I snuck into the bright sanctuary of the church and snagged a seat on the back row, taking in the people, the pastor, and the liturgy of the service.
I was home for Christmas visiting my parents in South Carolina, knowing that, due to the divorce bearing down on my family, I would be moving there from Seattle for good in a few months. I was going to be landing in South Carolina broken and hurting. Despite the safety net my family provided, I knew I needed a strong church community.
So, I visited the local church in my denomination, suspicious that they would never accept me as a divorced woman.
Though I didn’t share my story with them that Sunday, the greeters and pastor welcomed me. The pastor spoke a clear message of gospel grace. I began to think, Maybe there’s a chance my boys and I will be okay here after all.
In Search of Shepherds
A few weeks later, I found the church email address and wrote an honest email to the pastor. My life was in shambles, and I was going to be crash-landing in my hometown. I basically asked, “Can you handle that?” I needed to know if I was going to be too much for their congregation.
After a lifetime of belonging to various churches, I knew that not every church is equal. I had experienced unfaithful and unbiblical leadership in the past, and I knew I wanted to join a church where the elders submitted to Christ and exemplified Christlike leadership. I would not commit to any church where that was not the case.
I felt like I was putting out my fleece. If the elders didn’t run and hide from me, maybe there was a chance this relationship could work. And if they did run, I needed to know before investing in their community.
A week passed with no answer. I’ve made them uncomfortable, I thought. This isn’t the place for me and my boys.
Then, an unexpected reply. The pastor who received the church emails had been on vacation for the week, but his belated response was warm—even hilarious. He was so effusive in his eagerness to welcome me that I pictured him tripping over himself in his haste to open the church door for me and my family. He clearly and repeatedly expressed that the church was glad to hear from me, would welcome me, and would gladly walk with me through the complex situations in my present and future.
My pastor in Seattle also reached out to the elders of that church, calling me afterward to say, “Hey, I think these are good guys you can trust.” My fleece was dry though the ground was wet. No church is perfect, but God was giving me the confidence I needed to move forward with this body of believers.
I haven’t regretted that decision.
Elders Give Wisdom
My elders in both Seattle and also South Carolina have walked with me closely through my divorce and its aftermath. My elders have also encouraged and shaped my ministry as an author of Christian books. And when cancer invaded my body and brought an onslaught of medical and practical decisions, they helped me evaluate my options. My elders have been my allies and my counselors as I’ve exercised my gifts in the midst of hardship. Again and again, they’ve helped me choose well in a sea of opportunities. What should I step back from? What should I move forward with?
My elders don’t give dictates. They give wisdom. During the times I’ve floundered to figure out the next steps in life, their input has helped me greatly.
My elders don’t give dictates. They give wisdom.
Your life circumstances are likely quite different from mine. But whatever they are, I encourage you to give your elders a chance to know your story and speak into your life.
Be Honest with Your Elders
I’ve seen at least three benefits of being honest with your pastors and elders about the hard parts of your life.
First, elders can be instrumental in speaking the gospel specifically into your circumstances.
When I entered a long, hard season of trial and grief, my elders spoke gospel truth to me when I couldn’t see it for myself. I have made some righteous choices that have cost me greatly. In addition to helping me identify when I’ve truly needed to repent, my elders have also helped me see when I wasn’t the guilty party. I needed someone outside of myself speaking gospel truth to me when I couldn’t always see it for myself.
Give your elders a chance to know your story and speak into your life.
Second, elders can pray for you and counsel you as you pick up the pieces of your life.
My elders in both Seattle and also South Carolina have helped me navigate complicated circumstances for which there was no map. At one point, my pastor, an elder in my church who was a lawyer, and my Christian divorce attorney all sat around a conference table with me, helping me think through the circumstances and the options before me as I hoped to avoid divorce. As they prayed with me, I felt supernaturally helped by God. I wasn’t alone, left to navigate this by myself.
Third, elders can vouch for you with new relationships and new churches.
When my pastor in Seattle called my future pastor in South Carolina, I was blessed. He knew both my story and also my heart, and that phone call paved the path into my new church.
If your circumstances are due to your past sin, your elders can attest to your repentance and desire to move forward in righteousness. In my public ministry, I occasionally have someone call into question my history. I can confidently tell them, “You’re welcome to talk to my elders.”
I needed someone outside of myself speaking gospel truth to me when I couldn’t always see it for myself.
My denomination takes elder accountability seriously, and so do I. It has blessed me that my elders know my story, pray for me, counsel me, and vouch for me.
Friend, seek out a church where godly men care for the congregation in humility and love—and then open yourself up so they can actually shepherd you in the hard situations you face. This is a ministry of grace from our Father in heaven. Receive it with joy.