Shepherding by Being
God has called elders to be men worth imitating. A healthy local church typically has many people, men and women, whose example we could follow. But when a church appoints a man to be an overseer, it is formally saying, “Here is an official, church-recognized example of a mature follower of Jesus.” He is not the only example, not a perfect example, and not necessarily the best example in that congregation for every single Christian virtue. But an elder is a duly designated model nonetheless. By affirming someone as an elder, the church says, “Imitate him as he imitates Christ.” A church should be able to direct a newborn believer to an elder and say: “Do you want to know what a real Christian should be like? Then look at him.” To put it another way, an elder’s job involves shepherding by being as well as by doing. Elders pastor churches not only by what they do but also by who they are. And without the being, the doing falls apart. Let’s review some different elements of an elder’s job description. Notice how each element of this to-do list can be achieved only if the elder fulfills his to-be calling. In short, Christlike character is a sine qua non of pastoral ministry.
In His Spiritual Maturity
The elder’s entire job description is to shepherd church members toward greater Christlike maturity. Elders are pastors who invest in the lives of the church members in order to help them grow up together more and more into the image of Jesus. But if an elder is immature himself, how can he possibly shepherd others toward grown-up godliness? Just as you wouldn’t hire a financial advisor who had squandered his own wealth through bad investment decisions, and just as exercising with an out-of-shape fitness coach would not inspire your confidence, so an ungodly, selfish elder who says “Imitate me” has few takers. You can bring others in Christ only as far as you have gone yourself.
In His Teaching
Another task of an elder is to teach. Elders expound biblical truth and refute doctrinal error. But what if the teacher’s life contradicts his teaching in glaring ways? All but the most devoted Kool-Aid drinkers stop listening. People don’t have much patience for the “Do as I say, not as I do” type of teacher. Even worse, hypocritical teachers of God’s people have to face God. No wonder James warned, “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). But when a pastor combines sound teaching with sound living, he never lacks a devoted flock. When I think of Ray’s teaching ministry as our interim pastor, one sermon stands out. During Easter week, Ray taught from John 13 about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I remember that sermon for two reasons. First, it was a great sermon. Ray spoke clearly and movingly about the servanthood of Jesus, not only in washing feet but in going to the cross to wash away sins. Ray called our congregation to similar humble service to one another in light of the gospel. Second, and maybe more important, I remember that sermon because as I listened to words about servanthood, I also saw humility, service, and self-sacrifice in the man who preached it. Ray’s consistent Christian walk compelled me to listen to his message.
Elders pastor churches not only by what they do but also by who they are.
In His Care for the Flock
Another demanding responsibility of an elder is to track down straying members. It’s a sensitive task because members who wander from the church are often fragile and hurting. As a result, they often struggle to trust others. So when a shepherd with questionable character pursues, the lost sheep likely skedaddles. How can a sheep take a shepherd’s efforts to “keep watch” over him seriously when the elder cannot even keep watch over himself? We can take it a step further. If a pastor’s hypocrisy is known beyond the walls of the church, it hinders others from even wanting to pay a Sunday visit to the fold. “Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the Devil’s trap” (1 Tim. 3:7).
An elder must lead confidently and yet gently. Again, godly character is the key. As Peter said, “Shepherd God’s flock among you . . . not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2–3). Being an example is the antidote to being a bully. When elders live and love like Jesus, they aren’t known for being arrogant or domineering. Instead, they possess a Jesus-shaped humility that gives them a moral authority to which the church willingly defers. Elders must lead by example if they hope to lead at all.
As a Team
Finally, overseers set an example not only as individuals but as a team. Think of your elder group as the church in microcosm. The way the shepherds interact, solve problems, strive for unity, and face challenges together should be a living dramatization for the whole church to emulate. An elder team should be able to say collectively, “Imitate us as we imitate Christ together.” I once taught a class on biblical eldership at our church. As part of the class, we took a “field trip” to a live elder meeting. Afterward, the class members debriefed together about the experience. They remarked on the love, humility, and kindness they saw the elders expressing to one another, as well as the sincere concern the elders showed when they prayed for the church members. Some in the class had expected something different from the elders in that meeting, something more high-powered, corporate, and intimidating. Instead, they found something in the elders’ interactions that looked like Jesus. It was a good night for our overseers.
Can you see how the lifeblood of godliness should pulse through every task an elder does? But if an elder compromises his integrity through disobedience to the Lord, his ministry dies. An elder’s walk with Jesus is the string on which all the pearls of his job description are strung. Cut that string and the pearls drop to the ground and scatter everywhere. An elder may be talented, experienced, and charismatic, but if he doesn’t reflect Jesus well, his immaturity will eventually sweep the legs out from under his gifting. An elder’s being gives credibility and power to his doing. That explains why the Bible has such extensive qualification lists for elders and why those qualifications primarily focus on exemplary character. An elder must be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2). His whole ministry depends on it.
This article is adapted from Church Elders: How to Shepherd God's People Like Jesus.
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