and group their responsibilities as guardian, overseer, example, and shepherd. Guarding the sheep. Positively, the elders ensure that members are growing in Christ. Negatively, the elders discourage members from pursuing sinful practices. This coincides with church discipline.

Being an elder consists almost by definition of overseeing. Some elders confuse power with authority. Being determined not to exercise “raw power,” they avoid authoritative leadership, or at least fail to lead with any confidence. Others, determined to account properly to God for their charges, muscle them into obedience. The confusion between authority and power parallels the failure to distinguish between accountability and responsibility, which we discussed above.

Possibly the most effective ministry an elder can give to his church is his own [example of] Christlikeness. Plus, a Christlike elder is one who shepherds according to Christ’s model.Shepherding also refers to the concrete activity of looking after individual church members, monitoring their spiritual progress, and encouraging them on a person-to-person basis to grow in love and obedience to Christ.Perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the task, especially by the prospect of shaping your whole life to fit the shepherd model, on top of everything else you have to do! Of course, by now we can see that the shepherd’s heart in principle is not an add-on, but rather the fountainhead.

In this fallen world, not every man who now serves as an elder meets these qualifications (I Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9). Over the years, I have seen biblically qualified elders, I have seen men in office who fail to meet these qualifications, and recognize this fact, I have seen men in office who fail to recognize their lack of qualification, and I have seen men in office who don’t qualify, who don’t recognize it, who don’t know what it means, and who don’t care!It is also important to develop procedures to insure that those who are chosen to be elders do meet the biblical qualifications. I recommend the following plan to this end, which I have practiced in my own pastoral ministries and which I recommend as a consultant:

  • Have members nominate men to be elders.
  • For a period of several months, train these candidates, give them field experience, and pray together as a church for God’s leading in the upcoming election.
  • Conclude the training period with a gracious but careful evaluation by the session (which is the complete group of elders currently installed to serve) of each candidate’s qualifications and maturity. Offer for the congregation’s approval only those candidates whom the session evaluates positively.
  • The congregation, with no power to make additional nominations, elects elders from among these trained and qualified candidates.
  • This system effectively provides leadership that conforms to God’s own qualifications.

I have no chapter on the pastor and more than one on elders! Paul exhorts Timothy: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (I Timothy 5:17). His words indicate that God intends there to be a plurality of elders, those officially entrusted with the spiritual oversight of the church, among whom are numbered elders whose work is preaching and teaching.

Thus on the one hand, we need to avoid the error of conceiving of elders as insignificant; on the other hand, we need to avoid the error of conceiving of the pastor as distinct from, and superior to, the elders. But everything I say about elders in these chapters applies without distinction to the pastor, who is an elder among elders. The pastor does not minister alone: he shepherds as part of a team, and he shepherds among a Spirit-gifted flock.

Questions for Discussion:

Gauge your own church’s shepherding outlook:

Do members perceive that they are being shepherded?

Do elders believe that they are shepherding?

What evidence can you supply to support your assessments in question 1?

What factors currently prevent your church from developing a richer shepherding ministry?

What steps can you take to follow God’s call to shepherding ministry?

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