Shepherding is a team effort

It really does take a village—learn how elders and pastors can work in partnership.

Neil Silverberg, MDiv, pastor, teacher, author, is president of Masterbuilders, Knoxville, Tennessee, United States.

A friend of mine asked me what I had observed during years of traveling and teaching in local churches. Without hesitation, I told him the thing that is most obvious throughout the worldwide body of Christ is that most pastors I meet are tired.

Having served in pastoral ministry for several years, I understand why they are exhausted. Pastors face unrelenting stress from caring for people. The constant demands on a pastor’s time, the endless round of crises they must deal with, not to mention the pressure of juggling the burgeoning machinery of the church, all take their toll. Beyond these factors, people expect pas-tors to have an exemplary family because they are on display for all to see. All such situations contribute greatly to pastoral weariness.

Still, I believe the root of pastoral weakness today goes much deeper. For the most part, many clergy members misunderstand their function. I am convinced that the traditional view of the pastor’s role—what they do and who they are—contributes greatly to the fatigue so many pastors experience. What do I mean by the traditional view? It is the idea that one person should run the church rather than a team of leaders. In my opinion, it is a major cause of pastoral fatigue.

Since most pastors reading these words serve alongside elders, they might assume this does not apply to them. But churches in which elders jointly pastor the flock are few and far between. In part, this results from a misunderstanding of the word pastor itself. For most people, the word is a noun—a person who does all the pastoring of the people in a local church. But in the New Testament, it is not a noun (except in Ephesians 4:11) but a verb, translated by the English word shepherd. (The ESV version renders it as “care.”) That means that shepherding is not an office one person holds but a function that all elders should execute. While I do believe that there is a leader of the elder team (who may be called pastor), elders are those who jointly shepherd the flock, providing pastoral care. Pastors are called not only to lead, but, as Paul says in Ephesians 4:11, 12, God “gave some . . . pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” (NKJV). They are supposed to prepare the church members to do the work. Jesus called all to be part of His work.

Whenever Scripture mentions pastors, or shepherds, it always refers to them in the plural. It is the elders who pastor the local church together. Nowhere in Scripture do we find the idea that one individual provides shepherding care to the flock while the other elders give business advice or counsel to the pastor. The failure to grasp this is a central contributing factor to the high burnout rate among pastors today. They are trying to do alone what God intended to accomplish through a team.

This is not only biblical; it has practical benefits for all of the leaders in the church, not to mention their care for those in the flock. Moreover, being part of that church and community, local leaders know the needs best and the things that work or do not work in the church.

Our local church went through an extended season of untimely deaths of its members. Before one was buried, it seemed, another passed away, and it was very emotionally draining. But the collective ministry of the elders allowed our senior elder to carry the flock through that difficult time. As each elder ministered to the various families he or she had a relation-ship with, the community healed, and we were able to endure. I know I speak for our senior leader in saying that it would have been difficult to shepherd the body without an elder team committed to leading the flock through such a difficult ordeal.

How churches usually view elders

As stated previously, most churches today have elderships, but the number of congregations in which elders really function as biblical shepherds are very few. Instead, many churches view elders as those who handle the business side of the church or function as counselors to the pastor.

It is a blessing to any congregation to have elders who are astute in caring for the business aspect of the church. If a spiritual decision spills over into the business side of things, the elders weigh in. Otherwise, they do not have much involvement in other church issues.

In other churches, elders function as little more than counselors to the pastor. In this model, pastors may consult with the elders, but the pastor essentially makes all decisions and does all the work. While pastors are not required to receive counsel from the elders, Scripture encourages them to do so in accordance with Solomon’s admonition, “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14, KJV). Wise pastors will avail themselves of the counsel of the elders. Moreover, by involving them in the decision-making process, a pastor gains not only wisdom from the team but also support.

But such a model is dangerous in that it fosters pastoral independence. In some churches I have known, the pastor has announced major directional changes to the congregation without ever consulting with the other elders. It would have been wise to consult with them beforehand, yet the pastor was not required to seek their counsel, so the church did not view it as a problem.

What is the problem with both views about the function of the elders? While they might be astute in business and perceptive in giving counsel, they should, first and foremost, be shepherds, caring for the flock.

