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.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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12 thoughts on “On Leadership in Churches of Christ, part 3 — Elder Selection

  1. Tim,
    These are great ideas regarding the selection process, but you did not address your last sentence of your opening paragraph……dealing with the already in place ineffective or rouge elder.
    I was anxiously reading with baited breath hoping to find tips on how to deal with that already in place elder that has gone rogue.
    This happens to be a situation our leadership is dealing with in our church at the moment and are desperately trying to figure out how to remove a long time elder that has the attitude that he is the head rooster in the hen house. He has no interest in striving for doctrinal accuracy based on scripture and would rather maintain some traditions within the church that flies squarely in the face of Scripture. He simply runs rough shod over the entire board of elders who are trying maintain doctrinal accuracy in God’s church and has basically let it be known that it is his way or the highway. There are a few newer elders that do stand up to him, but that sends him into fits of temper tantrums but the rest of the elders are actually afraid of him and say nothing.
    When he is shown from Scripture that his position is disobedient to God’s word he counters with arguments that make absolutely no sense at all. I’m afraid we have here, just as you suggested, and individual that should have never been placed in this position to begin with. The problem is….he has been in this position for many years…..sees it as being his…..and it will be nearly impossible to dynamite him out of this leadership role.

  2. Tim,
    I agree it should happen this way…I just know that even when there is “like-mindedness,” it often doesn’t happen because of legalistic view of hierarchy or for some other reason.
    Many commentators in the evangelical stream simply assume the pastor to be an elder or to be given elder-level input into the process. Others simply don’t address it. One of the weaknesses in both examples cited is they don’t deal adequately (to me) with Timothy and Titus’ role in the initial selection. If we take biblical forms of selection to be binding or at least normative–what are we to do with Timothy and Titus themselves?

  3. In regard to the role of the minister in the process, it seems that all the members should have a role in the process already, and what you may be suggesting is an elevated role, due to the minister’s already deeper involvement in the leadership of the church. That makes total sense to me. It seems that this would come naturally out of the working relationship the entire leadership team of the church had. If it didn’t, then that would be where the first corrections would need to be made…there is nothing like working with people with whom you are likeminded.

  4. Hi Tim,
    I like your suggestions and am sure we will do our best to incorporate them.
    Regret you couldn’t have stayed around to participate.
    Lest we think that only churches of Christ are concerned with this matter,
    here is a very good examination of the subject by someone from a Baptist Seminary
    background. I recommend this very practical and thorough examination of the subject by one who has considered it very carefully and methodically.
    He does a good job on examining the role of the deacon in the church as well and entertains arguments from both sides of many of the 40 questions he poses.
    I paste here a summary from the chapter addressing this specific question.
    Likewise he addresses other subjects that may be of interest such as:
    What is the relationship between staff members and elders?
    Should Elders have terms or serve for life?
    What should be done if an elder is caught in sin?
    His bibliography lists several other good sources on the subject:
    Benjamin Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons
    Below, an excerpt:
    pg. 202 of “40 QUESTIONS-ABOUT Elders and Deacons”
    Summary of chapter “How Should Elders be selected”
    The best approach is not to choose one method over the over but to allow
    the elders to have a leadership role in the process while, at the same time,
    allowing the congregation to have a voice in the matter. That is, both the
    congregation and the elders must be involved in the selection process. The
    congregation should be involved because the prospective elder will serve the
    congregation. Thus, the congregation must have a voice in examining and
    approving the candidates. The elders must be involved because they are the
    spiritual leaders of the church. To ignore their insights and opinions would
    be unwise. Whether the congregation votes or not, the main issue is that
    the elders get the input of the members. Strauch appropriately comments,
    “Biblical elders want an informed, involved congregation. Biblical elders ea-
    gerly desire to listen to, consult with, and seek the wisdom of their fellow
    believers.” (3) It is entirely possible that some people in the congregation have
    a greater knowledge of and closer personal relationship with a prospective
    elder and can offer helpful insight in evaluating the biblical qualifications.
    But it should be the elders primarily who investigate potential concerns,
    screening the candidates thoroughly. The congregation also should be given
    opportunity to ask potential candidates about critical matters such as their
    doctrinal beliefs, personal spirituality and giftedness, family life, and com-
    mitment to serving the church. Mounce aptly summarizes, “The screening
    process would probably have involved the whole church with special respon-
    sibility falling on the overseers since they were responsible for the general
    oversight of the church and rebuking error (Titus 1:9).”
    “In one church I attended, the elders were primarily responsible for identi-
    fying and selecting potential elders. Once the elders determined that a person
    was qualified, they would present the candidate before the church with their
    recommendation. The elders would then allow one month for the congrega-
    tion to voice their concerns. If an issue was brought to the attention of the
    elders that would disqualify the candidate, the elders would then investigate
    the situation. Once all the issues were adequately dealt with, the elders would
    appoint the candidate as an elder. In the above model, the elders led the pro-
    cess but also actively sought the input of the congregation.”
    3. Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 283.
    4. William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WBC (Nashville: Nelson, 2000), 46:201.

