My mother once had a living room full of plants. She kindled endless fascination in my pre-teen mind as I watched her lovingly tend that makeshift hot house of greenery. She would water them when appropriate—some daily, some weekly, often sticking her finger into the dark loam to check if it needed it. She spoke to them as she watered them. When I asked why, she said, “They grow better with love.” She moved them to take advantage of the best light for the time of day or the season of year. If they grew really well, she would repot them for more growth. When I say she “took care of those plants,” man, she took care of those plants!
Healthy elder boards need the kind of tending my mother gave her little green jungle. Or, to leave the metaphor for a moment, the healthiest elder teams will have a culture of relational accountability. That’s our fourth “A”: Accountability.
Relational accountability between elders begins with watering the soil of relationships. In our last post, we mentioned the importance of friendships and an atmosphere conducive to relationships. Such an atmosphere isn’t merely so the ministry would be a joy; it’s also so the ministry will not be a trap!
We need to invest in relationships between pastors so that there’s a meaningful context for accountability and mutual protection. By invest in relationships and meaningful context, I mean build friendships where affirmation and genuine interest in each other’s well-being is the norm rather than mere accountability. If accountability is the norm, there’s a good chance people feel surveilled rather than loved and a good chance they’ll hide from the surveillance rather than let themselves be known. A team of pastors should know and be known, should have hearts and lives open because there’s love and safety between them. I think the apostle Paul has this in mind when he instructs the Ephesian elders, saying, “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” (Acts 20:28). Before he tells them to watch the flock, he says “pay careful attention” to each other.
Paul’s words remind me of my mother’s careful attention in watering those plants. Well-watered relationships keep things from becoming dry and brittle. “Softness” between pastors increases the likelihood that hard truth in accountability finds a receptive heart.
We normally build relationships through conversation. It’s through speaking the truth in love that we grow up into Christ (Eph. 4:15). That’s true of the entire church and it’s true of elders.
It’s also through speaking with one another that we increase accountability to each other and to the office. James’ insistence that Christians “confess your sins to one another” (Jam. 5:16) applies to the elders and, like most things in the life of the church, ought to be modeled by the elders.
But a couple of things work against a culture of confession among elder teams. First, we’re men. Many of us would rather talk about sports or politics or someone else’s problems than open our hearts with each other. Second, we’re proud. And, sadly, in a fallen world, the ministry can feed pride in its leaders. Rather than given in to proud male tendencies, we need to be spiritually-minded, recognize the courage and faith it takes to be vulnerable, and cultivate habits of talking that go to the heart so we keep each other safe.
A healthy plant receives the right amount of light. A healthy accountability process sheds the right amount of light on the pastors’ lives.
Our sins are not hidden from God (Psalm 90:8), so we should recognize that fact by not attempting to hide them from each other. Bringing our sins into the light actually strengthens our fellowship with God and one another (1 John 1:7).
So, a good elder board might dedicate a portion of its agenda to allowing a couple of leaders to update the whole group on their spiritual, marital, parenting and professional lives. The other pastors can listen, pray and ask the hard follow-up questions that need to be asked. Or, the group can take the catalogues of virtues and vices in Paul’s letters, using one such passage at a meeting as a spiritual self-assessment as they talk together. I know one pastor who from-time-time will have the wives of team members write letters to the entire eldership giving their sense of how their husbands are doing spiritually, at home, and at work.
There are many ways to do it, but elders should talk to each other about their spiritual lives and help each other with their weaknesses. Bringing the right amount of light to our lives keeps us safe from the misdeeds of darkness and protects the sheep from the damaging effects of fallen leadership. These need to be tough questions and follow-up inquiries that push through superficial answers.
Rotation and Repot
Healthy accountability may require some pastors be rotated or repotted. Being a leader is not always healthy for us spiritually. Sometimes we need breaks and sometimes we need to step aside altogether in order to give attention to weaknesses in our own walks with Christ or in our families. A good elder team will insist a brother take some time to be rooted and built up in Christ if that’s needed (Col. 2:7). It’s better to take such breaks to avoid shipwreck than to continue in ministry until our faults and sins damage us, our families, our churches and the name of Christ. Rest is an absolutely vital spiritual discipline and healthy elder teams keep each other accountable for getting rest—especially if it’s heading off problem areas.
Unaccountable elders and teams are a danger to themselves, their families and the sheep in their care. It’s a sad irony that the watchmen can often go unwatched. This should not be so. Good leadership builds effective accountability into meaningful relationships. Doing so may save more than we know.