During the mid and late 1970s the church where I fellowshipped was making to bold move toward multiple elder leadership and away from the senior pastor structure. It was a bold move at the time. Other local church pastors of the same association took offense to this radical change
Today the implementation of an elder-led fellowship is not uncommon even though it remains in a minority of how church polity operates. The shift that has taken place more broadly is that pastors are now more commonly surrounding themselves with mature men who hold them accountable. They are generally more than yes men. They hold pastors accountable for marital faithfulness, most notably in the area of pornography.
There are of clearly exceptions. In too many cases the “elder” is just a re-named “deacon” who has no real spiritual authority. At least from my observation this is the most common scenario. It is difficult for many pastors who have had total control for an extended period to relinquish that control. Even so, for the strong pastor or senior pastor to be available to challenges to potential error and sin is a good thing. The change many not be everything that is needed but it charts a proper course.
The principle and practice of developing mature elders in the church charts a course for a more mature, more effective local church. This is a discussion around two books to that end: Effective, Empowering, Elders by Rick Thompson and The New Elder’s Handbook by Greg Scharf and Arthur Kok.
Effective, Empowering, Elders
Rick Thompson’s work is built around process. (Rick is himself a district superintendent in the Evangelical Free Church of America.) He knows pastors. He knows how they think He knows what they need for getting the work of ministry done. The first four chapters come from this perspective.
Chapter 1, Effective Elders, is a basic job description. It outlines what elders would do on behalf of the local church.
Chapter 2, Elder Board Governance is a very brief proposition that our traditional polity is centered around top-down management and not the principles we see in the Bible.
Chapter 3, Effective Elder Boards, gives legs to the proposal of the previous chapter. Here the elders can develop and implement strategy.
Chapter 4, Empowering Elder Boards, helps set up some goals in light of the personality of the local church and its leadership.
These first four chapters were management-oriented. They deal with structure and function. But they beg the question of who should be and elder. Who is qualified and called? How should the elder behave? That’s what the last four chapters cover.
Chapter 5, Elders’ Qualification, explores the basic Biblical qualifications.
Chapter 6, Elder Call, looks at how God calls people and how the local church confirms that call.
Chapter 7, Elder Encouragement, establishes the necessity of the pastoral heart in the elder.
Chapter 8, Elder Excellence, challenges the church to implement the structural changes needed to allow the elders to minister as they ought.
That’s a summary of the material Rick Thompson has provided. It’s brief enough to not demand something too specific from a church yet clear enough that the message cannot be missed.
The New Elder’s Handbook
The Scharf/Kok work has a completely different structure. This work is built around the elder rather than the local church structure. The book has three main sections. They are not built around polity but rather around community and preparation.
Part 1, Vision, is a brief (45 pages) discussion of what it means to be and elder. It’s about calling and community with a bit about how to identify potential elders.
Part 2, Training, is a lot of work. It is a 78 page Bible study and drill on the subject. To go through these 75 questions is nothing to be taken lightly.
Part 3, Two Additional Discipleship Resources, is just that. These are about fulfilling this ministry of elder.
I think of this as a sort of catechism for elders. It begins with preparation for the work and then takes the elder student into the belly of the beast, into the challenges that he will face.
These two works are not at odds, though that might be one’s understandable first impression. It seems good to me that they be treated as companion works. The pastor, even the strong senior pastor, would do well to accept some of the Biblical and historical challenges in Thompson’s work. As part of the pastor’s efforts to develop mature elders to fulfill the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-12) under his leadership, the Scharf/Kok work is a rich resource.
Likewise, for those who seek a good thing (I Tim. 3:1) in service as an elder the work might begin better with the Scharf/Kok work. Do the preparation and verify your calling. Then read the Thompson book to better understand how you will fit into the work of the church.