A healthy group of local church elders blesses everyone with whom they make contact. The congregation benefits from their biblical leadership and care. The elders themselves benefit from their mutual care. The lead or senior pastor receives innumerable blessings from their partnership and help in gospel labor.
But the adjective “healthy” in the phrase “healthy group of local church elders” should not be skimmed. All one needs to do is imagine unhealthy church leaders to get an immediate sense of how valuable and vital healthiness can be.
So, with God’s help, I want to offer five things that characterize healthy elder boards. These are not the only things that build health, but hopefully it’s a good starting place. And I want to suggest it’s the senior or lead pastor’s job to lead the elders into a culture of these five things. Call them the “five A’s of healthy elder boards.”
Let’s focus on the first and most vital of the five A’s: Agreements.
A healthy elder board should maintain deep agreement in at least three areas. The first area is theological agreement. For most elderships that will mean agreement on the church’s statement of faith. Every local church elder should be in complete agreement with the church’s statement of faith and take vows to teach and defend it. Such commitments or vows inherently foster unity and agreement.
More detailed statements of faith, like the Westminster Confession or the Second London Baptist Statement of Faith, will require more teaching, making agreement a slower process, but will produce deeper agreement because of the detail. Very mere creeds limited to general theological statements will have the opposite effect—seemingly quicker agreement among elders but such agreement will be shallow and often fragile without more substance and specificity. For that reason, I would encourage churches and pastors to opt for more detail or specificity rather than less. Agreement may be slower in the making, but unity will be better formed if you teach the document faithfully and patiently.
Without theological agreement, the elders and the congregation are poised to either minimize vital truth or constantly debate those truths rather than celebrate them. Such minimization or constant friction bogs the eldership and the church down, preventing it from moving forward to other important matters requiring leadership and attention.
This may sound “heretical” to some, but theological agreement is not sufficient for building a healthy elder board. We also need practical agreement, by which I mean every elder should be agreed about ministry philosophy and roles. Think of these as secondary to formal theological agreement, but so practically necessary that unless you agree you cannot lead and shepherd the church.
For example, will the church support remarriage after a divorce and under what circumstances? Will the church practice church discipline and according to what principles? For that matter, will the church practice church membership and how will persons join? What will the church teach and practice regarding gender and roles in Christian ministry and the home? How about homeschooling—will the church take a position on it formally or informally?
Any one of these issues—and many more—are enough to seriously wound sheep and possibly split an elder board or church. Taking the time to think these practical topics through as a group or elders will prevent significant heartache and difficulty as you minister together. Many a team, thinking theological agreement would be enough to serve together, have found themselves shattered on these secondary but important matters of teaching and leadership.
Finally, a healthy elder board must have a deeply shared vision of the Christian life in order to disciple and shepherd together. This form of agreement is less tangible than the first two, but it’s no less important.
Think of it this way: Each team of elders should have the same vision of the Christian life the apostle Paul held. We should, with Paul, proclaim Christ so that “we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28) and we should build up the body until the saints “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Beyond citing texts like this, however, the elders will need a commonly shared sense of what maturity and Christ-likeness looks like. They will have to model that maturity and they will need to collectively encourage, exhort, admonish, teach and correct so that the saints reach the goal.
If one brother thinks the Christian life is rather loose and demands little while another brother emphasizes zeal and commitment, their disagreement about what makes a “good Christian” will affect their ability to shepherd in unity. Perhaps one elder will tell a young man not to date around while another may say have fun and don’t be too serious. One elder may insist that faithful parenting involves a certain approach to discipline while another may encourage greater freedom. One elder will show up at every church service and dutifully attend leadership meetings while another may attend more spottily and think it okay.
These are not things necessarily specified by scripture. So proof texts won’t necessarily achieve agreement in these matters. But being able to define what a Christian is and how a Christian should live goes a long way in producing agreement in the basic tasks of discipleship. Without it, elders tend to develop suspicious feelings toward one another and may confuse the congregation with the uncertain sound of their teaching and example.
Let’s conclude this first post by highlighting one benefit of deep agreement that might seem counter-intuitive. Elder teams that have deep agreement in these three ways enjoy not only the unity that comes from these agreements but also the blessing of being able to charitably disagree on other matters without feeling threatened. When theological, practical and vision agreements are in place, elders can have necessary and sometimes vigorous debates about other matters without feeling things have become wrongly personal or that they’re falling apart. These agreements provide enough glue to keep the team together when the gray areas challenge the elder team. And believe me, there are many gray areas requiring the elders to think carefully, pray fervently, and even debate vigorously so that the church knows the peace of Christ. The lead pastor’s first responsibility is to build the kind of agreement that allows the elders to stick together in love and understanding when things get tough—because they will get tough.