In my former life as an engineer, at the age of 26, I was asked to let my name stand on the ballot as an elder nominee. In my mind I had every reason to say no: I’m too young! I’d be doing home visits with my friend’s parents—how awkward is that? Moreover, I was at the beginning of a promising career at Ford Motor Company and my days were too long. I don’t have time!
That was just over 25 years ago, and I’ve discovered that for many people these obstacles still exist. In an informal survey in a Facebook group for Christian Reformed pastors, I asked what pastors thought were the most common perceived obstacles people saw to serving as elders. The top two reasons by a significant margin were I don’t feel qualified or equipped and I’m too busy.
As I look back on my own first term as elder, slowly but surely the Lord did equip me, and my schedule somehow adjusted to make room for meetings and visits. But more than that, I discovered that the task of providing spiritual leadership in the local church was both a pleasure and a great blessing.
Elders have a wonderful calling: to help lead a community that God has declared “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9)—a community formed to tangibly display God calling people out of darkness into God’s wonderful light.
Throughout the history of the church, God has chosen to delegate authority to those whom God calls and sets apart. Recall Moses, feeling burned out and overworked, being instructed by God to “select capable men . . . and appoint them” to serve as leaders over the people (Ex. 18:21). That practice continued in the New Testament when Paul instructed the church in Crete and in every town to “appoint elders” (Titus 1:5) to govern the church in Christ’s name and “promote the spiritual well-being of [God’s] people” (Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons, 2016).
Jesus is the head of the church; it might be helpful to think of elders (including pastors) as the heart of the church. The health of a body depends to a large degree on the health of the heart. In my experience, the spiritual health of a congregation will not rise above the spiritual health of its leadership, and the unity experienced in a congregation will not rise above the unity among the leadership.
Consider how often God called leaders or shepherds to account when the people of God were unhealthy and disobedient: “The leaders rebelled against me” (Jer. 2:8), and “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ezek. 34:10). In Jeremiah God reminds God’s people of their chosen calling and promises: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (Jer. 3:15). Jesus entrusts leadership to those who are ordained—set apart to serve as a kind of pacesetter toward congregational vitality and Christ-centered witness.
In most marathons, there are a variety of pacesetters. If you’re aiming to achieve a particular time, you look for the appropriate pacesetter and run with that person. Assuming you’ve trained, you’ll likely achieve your goal. I see this image as Paul says to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Pastor and ministry leader Henry Blackaby describes spiritual leadership as “moving people on to God’s agenda.” As the spiritual leaders of a congregation follow Christ, they prayerfully discern the leading of the Spirit toward a community life and witness that is Christ-centered, gospel-proclaiming, and kingdom-focused.
The spiritual leadership of elders is characterized by a love for and awareness of what God is doing in the congregation and in the broader community. This requires a deep reliance on prayer and discernment as well as a willingness to lead with vision and purpose.
One of the chief ways elders exercise spiritual leadership is by loving congregants and being aware of how God is at work among them. To love congregants, the elder has to be with them. Historically, the primary way this has taken place in our denomination is through the ministry of home visitation.
In my experience, this is one of the tasks that elders find most intimidating and challenging—partly because they don’t feel equipped, and partly because congregants are busy and being available for visits seems more difficult these days. In the Facebook survey I conducted, just over half of the pastors answered “no” to the question “Do elders in your church do regular home visits?”
How might we strengthen this particular ministry? In training I’ve done at my church, I encourage elders to think of visitation as a ministry of presence. The congregation has set elders apart to be Christ’s presence to the people, so elders should think of visits with congregants less as a “spiritual check-up” and more as an opportunity to attest to Christ’s presence. I invite them to see these visits as a time to bring a word of encouragement from the Lord, to prayerfully select a passage from Scripture to read, perhaps explaining why you chose it, and then calling on the Spirit’s presence in individual and specific prayers for the individual or family. In this way, Christ, through his Word and the intercessory presence of his ordained leader, ministers to those being visited with his grace and peace.
Such a visit may begin with a simple question: “May I visit with you? As your elder I would love to bring you some encouragement from God and pray for you.” This unremarkable and unassuming ministry works for all people of all ages in any and all circumstances. With the young adult finishing college and wondering about their future, for example, elders might read Jeremiah 29:11 and then lift her up personally before the throne of grace, calling upon Jesus to encourage her, direct her path, and fill her with peace and joy. Consider how Christ might have you minister through his Word and your intercessory presence with a young parent, an elderly person, or a person who is unemployed.
In addition to personal visits, elders can facilitate a variety of interactions that deepen community and strengthen relationships. Our church, for example, hosts a monthly district potluck lunch after the Sunday service, thus creating opportunities for fellowship around a meal. Guests and newcomers are always invited. But no matter what innovative ways elders find to connect with God’s people, there is one thing everyone needs and appreciates: a word of encouragement from the Lord that is personally and specifically prayed into one’s life. As the Spirit fills and equips elders for that ministry, they attest to God’s grace and peace.
Elders, the church has called and set you apart for this ministry of presence. Those who feel intimidated could ask a pastor or another Spirit-filled leader to help you. I promise that your spiritual leadership in the church will bring you and the church great blessing and joy.
- How have you been served or ministered to by your local church elder(s)? How have they blessed you?
- How would you describe the role of elders in your local church? How would you distinguish their role from other leadership roles in the church such as deacons?
- Do you agree that it is helpful to think of the elders and the pastor as “the heart of the church”? Why or why not?
- If spiritual leadership is about “moving people on to God’s agenda,” how might we, as a community, discern God’s agenda?