The apostle Paul never lost his sense of wonder and amazement that the Lord would call him out of the darkness of Satan's kingdom to serve the resurrected Christ. He called his ministry “grace” several times (e.g. Ephesians 3:2), and regularly ascribed his calling as an apostle to the grace of God: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul knew he deserved the eternal condemnation of God for destroying God's church, and yet God by his grace gave him the privilege of building God's church (1 Corinthians 3:10). So it is today with the elders of a church. God by his grace has saved each elder, covering his sins by the blood of Christ and putting in his heart the hope of eternal glory in Christ. As if this isn't enough, God lavished on us a ministry of meaningful service to Jesus and his people as elders. Thus we are delivered from the emptiness of a meaningless life and called to build something that will last for eternity. Elders should be overwhelmed with thankfulness every single day for the great privilege of serving Christ in this way.
No elder is called to this task alone, for God has called elders to minister with other qualified men as a group in a local church. The plurality of elder leadership in every local church is established in Titus 1:5: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” These men must lead the church in a harmonized way, with cooperation and collective wisdom. In the real world, this requires a regular pattern of elders' meetings to discuss and pray over all aspects of church life for which they are accountable to Christ. The purpose of this article is to discuss practical elements of elders' meetings so that God may be maximally glorified by them. I will discuss the consecration of elders' meetings, their content, and their conduct. Briefly, by consecration, I mean that the elders should set themselves apart as holy to the Lord for this service, and should set apart their meeting times for his glory and the edification of the church by the ministry of the word of God and prayer. By content, I mean the actual topics of discussion and decision elders will entertain during their meeting. I will argue that there are four main headings:
- Shepherding (in which the spiritual and physical conditions of Christ's sheep are addressed)
- Prayer (in which those needs and the needs of the church generally are lifted up directly to God for wisdom and his gracious blessing)
- Discernment (in which the past/present direction of the church is assessed, and in which the future direction of the church is charted, all by the Spirit and Scripture)
- Ministry management (in which details of administration relevant to the life and ministry of the church are decided)
By conduct, I mean how the meeting should be conducted, both practically and in submission to the Spirit of God.
In the Old Covenant sacrificial system, items used solely for service to God in his Tabernacle were said to be “Holy to the Lord.” This was especially true of the High Priest himself, for the words “Holy to the Lord” were engraved on a golden plate fastened to the turban he wore on his head. Similarly, in their hearts the elders should set themselves spiritually apart unto God for the great work of shepherding God's people, and should see the time of the elders' meeting as sacred. This will prevent the elders from acting in a purely secular manner as they meet, from acting more like a board of directors for a Fortune 500 company than ministers of the Word of God and instruments of Christ's grace to his people. In Acts 6, the apostles summarized their ministry focus in this way: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Though I will argue that other things are also rightly part of elder ministry in a local church, these are primary. Therefore, it is important for the elders to see themselves as set-apart vessels of God's grace and see the meeting as a vital part of how the Lord is directing and building his church through them.
The elders should keep in mind that they will be called to account for the people of the flock entrusted to their care (Hebrews 13:17), and should be zealous to serve now in such a way that they will be delighted to give that account. Furthermore, when the elders gather, they should dedicate the meeting to the Lord in prayer. Often throughout the meeting, they should seek to return to a powerfully spiritual sense of their work in Christ. A secular demeanor or pragmatic worldly approach to the elders' meeting must be ruled out entirely. Also, since the ministry of the Word of God is such a major part of the practical work of elders, it is important to keep coming back to the centrality of the Word in the life of the church. Elders are specifically set apart unto God to minister the indispensable Word to the body of Christ, preparing God's people for works of service so the body of Christ can be built up (Ephesians 4:11-12). Consecrate yourselves and your meeting to the crucified and resurrected Christ and the life-giving ministry of the Word!