  5. Hey Tim, here are some answers from a former Church of Christ preacher: Well, not answers but some questions of our assumptions:
    •We assume that someone must be ordained, selected and vetted before they are a leader. Paul mentions many leaders by name in his letters but he never identified them as elders. Paul gave two lists of qualifications for elders and deacons but we do not know any of their names. That’s go to mean something.
    •We assume that men become elders because they are selected, not that men are selected because they are elders.
    •We assume that position means power and authority. That’s the worldly way that Jesus prohibited. In the church one’s authority is his life. That is his only power. It doesn’t matter what position or title he is given (unless signing a check is essential to the elders role).
    •We assume that the affairs of the church are the bank account and what time to start worship service and what color of carpet to buy. The affairs of the church are caring for the souls of brothers and sisters.
    •We assume that the church is like an American Corporation rather than the family of God. It is not, but our ideas of leadership, authority and power are. In a corporation we respect the position not the person. In the church we should respect the person and not one’s position.

  6. Bob,
    I posted your comment…though the spirit of it seems highly suspicious and rooted in slippery slope thinking, not in likelihood or reality in any church I’m aware of (including Mars Hill). My perspectives are not taken from Driscoll or anyone else. There are Churches of Christ that practice this model in other parts of the country, and have highly functioning leadership teams.
    You mention the process needs overhauling, but don’t mention how. I’d welcome specifically how you think it should be overhauled…and why it needs overhauling.
    I fail to see what additional power the minister would really hold…other than having a voice in the process–which to me a both biblical and fair.
    The end of and elder selection is not to keep the minister in check…it’s to have strong biblical leadership for God’s people. That’s the end in mind. The former counterfeit end is why churches continue to have dysfunctional leadership all over the country. Healthy churches depend on the congregation, ministers and elders working together. Excluding any from the process is imprudent for a host of reasons.
    When I speak of things that would be grounds for disqualifying someone as a candidate…I’m speaking of character issues…and one be be divisiveness. If the minister is the problem and is holding up things unnecessarily (for instance, being an ideologue that allows no one with alternative views), the elders can replace the minister. I would add that congregational posses that form around elder selection are a primary source of splits…and town hall meetings regarding someone’s viability as an elder have been tried repeatedly by churches with nightmarish results.
    I don’t feel we need to run to oligarchy or other over-the-top conclusions with this…I see your concerns, and they are duly noted. However, I highly prefer unity of the Body, the staff, and elders, to an irrational fear of oligarchy (which by the way, I have never seen from a minister in a Church of Christ).

  7. tim,
    it is true: elder selection in most churches (of christ) needs to be modified. however, what you propose above is little more than a pastor-based, centralized power grab (and, i might add, sounds a wee bit mark driscoll-esque in its design).
    agreed that the beatitudes ought to also be a measure (and not just the ‘elder lists’), but you run into a problem here when you say:
    “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.”
    a) this appears to be corporate/administrative gossip.
    b) this reeks of an anonymous hold on a bill in the senate or some communist party rule designed to keep the leadership exclusive. giving the existing leadership (eldership or a pastor/staff) trump/veto power over new candidates gives far too much power to the establishment to preserve the stagnant status quo. if there is a problem with an existing eldership, or the problem lies in the fact that the eldership does not want to go the direction of the congregation, then attempting to appoint new elders will always be headed off by an immediate dismissal of the candidate. this proposal makes it too difficult to make changes to the existing eldership and/or staff. likewise, if the preacher/pastor wants to go a certain direction, and the congregation does not, and the congregation nominates elders to reign in said pastor, and said pastor has veto power, nothing changes.
    anonymous holds and veto power by existing leadership, (whether eldership or pastor) is a power grab aimed at consolidating power into the hands of the elect few. it is not transparent (since they “often know things about people others do not”) and promotes only the existing oligarchy.
    a better system at this point would be a church town hall meeting, where any interested members could publicly air support and concern for and against leaders. any leader who is too sensitive or proud to face the criticism of his/her congregation face to face shouldn’t be leading anyway.

  8. Great observations, comments, and suggestions. You have touched on it, but I think we need to recognize the impact that our (or any other) culture has on how we define the roles of elders, select them, and respect them.
    What thoughts flash through your mind when you hear the terms overseer, elder, bishop, or shepherd? Our culture in and out of the confines of church tend to define how we select (nominating and voting, vetting, politically guided selection, etc.) and approve elders. Our culture often defines the roles the elders assume.
    We are quick to embrace our cultural view of leadership, which can be very different from how Jesus exemplified leadership. In fact, where is leadership mentioned in Titus or 1 Timothy? The closest attribute is that of being able to “…manage his own family well…” The other attributes are associated with leadership, but not very often in our culture.
    I think it is necessary that we (people in churches of Christ) let go of our traditions in many areas of congregational life, unless those traditions are consistent with scripture and serve to advance the cause of Christ. Perhaps the most important tradition that needs to be left behind is our (and it is ours) definition of overseers/bishops/elders/shepherds. Instead of following outdated traditions, we should revisit the guidance Paul gave Timothy, who was working in Ephesus; and Titus, who was working in Crete. We live and serve in societies similar to Ephesus and Crete. The attributes listed here will serve Christians well.
    Imagine what would have happened in the Hillside church if Phil and Bill had demonstrated the attributes listed in Titus and Timothy. I think elders should be shepherds that have the listed attributes. They should be shepherds that emulate the great Shepherd, knowing and serving and guiding members in the same way that Jesus knows His sheep (the imagery in John 10). They should mentor and guide and support staff. Part of that means holding staff, and members, accountable. However, elders should also be held accountable by the staff and by the congregation.
    Prior to selection and vetting, potential candidates should already be engaged in these types of activities. Perhaps elders need to be mentoring possible candidates. Invest in the lives of the flock so they grow in the direction of elders as defined by scripture.
    Great leadership series and I enjoy your blog.
    Take care,
    Preston