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.
I would suggest at least five ingredients essential to cultivating a life-giving atmosphere among fellow elders.
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” (John 15:15), 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.
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” (1 Pet. 5:1). 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.
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 (Heb. 13:17).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 (2 Cor. 1:24). 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.
We touched on this a little bit in the last post. But it bears repeating. Every pastor on the eldership needs to desire (1 Tim. 3:1) to be an elder and should serve in the role willingly and eagerly (1 Pet. 5:2). 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.
The healthiest elder boards fill the atmosphere with prayer. In Acts 6, 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.