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Eldership Catch-22

2015 May 30
by Mike

“I thought elders were supposed to lead! This isn’t a democracy where they take a congregational poll!”

“They seem to have no regard for the opinions of the church. They just decide and move on without considering the church!”

Used with permission

Used with permission


It isn’t easy being an elder. So often, they just can’t win. I’ve heard the above comments from the same members—at different times over different issues. The position they express (Lead more! or Listen more!) depends on which side they’re on.

If it looks like the elders are going to make a decision that I agree with but that many in the church disagree with, then I’m leaning into their responsibility to lead. Shepherds lead the sheep!

If it looks like the elders are going to press forward with something I don’t like, then I’m going to squawk about how they aren’t dictators. Shepherds don’t trample over the sheep!

Alas, it’s hard to win this one as elders.

The truth is that elderships must do both: they must stay in close touch with the church. They must listen to the voices of all the sisters and brothers in a church. Discernment is an important part of the process of decision-making. AND they must eventually decide. And it seems increasingly (as with American politics) that there is fall-out with every decision. It’s too much. Or it isn’t enough.

This is the point in a great blog where a seasoned minister gives the answer to this dilemma.

I don’t have one. If I did, I’d open a consulting business and get rich.

I’m only pleading with people to see the challenge. And perhaps be a bit more compassionate. Press hard. Pray hard. Make your case. But do your very best to make the hard work of leading a joyful one.

And I know: it can’t always be.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. George Oliver permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Good reflections of Eldering. Only completely understood if you have served in this capacity. “… desiring the office …” is a lot more responsible than an ego trip to gain power & control. More time is needed in developing and training potential elders.

  2. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Mike I am so disturbed by this traditional approach to elders of the church. We seem to regulate each other’s lives with scriptures and for the most part do a good job of edifying each other and holding each accountable. But, we fail miserably applying scriptures to elders. IMO We put our elders in as leaders because they fit scripture (I know that is not 100% accurate but it should be). If that is so, then why do we question men who are men of God, ordained by God and men of prayer. To me, if God, ordainment and prayer are in the picture; anyone questioning the elders decisions is questioning God’s Sovereignty in that elderships leadership?

  3. May 30, 2015

    Thanks, George.

    Jerry, can you expound a bit on this: “I am so disturbed by this traditional approach to elders of the church.” I’m not sure I understand what “traditional approach” you mean. Not trying to be obstinate, just unclear. Thanks!

  4. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Sorry trying to keep short. To me, it is traditional for the church to feel it has the power over the elders. Power of opinion, leadership and even at times Biblical interpretation. This is why the church criticizes its elders. I believe we fail to accept the authority the elders have by given by God and seem to give it to the masses as if the eldership is a political position.

  5. May 30, 2015

    Ok. Off to do a wedding. I’ll think about it and respond a bit later. That’s the part that I didn’t catch.

    Just quickly, I’d say:

    I guess “if God, ordainment and prayer are in the picture” gives a lot of wiggle room, because someone can always say the elders weren’t properly selected, or God didn’t bless it, or there wasn’t enough prayer.

    The truth is that congregational discernment is important, because not all wisdom is invested in the elders.

    Plus, we can all point to things that elders have decided that just couldn’t be right. I doubt that you’d want to endorse—even with the advantage of the rearview mirror—decisions of many elders who claimed to have prayerfully decided to remain segregated. I don’t believe in an ex cathedra position either for a pope or for an eldership.

    I know a couple elderships that have decided, after lots of prayer and study, to include women on the eldership. If that happened at your church, would you question the decision? Or would you just assume that in his sovereignty God had worked through them to this decision? And I also know elderships who have decided to not allow women to serve on the eldership (or preach or pray in the assembly, etc.). If that happened at your church, would you question the decision? Or, again, would you just assume that in his sovereignty God had spoken?

    See, I think that confidence mostly works when things are going one’s way . . . or when one is already a member of a high-control eldership. (I’m shooting in the dark here. This isn’t directed to you. I have no idea if you’ve ever been an elder. It’s a broader observation.)

    I do agree with you in this: leaders must lead. But another truth to juxtapose with that is that true leaders walk closely with and seek wisdom from others.

  6. May 30, 2015

    Here’s the note I left on Facebook, tagging my friend Joey Cope: “Calling you out, Joey Cope. Go solve this. This is your area not mine. Even though we’re not related, I will claim you if you solve this conundrum!”

    I really would like for you, Joey, and others who’ve worked a lot in this area to provide insights, links, materials, etc.

  7. Kevin Withem permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Mike – great conversation to open. Early church leadership, even among the apostles, seemed to have included decisions that were made more out in the open than is often the case today (Acts 6:5; 15:4), with certain significant decisions being considered with the larger body listening in, perhaps. That’s, perhaps not possible in every decision, but perhaps if it were done in more, there would be greater trust when hard decisions are made and churches have heard at least some of the conversation, prayer and rationale that went into the process. It seems that many decisions are made today behind closed doors, with little, if any church input. So Churches are often surprised by sudden decisions that are made when they, perhaps didn’t even realize an issue was being deliberated.

