In a recent interview I had with a search committee, the chairman asked me what advantage did I have after serving as pastor in multiple churches over the years. I have been the pastor of six churches since 1995. That might sound like a lot for a 22-year ministry. But most pastors who persevere in their callings experience the same thing. In fact, what I have been through is quite the norm. What is not normal is a pastor staying in one place for 15, 20, or 30 years. It is done, but it is rare.
I know there are some advantages to having so many different experiences, but it was hard to put my finger on them at the moment of the question. After the interview was over, the obvious answer that came to mind: knowing the difference between a good session and a bad session. Of course, sessions are made up of elders and the kind of elders they are, determines the quality of the session. This means that in order to have a good session, you must have good elders.
Given all that, besides the basic requirements found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, what are qualities that make for a good elder? What qualities are missing in bad elders? What about the moderate elder? This post is about the qualities of a true elder and what makes them so good. It’s not exhaustive, but you get the idea. I will deal with the moderate and bad elder in subsequent posts.
The true elder, is the man who not only knows and walks with the LORD, but knows that he is actually called to be an elder. You would think this would be the norm, but I have found that it is not. We all know that we are to ask pastors if they are truly called to be pastors (see here), but for some reason, we fail to ask elders if they have the same sense of calling.
The elder who knows that he has that inward calling is truly a blessing to the church and the session. This is because he realizes that the calling placed on his life is there from Christ, and not himself. It should have a humbling effect on the elder, because the true elder knows he is only an elder by God’s grace. That is paramount to serving as an elder. No man deserves the position or is fully qualified for the position because of the sinfulness of the heart. But the true elder serves with the full knowledge that he does so by God’s grace.
In doing so, he sees the responsibilities to care for the flock as a delight, because he knows those responsibilities come from our LORD Himself. He sees passages like Act 20, in which Paul warns the elders in Ephesus, as his own personal set of marching orders. He takes the following warning with the necessary sober requirements in which they are given. Paul declares:
Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock (Acts 20:28-29).
The true elder recognizes that calling place on him by God, is a call to spiritual warfare. There are those who seek the destruction of the flock and his job is to prevent that from happening if possible. Given that, the true elder recognizes the need to fight the good fight. He knows that being a shepherd means that there will be conflict in the body, and he has to be committed to bringing the truth of the word to bear in that conflict. A true elder is not lost in some PollyAnna world where the belief of biblical peace is defined by the absence of conflict. He knows that simply because the pastor preaches God’s word faithfully, there will be conflict. While he doesn’t look forward to such conflict, he is willing to face it when it arises out of a sense and duty of his calling to shepherd Christ’s flock. He knows that if he doesn’t kill the wolf among the sheep (metaphorically speaking), the sheep will be destroyed. He is willing to take on that battle more than he is willing to look the other way.
The true elder knows his own faith, loves the LORD, loves doctrine, loves the church, loves solid pastors, and growing members in the church. He is a man who loves the things the LORD loves.
I’ve known men like this. They are the godliest of men, and don’t get distracted from the purpose and calling of the church. They don’t run down every path of emotion that comes along in evangelicalism because they know what the church is to be doing, what the pastor is to be doing, and what they are to be doing.
I remember one situation where there was a woman complaining about my ministry, my preaching, and my teaching. I brought it up with the session that was made up of men like this. To a man, they told me not to worry about the complaints of the woman, that I was doing what I supposed to be doing and I was to continue on since that was my calling. It was quite reassuring.
You would think this would be the norm, but its not. This will become obvious as we look at the other two categories, the mediocre elder and the bad elder.
Photo provided by Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and used by permission.