The Five A’s of Building Healthy Elder Boards: Ability
In our last post, we discussed the necessity of theological, practical and vision agreement in building a healthy elder board. Those agreements foster deep unity and common commitment. But agreement alone will not lead to the kind of vitality and wellness we would like among our pastors. We also need our leaders to display certain abilities for the role.
Here are four abilities we need in healthy leadership groups.
Ability to Teach (and Learn)
Every pastor must be able to teach (). This does not mean every pastor must be a Sunday morning preacher. However, every pastor must know how to explain and apply God’s word in a way that edifies the church. They may do that in small group settings or one-on-one. Teaching is the bread and butter, meat and potatoes of pastoral ministry. In a sense, everything the pastor does comes down this essential competency, whether the teaching gets done by spoken word or by setting example.
So, for an elder board to be healthy, all the members of the eldership must be able to teach. Yet, there’s something more to grasp. They must be able to teach one another. The eldership requires each pastor take the lead in studying an issue and contributing to the body of knowledge of the church. Pastors will have to read and discuss books together, write position papers on difficult issues, and from time to time correct one another. So each pastor must possess both humility and courage—humility to learn from every other pastor and competence in teaching every other pastor.
As a lead pastor, it’s important that I recognize I don’t know everything. It’s important for the other pastors or elders to recognize they have things to teach me and one another. There must be mutual edification that comes from our being able to teach each other as well as the congregation.
Ability to Lead (and Follow)
Second, healthy elder boards must have men with competence in leading others. The apostle Peter gives us a picture of what that looks like when he writes: “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” ().
Peter describes leadership with three pair of negative-to-positive contrasts. Leadership is exercising oversight:
- not under compulsion but willingly;
- not for shameful gain but eagerly; and
- not domineering but by example.
A healthy leader watches over God’s people willingly, eagerly (and by implication selflessly) and through example. He does not use harsh rule, seek his own gain, or feel forced into the role. Such leaders refresh a church the way morning dew perks up the grass.
And they must lead each other in this same spirit. Our elder boards grow unhealthy when they turn into political meetings where leaders seek to get their own way through power and control. In such cases, assertiveness turns into aggressiveness. Men seek to be served rather than to serve and give their lives for others. Contention, suspicion, anxiety, anger and mistrust become the rule of the day.
So the pastors must lead each other with the spirit of Christ. The same leadership qualities Peter wishes the elders to display with the sheep must also be displayed among and between the elders. This kind of leadership among the elders is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” ().
Each pastor should have this aptitude and the lead pastor must cultivate it in the team for the group to be healthy. The congregation should pray for this. And the best way ensure it develops is by making sure the men called by the congregation to serve as elders display this ability to lead and follow others before they are nominated and confirmed.
Now, with all the agreement in the world and with all the gracious leadership skill we can imagine, every elder board will find itself at one time or another in conflict. It could be conflict with the sheep. It could be conflict between elders. It could even be conflict with the world outside the church. Strife is a permanent feature of this sin-soaked world. According to Lifeway Research, twenty-five percent of pastors leaving the ministry do so because of conflict.
In a conflict-saturated world and church, pastors need aptitude in peacemaking. They must be able to resolve conflict between themselves, between themselves and the sheep, and between the sheep. It’s a skill Jesus included among the beatitudes () and one Paul exhorted an entire church to practice (). Of course, Paul himself knew the pain of sharp contention and the way it split his ministry with Barnabas (). A healthy elder board knows these things could happen with them unless they learn to be peacemakers.
Personally, I’ve found Ken Sande’s The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict an excellent resource in learning the skills of conflict resolution. Peacemaker Ministries’ conferences and trainings have also been extremely valuable. Whatever resource leaders choose, investing in peacemaking ability or skill can make all the difference in the relationships, unity and health of the leaders and the congregation.
Ability to Disagree
Sometimes unsuspecting, optimistic elders get rocked when they find out the pastors don’t think the same way at every point. Sometimes pastors have wide differences on important secondary or prudential matters.
As we argued in the first post, deep agreement on theology, practice and vision actually enable elder boards to disagree about other matters without feeling threatened or suspicious. But they still need ability or competence with how to disagree effectively and charitably.
To begin with, a healthy elder board learns the discipline of stating differences clearly and accurately. This helps the pastors avoid talking past each other. And if statements of disagreement also carefully detail areas of related agreement, those statements keep the elders from blowing the disagreement out of proportion. Anything a board can do to keep the issues appropriately “small” (by which I do not mean unimportant, but in context of other major agreements) helps maintain healthy dialogue and understanding.
Also, a healthy elder board learns to trust motives—or at least not judge motives. Defining the disagreement well keeps the group on topic. A group that knows how to disagree knows how to keep members from making the differences personal.
A healthy group of pastors also know when to take on disagreements. We can be tempted to think that every disagreement needs to be talked about right away. The more important or threatening the issue appears to us, the more urgently we wish to discuss or resolve it. But it’s wise to ask, “Do we think need to resolve this right now? And if so, why?” Sometimes we find that we can actually table or postpone an issue to allow time for prayer, study and research, and clarity. Taking the time helps us disagree better. And one vital aspect for establishing when to take on a disagreement is trust. A former board member with Peacemaker Ministries, Don Bubna, used to say, “R.I.T. Relationships before issues except where there’s trust.” That’s a good rule of thumb. Until you’ve cultivated relationships of genuine trust in the elder board, you’re probably not ready to take up a disagreement that will threaten the relationships. Build trust and you’ll be able to face most any disagreement.
Leadership requires skill or ability. Most often it requires the “soft skills” of managing people, shepherding hearts, changing minds, persuading of truth, and setting an example. Pastors won’t be able to do any of that unless they are able to teach with all patience () and set the believers a compelling example (). To be healthy, our leadership teams must commit themselves to growing and maintaining the hidden abilities that make for peace.
28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (ESV)