The Five A’s of Building Healthy Elder Boards: Atmosphere

Building and maintaining healthy elder teams requires a lot of work. The truth is, too often I’m not attending to this work with as much attention as it requires. There’s a real sense in which the lead pastor is not only shepherded by the other pastors/elders but also shepherd to the shepherds. If no one else invests in building the team, the lead pastor must.

A great elder team works to reach agreements on fundamental matters and abilities that make the team possible. But there’s a third “A” that requires attention: Atmosphere.

I would suggest at least five ingredients essential to cultivating a life-giving atmosphere among fellow elders.

1. Friendship

Friendship is vital for all people, including pastors. However, pastors find themselves often isolated and feeling as if they have no friends. If statistics are accurate, seventy-percent of pastors report they have no close friends in their church and forty percent report a serious conflict with a church member once per month. Some conventional wisdom maintains that pastors and their wives cannot have friends inside their church.

That’s wrong, beloved. If you’re a church leader and you cannot have friends in your church then your church is not the family of God.

Pastors can’t be close friends with everyone—and don’t have to be. Even the Lord Jesus was closest with three disciples who formed His inner circle. But a friendly atmosphere in the church and among the leaders is indeed possible. Not only possible but vitally important to the health of the pastors and the congregation. If Jesus could call His disciples “friends” (), then surely we ought to be able to do the same with our fellow pastors.

Larry Osbourne sets a workable and modest measure of friendship when he writes, “We must get along well enough to avoid the miscommunication, stereotyping, and personality conflicts that so easily get in the way when it’s time to tackle a tough or difficult issue” (Sticky Teams, p. 30).

An elder team can make progress toward a friendly atmosphere by giving attention to personal relationships and by meeting often enough to build trust and affection. Frequent, shorter meetings are better for board health than fewer, longer meetings.

2. Parity

To cultivate a healthy elder board, we want an atmosphere marked by parity. Consider this: When the apostle Peter wrote to address elders throughout the Christian diaspora, he did not address them apostle-to-elders but as a “fellow elder” (). Peter’s humility works to close the gap between himself as an apostle and the elders serving local churches. His humility provides a model for “senior pastors” who should also work to close the gap between themselves and their fellow elders.

Parity undercuts autocratic tendencies by elevating every pastor and distributing authority across the team. Parity makes the lead pastor accessible and accountable while allowing each elder to flourish in the use of their gifts. When elder teams achieve some parity it humanizes the team and creates a healthy atmosphere.

3. Joy

It’s easy to forget, but pastoral ministry should be fun. Pastors face many difficulties in the ministry. But serving Christ and His bride should bring an elder team joy. Congregations are called to obey their leaders, in part, so the leaders enjoy the work of the ministry ().That’s not to say members and ministry exist to make pastors happy; they exist for the glory of Christ. Moreover, the relationship is not one-directional, with members only making the pastors joyful; the pastors work together with the congregation for the congregation’s joy (). A healthy elder board is a happy elder board and a happy elder board should work to make the church joyful in Christ.

Pastors should be quick to laugh and often joking. Pervasive happiness in Christ and in service to the bride—that’s the atmosphere we want in pastor teams.

4. Desire

We touched on this a little bit in the last post. But it bears repeating. Every pastor on the eldership needs to desire () to be an elder and should serve in the role willingly and eagerly (). A grudging, reluctant, resistant pastor tends to shy away from the work, from the inevitable difficulties, and often away from the sheep. Incentives and encouragements will not turn this person into a pastor. He lacks motivation for the role. In the best-case scenario, elder boards and churches watch for genuine desire and eagerness rather than coax and goose the reluctant into the role. Persons without this qualification grind the pastoral work to a halt.

By contrast, pastors with willing, eager desire create an atmosphere of possibility, determination and focus. An elder board comprised of men who can’t wait to put their shoulder to the plow is an elder board marked by love for the sheep and fruitful service.

5. Prayer

The healthiest elder boards fill the atmosphere with prayer. In , the apostles dedicated themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer. Throughout the book of Acts the entire early church dedicated itself to prayer. A praying elder team is an intimate, spiritual and joyful elder team.


The best elder boards maintain an atmosphere of joy, equality, prayer and friendship. Time, togetherness, and intentionality will turn the spiritual work into a life-giving fellowship. But it doesn’t happen by accident; it takes work and intentionality.

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17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (ESV)

24 Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. (ESV)

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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; (ESV)

6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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