  8. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    May 30, 2015

    Mike I am not in disagreement with your thoughts at all. Im just not sure Im able to dismiss the other end of the spectrum. For example, the only apostle that fits the situation is Matthias. A man chosen to replace Judas as an apostle by way of the “short straw”. If we had a record today of a gospel or letter written by Matthias, would we question what was written because he was “elected” by way of “chance”. I believe we would probably agree Matthias was chosen and ordained by God to be an Apostle. The authority came by way of a darwing of sticks, definetely a more simplistic primitive approach than todays chosen methods of choosing elders (another topic in and of itself).

    So for discussion sake, why would we question an elder who was just as Sovereignly chosen for leadership. One could argue more intelectually than Matthias, by way of a vote. I am by no means an advocate that the church as a whole doesn’t play a balance in the leadership of the elders. But I’m not sure we take seriously the idea that our elders are in place by Sovereignty of God. How they lead will be judged by God. Whether they continue in leadership, will be handled by God. Question to ponder: do we give enough attention to the Sovereignty of God in the election of our elders and their tenure in the leadership position.

    You posed a couple of questions earlier. No matter what my stance scripturally is on any subject, if I chose to worhip under a congregation led by elders. I must chose to respect without discourse their decisions on how the congregation will handle our freedoms in Christ. Why without discourse? Im not sure it’s my place to criticize what God put in place.

    Now, I am by no means the sharpest tool on the block. But I do take God’s word to heart and I am always looking for knowledge to further my leadership abilities within the church. If I have learned one thing from my walk with God, it is to take heed in what subjects I take a hard stance on because as soon as I do God will reveal a more compassionate stance on the subject. So, let the teaching begin.

  9. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    May 30, 2015

    I guess it would probably be pertinent to say, I used to be one of the prominent naysayers. Constantly challenging my elders decisions, lack of communication and lack of decisions. So, Im not a stranger to the complaint. Sad to say.

  10. June 1, 2015

    A couple of posts after PBL. You’re making me wonder if PreacherMike might start getting back into the blogging business. We can only hope!

    In the background I also think we need to attend to the profound ways we’ve become (mal)formed by our culture. Recently in our adult bible class at church I made a contrast between promises vs. preferences. Rather than our community being rooted in baptismal promises we make to each other–which implies stability, loyalty, and covenant fidelity to each other, good times and bad–our communities are formed by our preferences.

    Why do I go to my church? Because I like it. I like the preacher. Or the worship. Or the programs. Why do I go to a particular bible class in the church? Because I like it. And so on.

    Sadly, liking is the glue holding us together. And that makes it very, very hard for elders to make hard decisions that people won’t like. Because once liking goes the community disintegrates.

  11. David P Himes permalink
    June 1, 2015

    I think “engaged with the congregation” is a better description than “listen to the congregation”. Listening is not enough … it should go beyond that.

    But that likely requires more time than attending meetings of elders

  12. Banner permalink
    June 3, 2015

    I appreciate the article and all of the comments. If I might offer an observation that from experience, I believe adds to the tension between the congregation and eldership at times. Elders are making a lot of decisions that would best be left up to deacons. I agree that ultimately the elders are over the entire work of the congregation but they often are called upon to serve tables. In my opinion we sometimes operate the eldership like a board of directors and this causes problems. We need to reexamine the Bibical concept of authority and leadership.

    Now all that being said. I believe the congregation should submit to the eldership when they make decisions (even the ones we don’t like or agree with).

  13. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    June 3, 2015

    Banner, I completely agree with you. I wanted to add to your board of directors thought. Most elderships are administratively heavy. I have seen edlerships who are 80% administrative and 20% shepherding. I would like to see a shift to deacons doing more of the adminsrative responsibilites and elders focusing on shepherding and teaching. Like you said, a Biblical response.

    On another thought, I believe one of the main responsibilities of an eldership is to train their deacons to be better leaders, shepherds and teachers with the intent they will one day be elders.

  14. Jerry Cutshall permalink
    June 3, 2015

    You know I have been thinking a lot about this subject since this post. There s ia proponent to this crisis that is not the complete cause but is a strong contributor. And that is, there is a large shortage of qualified elders. IMO

    Our congregations do not have enough elders to handle the shepherding needs of their congregation. This in return causes many things to go undone or missed as a need and not addressed or handled. Poor decisions could be made do to a lack of time to focus on the issues at hand and make an educated decision. The “domino effect” is the congragation sees a lack of many things (fill in the blank) and complaints arouse. Thoughts?

  15. Mark permalink
    June 7, 2015

    Some of the younger wonder why the elders don’t/won’t pay more attention and ask what is going on. However, I learned quickly that the young were no place other than the absolute bottom of the pecking order. I wondered if elders would know if a rebellion were being planned or imminent until after it had started.

    There is also a secret power structure in most churches. I have seen when certain elderly women, typically widowed, controlled the eldership if they needed to do so. That said, having elders who are administrators and deacons who have no real responsibilities in some places is a recipe for overlooking some people and poor decisions. I still wonder why the expertise of members is almost never put to use. Whatever deacons are supposed to be, they seem to just be married men with the requisite children and little else. Some churches use committees comprised of undesirable (singles of both genders, no children) members to do a lot of the work. These people though have expertise in areas like finance, engineering, law, teaching, etc. to me, if God gave someone a talent, why is the church the last place they can use it?

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