Biblically qualified elders are crucial for the health of the church, which is “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Faithful elders lead to stronger churches and the preservation and advancement of the gospel. But what should a pastor do when he finds a church without elders, or without the right ones?
When I became the senior pastor of the United Christian Church of Dubai (UCCD) in 2005, I was excited about the possibility of ministry there, but the leadership challenges were daunting. The elders were good men who loved the Lord, but they were guided by varying theology and different ministry philosophies. They spent much of their meetings focused on programs and parking problems—important issues, but not the main matters of elder ministry. How could that culture change?
Here are four principles for raising up elders in a church-revitalization environment, all of which helped me in this task.
Before you call a members’ meeting, before you announce a new leadership structure, before you do anything—simply teach the Bible. If you’re seeking to lead, first show yourself to be a man under authority. Commit to regular, consecutive expositional preaching that dispels any notion you have an agenda or axe to grind. And when you encounter passages that touch on biblical leadership, pause to explain and apply—whether you’re seeing how Moses benefited from a plurality of leadership (Ex. 18), or how David extolled the virtues of leadership (2 Sam. 22:3), or that Paul and Barnabas specifically appointed elders in every town (Acts 14:23).
Before you call a members’ meeting, before you announce a new leadership structure, before you do anything—simply teach the Bible.
Hand out good literature on biblical leadership. Talk with people one on one. Take them to Acts, 1 Timothy, Titus, James, and 1 Peter, and show them the plurality of spiritual leaders called “elders” or “overseers” in the early church. Trust that God’s people are indwelt by his Spirit and will find Scripture persuasive and compelling.
Many churches are confused about leadership because they have not been taught. They drift toward corporate models, or fashionable trends, or whatever works best, and the spiritual life of the church slowly dies. Elders are not a board of directors. They’re pastors—whether paid or not—who love the church and lead by counseling, teaching, one-on-one discipling, preaching, and praying. This isn’t always intuitive, and your congregation needs you to teach.
Pastors don’t make other elders; the Holy Spirit does (Acts 20:28). That’s why, in addition to teaching and training, church leaders must be dedicated to prayer. God is the one who will raise up faithful shepherds through the ministry of his Word.
Pastors don’t make other elders. God is the one who will raise up faithful shepherds through the ministry of his Word.
In the beginning at UCCD, some suspected I was trying to get “my guys” in leadership. Others were fearful of losing power. There was nothing I could do about it. I became painfully aware of my inability to reform the church on my own. So I began praying that the Lord would transform the elder board—and slowly but surely he did.
One of the answers to my prayer was Richard. He joined our church shortly after arriving from Zambia. He was there whenever the church gathered, he engaged people intentionally in spiritual conversation, he served others regardless of whether he received credit. Thanks to his previous church, we’d received a ready-made elder. Soon the congregation recognized him as such. One by one the composition of our elder board began to change.
Love is expressed by pastors in many ways, but a crucial one is meeting individually with potential elders for intentional discipleship. Jesus invested deeply in the Twelve, and even more so in the three (Peter, James, John). We must train elders in the same way. Select a few promising men and disciple them.
This stewardship involves teaching, but more. Making disciples and raising up elders is less like a classroom and more like parenting. As Colin Marshall and Tony Payne observe, “It’s deeply and inescapably relational. When we look at the relationship between Paul and Timothy, it becomes immediately apparent that much more than a transfer of information was involved in Timothy’s training.”
Making disciples and raising up elders is less like a classroom and more like parenting.
Mark Dever endured many Subway sandwiches during the early years when he was discipling me. I remember as a brand-new Christian wondering: Why do we always go to the same place for lunch? How about some variety? Only later did I realize Mark chose to eat there because he was systematically building a relationship with the family behind the counter—and in that, he was modeling for me the intentionality and evangelistic faithfulness I needed as an elder.
The apostle Paul said, “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Tim. 1:5). This kind of love multiplies itself in the life of a church. Model it to the potential leaders you disciple.
Training elders is more like farming than a factory assembly. As Thabiti Anyabwile wisely counsels, “Be patient and note those men who evidence the desire over time. Watch a man. Encourage him. Observe the desire in fruitful seasons, in dry times, when he is full of joy, and when he is sorrowful.” It helps to take the long view. Think in terms of years, not months.
Nader, from Egypt, was a young man when he arrived at UCCD. He was affable, encouraging, and naturally connected with our Arabic-speaking members. As Nader got married and started raising a family, he also developed a growing interest in missions and was elected as our deacon of missions. Then people began to notice his shepherding gifts. He cared for our supported workers pastorally and checked in on them regularly. He began teaching more and our congregation eventually recognized an elder who’d grown up among us.
Take the long view in training elders. “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1 Tim. 5:22). Training elders takes time. With a long-term perspective, we can cultivate the next crop.