On Leadership in Churches of Christ, part 3 — Elder Selection

Churches of Christ are predisposed to two primary afflictions when it comes to leadership–then several less serious problems. One primary problem is we struggle to know what to do with those with gifts of leadership. The second is that we have no mechanism to remove or protects churches from immoral, ineffective or rogue elders. This post will deal with the latter.

The best way to protect the church from bad elders is to make sure they never become elders. In the average Church of Christ, elder selection is a matter of simple election. Names are put forth and voted on by the congregation. A relatively arbitrary vote count threshold is chosen and those who receive votes totaling beyond that threshold become elders. There is often no training, little or no input from the existing elders, and zero input from the preacher or other ministers. I will simply say I don't believe that process will lead to good results. Generally, it hasn't. 

The only model of elder selection we see in the Scriptures is that of Evangelist appointment. The Apostles self-appoint in Acts 6 and Timothy and Titus are both told to appoint elders in the churches. I won't spend much time on that because I know most won't consider that a serious option–and the context was different than most of ours. However, I do think churches would be well served to consider at least a stronger role for the Minister than they currently play in most churches, and certainly at least make the process more thorough than simple electoral vote.

Here is a model I will put forth–based on my understanding of what actually exists in Scripture, taking into account tradition while aiming at the weightier matters of leadership, unity, peace-making, and ending up with elders who are godly and will serve Christ mightily. I don't think this is the only way…but rather it's a possibility that would improve upon our current paradigm and results. There are biblical foundations for each of these, but I won't elaborate on them all here. Most of you will see them woven throughout.

1. Nomination Phase. During this phase, the elders, staff, or congregation can put forth names for elders they believe meet the biblical standard and exemplify what it means to be a Shepherd.

2. Vetting Phase, pt. 1. Elders/Staff inspect the candidate pool. The reason here is that often they know things about people others do not. If either elders or staff believe a candidate should be removed, they are at this phase. One quick word on vetting–the elder qualifications lists are not the only measuring stick by which candidates should be evaluated. The Beattitudes, for instance, are a good grid as well. If a candidate has the "qualifications," but has not love…well, you know. And, being difficult to work with or having an ax to grind or having a personal vendetta against a minister–these are perfectly legitimate reasons to take a pass on someone. You can put them in…but they will likely blow up the church.

3. Training Phase. An training phase of 8 weeks, with 2 weeks of prayer for discernment, 1 at the beginning and end (10 weeks in total). During this phase, the candidates are given books to read, called to prayer, trained in leadership, teamwork, pastoral care, etc.

4. Vetting Phase, pt. 2 . Those who complete that phase then are ratified by the existing elders, congregation and minister. If one of those groups are not supportive, they will be ineffective anyway, so don't fret it too much. But, if the congregation, elders and staff are supportive, they will have outstanding support coming in–and have a great chance to succeed. They will truly be shepherds of the flock.

This process may seem laborious or like it will take lots of time. It doesn't have to. The process may take 10-12 weeks, but most of it happens "on the side," that is, out of the limelight of the church. 

One more note, some churches have begun adding a 1-year apprentice phase for new elders–meaning they attend meetings but don't vote, etc. I think it may have some merit. Others have gone to a 2-year or 3-year term system as a way of transitioning ineffective or problem elders, as well as keeping the Elders from burning out.

I'm encouraged by the fact that many churches realize the traditional system needs improvement and are willing to challenge tradition for the good of the church and kingdom. The church desperately needs healthy, biblical leadership. We need to pay attention to this issue.

What suggestion do you have? What have you seen work? What have you seen not work?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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