So what should occupy the attention of the elders during their meeting? Acts 6 teaches us plainly that elders should not get involved with some details of church life, even though they have great potential to harm church unity if not attended to properly. The commitment of Acts 6:4 cited above shows the need to filter out such details before the meeting occurs. This is a great part of the ministry of godly deacons in the life of the church—-to free the elders from needing to address practical details that could consume their time. Part of the work of elders in “ministry management” is to entrust as many of these kinds of practical details as possible to godly deacons, so that the elders' meeting is not burdened with them.
Beyond this important filtering, I would argue that the content of elders' meetings should comprise the four main headings listed above: shepherding, prayer, discernment, and ministry management. In all of these areas, the ministry of the Word must be kept central.
Shepherding: The elders are given spiritual oversight of souls. It is the elders' responsibility to ensure that each of God's people entrusted to their care is thriving spiritually. This implies a positive and negative aspect: positively, is the ministry of the Word in the church as powerfully anointed as it should be to sustain the faith of Christ's sheep and help them grow in grace and the knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18)? Negatively, are any of Christ's sheep straying into sinful patterns that require intervention and discipline? Here, specific names are mentioned, specific situations are discussed. Is anyone struggling with discouragement? Is anyone lonely or isolated? Is anyone drifting away from Christ? What are patterns of attendance at church?
Other questions include: Anyone missing recently? Is anyone toying with unbiblical doctrine through a recent bestselling paperback they bought at Barnes and Noble? Are the widows' needs being met? Are any faint-hearted, shrinking back from some course of action God commands? Is anyone suffering medically? Are there any sick people whom the elders should visit and pray over as James 5 instructs? Are there broken relationships in the church needing reconciliation?
In facing all these various conditions, the elders are seeking God's wisdom in understanding what is the wisest course of action: does the individual need instruction? Encouragement? Admonishment? Rebuke? Correction? Praise? If so, which elders would be the best to give the needed ministry? Who is specifically going to do what and by when?
Of special interest are possible cases of church discipline the elders have been called on to manage. In all of this shepherding, the elders should have an up-to-date church directory, and throughout the week be praying daily through it to keep aware of ongoing needs and be sure that no one slips through the cracks. Also, the elders should keep a running “Ministering and Shepherding List” for their eyes only that contains a running list of issues that have reached their attention. Thus they can look back a week, a month, or several months to be sure that older issues are still being cared for. Along with this, it is vital for elders to keep in mind the need for strict confidentiality in discussing shepherding matters.
Prayer: Samuel said, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you” (1 Samuel 12:23). Having discussed key shepherding issues, it is essential for the elders to then commit these to the Lord in prayer. God alone can change the hearts of sinners. God alone can give wisdom and guidance for other issues the church is facing. The elders should give a good amount of time to intercessory prayer for the people, not merely a token prayer at the beginning of the meeting. As elders listen to each other pray, their own hearts are enlarged in new ways, growing in love for the people being prayed for. Beyond a scheduled time of intercessory prayer for shepherding issues, the elders should be ready to pray throughout their meeting as the Spirit leads—-for discernment and for ministry management, which is ahead in the elders' meeting. Elders should be especially zealous to pray for wisdom when there may be a disagreement or an important matter of vision or direction to be resolved.
Discernment: In this section of the meeting, the elders are seeking to evaluate past/present ministry according to God's Word and according to the leadership of the Spirit, and to discern God's direction for future ministry. Elders must be constantly evaluating the various ministries of the church to be sure they are maximally fruitful. Jesus says of the Father, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). When it comes to the ministries of the church, the Father communicates this pruning most clearly through the elders. The elders must especially focus on the effectiveness of the church's ministry of the Word in bringing souls to Christ and bringing Christians to maturity in him. The elders must seek to be sure their corporate ministry is maximizing the spiritual gifts of the people. In the same way, the elders are called upon to discern God's plans for the future of their church. In Revelation 3:8, God spoke to the faithful church in Philadelphia, “Behold, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians 16:9 of a wide door of effective work opened for him. It is given to the elders to discern these open doors and to determine how the Lord is leading the church to move through those doors. This refers to new ministries the Lord is calling on the church to begin, and how/when best to begin them. Again, this can only be done through prayer and consistent reference to the Word of God as the standard by which all ministries must be measured. Ministry
Management: The word management may be a stumbling block to some, who feel it may be too worldly a word for such a spiritual ministry. However, 1 Timothy 3:5 says, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church?” The word manage is proistemi, meaning to be set over, preside, rule over, manage the affairs of. 1 Timothy 5:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12 both speak of the management/practical rulership of the elders over the affairs of the church. An important part of the elders' meeting, then, must be given to ministry management. This involves details of stewardship like the best expenditures of time, energy, money, and spiritually gifted people. The elders will also have to review aspects of church life such as small group ministry, evangelistic strategies, corporate prayer, necessary changes in corporate worship, church staff management, oversight of deacons, church budget, major expenditures to present to the church for consideration, other ministries for the church to support/partner with, doctrinal questions/issues that are rising, and so on. Part of this management is constantly asking, “Do we need to decide this, or is this something we can entrust to reliable people (like the deacons)?”
