The role of church elder has changed substantially during the last century. Following the Civil War, gaining momentum well into the 20th century, elders moved from a primary role as a shepherd of people alongside the pastors, to become the superintendent of a program or ministry. To put it simply, for nearly four millenia, elders oversaw people. For a hundred years up and until today, Presbyterian elders focus nearly all their time upon the things of the church—bricks, money, programs, and pew pencils—at the expense of the people.
Samuel Miller was a New York pastor and Princeton Theological Seminary professor. His 1831 book guided Presbyterian elders on best practice for the better part of the 19th century. He taught about the elder role: “It is their duty to have an eye of inspection and care over all the members of the congregation and for this purpose to cultivate a universal and intimate acquaintance, as far as may be, with every family in the flock of which they are made ‘overseers.’”
A line in the 1867 Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in the United States plainly describes the role. Saying elders need to “watch diligently over the flock committed to their charge, that no corruption of doctrine or morals enter therein…” It goes on further to give deacons responsibility for the ‘things’ of the church.
More importantly, Peter instructs all elders: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
Peter taught that elders had individuals ‘in their charge’ and the elder was supposed to be a humble and eager example for them. The historical and biblical role of elders clearly focuses the work of elders upon overseeing people - not administrating the things of the church. We are simply doing it differently than the Bible teaches and elders have practiced since the time of Moses.
We can easily point to three things elders used to do that elders today could and even should do, but likely are not.
When Moses was only a few months into the wilderness, his father-in-law Jethro pulled him aside and counseled against listening to every grievance or dispute, “What you are doing is not good. You will certainly wear yourselves out.” (Exodus 18:17-18) Jethro counseled Moses to appoint trustworthy and able people to hear the disputes of the people in smaller matters. The same principle applies to elders who have historically played a role in creating peace among the members by getting personally involved in settling conflict. One of the greatest factors in pastoral burnout is continually having to resolve disputes. This is necessary work but something no pastor should have do alone. Notice in Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, the third step in resolving a dispute is to “take it to the elders.” This, we can safely presume, does not mean the ‘teaching elder’ alone.
Elders are instructed in Titus (and elsewhere) to ‘rebuke’ those who contradict sound doctrine either in belief or lifestyle (1:9). However, the dreaded ‘discipline trials’ of the past are scary bedtime stories told to shock elders of the 21st century. Hauling a wayward member before the elders to answer for some accusation of sinful behavior is so far from our experience that it seems otherworldly. Our elders are trained to hear reports from the mission committee and maybe prepare and/or endure a fifteen minute devotional. However, church discipline need not be only reactive or extraordinary. Ordinary church discipline is simply straight-forward discipleship, growing into “the measure of the statue of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12) A careful study of the work of Sessions from the 18th and 19th century reveals a real interest in seeing people live disciplined, Christ-honoring lives that bear spiritual fruit. This happened in multiple ways usually spearheaded by the elders—including relationships, mission and teaching. Even if we have little taste today for discipline trials, elders need to embrace the idea of discipleship that changes lives—beginning with our own.
The shift of elder from a shepherd of people to a superintendent of programs and ministries has caused the spiritual responsibility for shepherding the flock to crash down on the shoulders of pastors. Even a superhuman pastor cannot shoulder such a load in a congregation of any size. If the pastor is the sole shepherd, the members cannot possibly grow spiritually. This is just one problem with our modern practice. Pastors also need elders as teammates and peers to hold them accountable. Pastors, with unchecked authority, can easily grow like Jotham’s bramble. For the reason of our sinful nature, pastors need elders to hold them accountable and hone their leadership. Ministers are just as susceptible to sin as others. In this day and age of chronic pastoral burnout, we may ask how the role of elder, properly conceived and practiced, might mitigate the stress placed on the uber-shepherd’s shoulders.
As the church seeks her role in the 21st century, we must ask ourselves, how should our leaders lead? Following Scripture and the best practices from our rich history is a good start.
The Elder Leadership Institute is dedicated to helping elders recapture their historic role as shepherds of people. ELI believes that elders are called to be spiritual leaders, not simply bureaucrats managing a church program. We offer a variety of resources and partner together with sessions to help explore and make this transition back to shepherd. We believe the spiritual equipping of the leadership naturally creates new life and missional vitality.
We invite you to join us!
Rev. Eric Laverentz, Assistant Director of ELI