The Chairman: The elders should elect a chairman whose primary responsibility will be to organize and run elders' meetings, and to communicate the elders' decisions to the church at members' meetings. The chairman should be a gifted administrator and a winsome and strong leader able to discern when it is time during the meeting to move on to the next agenda item. He does not “steamroll” the elders to achieve the agenda, but neither does he allow individual elders to hijack the meeting and lead it down rabbit trails. There is a subtle balance. The chairman does not need to be the senior pastor, and in many cases it is best that he not be.
The Agenda: In the days leading up to the elders' meeting, the chairman should facilitate the process of drawing up the agenda. He should do this in conjunction with the other elders by group e-mails and other communication tools available. This agenda can be amended during the meeting (it's not the “Law of the Medes and Persians”), but it's best to try to get the items figured out ahead of time.
Frequency and Duration of Meetings: Elders' meetings should take place frequently enough to allow for close shepherding of the flock. John Calvin's consistory met every week for many hours. Our meetings are twice a month. Others may be able to meet monthly or some other frequency. The goal is to be active and energetic in the shepherding of the church. The meetings themselves will last for many hours, given the four areas to attend to. The elders should not begrudge this time and should give themselves fully to it. On the other hand, the chairman should be sensitive to the fatigue level of the elders and not drag the meetings beyond what would be productive. There is a special level of commitment needed to be a lay elder, who spends the whole day in employment outside the church and then lovingly serves the church in the evening at such a meeting. This commitment only the Lord can adequately reward!
The Manner of Conduct: The elders should consistently seek to act in a Spirit-filled manner, carrying themselves in a way that displays the fruit of the Spirit of Galatians 5:22-23. The elders should treat each other with godly deference, considering others' needs as more important than their own, and treating others as better than themselves (Philippians 2:3-4). The elders should speak only what is helpful for building others up, both the other elders at the meeting and the church generally in the decisions being made. The meetings can get very, very long if elders don't govern their tongues and filter out what they're about to say. They should avoid being repetitious or stubborn.
Unity: The elders should always seek to act in unanimity, being “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10). When there is a disagreement, there should be special effort made to understand the differing viewpoints. It is almost certain that, among godly and Spirit-filled leaders, each differing party has something important to say that will contribute to the final understanding of an issue. Thus the whole group should be willing to listen carefully to one or two dissenting elders. Conversely, the dissenting elders should be humble enough to trust the Spirit's leading through the group and support the final decision in faith. Any disagreements should be bathed in prayer, with frequent recourse to relevant Scriptures. All major decisions should be submitted to the formality of a vote, seeking unanimity within reasonable efforts made to achieve it. All elders should warm-heartedly support the decision out in public in the life of the church.
By the astounding grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the elders have been entrusted with the awesome role of “undershepherds” of his flock. This ministry is done collectively; therefore, the elders must meet together regularly to carry it out. The elders must consecrate themselves to the glory of God and the good of his people, and carry out the shepherding, prayer, discernment, and management tasks entrusted to them. As they do so, they should conduct themselves as Spirit-filled men who seek unity and true understanding of each other's minds. May God use this article to make your elders' meetings as fruitful as possible for his glory.