Pastoral priority: Training elders

When I took the lead role of my home church some years ago, I had several things I sought to accomplish during my time there. But next to preaching and teaching the gospel, my major focus consisted of training and equipping elders/ shepherds. I knew a healthy church needs a team of elders who love the flock and care deeply for its needs. So, I set out a plan by which I could continually train individuals who were called to be elders. That way, the church would never lack shepherds to care for the needs of God’s people.

The plan we used became known as the four Cs. Prospective elders must first be people of the highest character who share the same biblical convictions as the other elders. They also must be competent to teach and express their unique spiritual gifts. Finally, they must have chemistry with the other elders on the team, since elders must work closely together.

The first C: Character

It goes without saying that a godly character is the most important component of being an elder. In the two lists Paul com-piled in the pastoral letters, he makes it clear that elders are to be individuals who, above all, excel in godliness (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–9). Except for one (apt to teach), all of the other requirements for eldership are character  traits. Elders must reflect the nature of Christ in their personal character not only in their ministry in the church but also in the management of their own homes. While all of God’s people should aspire to such godly character, elders must excel in such matters.

A good friend of mine, a gifted Bible teacher who is now resting in Jesus, was known for saying, “What a man builds with his gift, he often destroys with his character.” The history of Christianity bears this out. Those who have based their ministry on a powerful gift without the corresponding character to sustain it have often seen everything come crashing down. It was the case with Saul, the first king of Israel, a highly gifted and talented man who, at least outwardly, exuded leadership. But crisis and mounting pressure soon revealed fissures in his character, and before long, he compromised. On the other hand, his successor, David, quietly developed that character that would sustain him when he ascended to the throne.

The second C: Conviction

There needs to be doctrinal unity on an elder team. Elders must share the same convictions when it comes to their understanding of the truth of the gospel. That is not to suggest that an elder team must be perfectly united on every single subject. Nevertheless, they should strive to agree as much as possible. How else can they fulfill their duty to feed the flock unless they are in unity?

The third C: Competency

Besides competency in teaching sound doctrine, elders must also be skilled in exercising the various spiritual gifts God has given them. A healthy team of elders will have various gifts that complement each other. It is vital that each elder learns to function uniquely in his or her God-given sphere. That will safeguard a team member from falling into the trap of being a cookie cut of the others. While they should all agree when it comes to the essentials of biblical doctrine, they should be diverse when it involves the various gifts each expresses. In the eldership I am privileged to serve in, I appreciate the fact that the elders possess a variety of gifts.

The fourth C: Chemistry 

The fourth area that should characterize a healthy elder team is that of chemistry. Webster defines it as “a strong mutual attraction, attachment, or sympathy: interaction between people working together.” I used to think this was the least important of the four Cs, but through experience, I have come to realize it is just as vital as the other three.

The importance of training

An elder training track served as the vehicle to evaluate and implement the four C s in each potential elder’s life. It is a program that invited handpicked people in our congregation to study biblical leadership. The first and most important step was to ask the Father to give me potential candidates. Conducting the training one-on-one gave me the opportunity to assess the potential elder’s character, conviction, competency, and chemistry.

Jesus demonstrated the high priority of training other leaders by the formation of and focus on training the Twelve Apostles during His earthly ministry. Often, He withdrew from the crowds and focused on their training. He knew that, for His ministry to be ongoing, He had to have a small company of individuals who really understood His ministry and message and would share it with others. That meant that He had to give His time to leader development.

All pastors, especially those who do not yet have functioning elders shepherding the flock, need to prioritize the training of future elders. It is good to define and think through the process beforehand. What materials will you use? How will you choose potential future elders and invite them to join a training process? One must answer these and many other questions like them before inviting people into such a process.

It is important that potential candidates understand that just because they are being asked to participate in this process does not guarantee they will become elders. If anything, it may confirm that a person is really not an elder but, perhaps, a deacon. In a leadership team on which I served, it became apparent after taking one man through the training process that he was really a deacon. It was important both to him and to us to make sure he served in the responsibility best suited to his spiritual gifts.

The blessing of shepherding together

Shepherding the local church in which I serve alongside other shepherds has been one of the greatest joys I have experienced during 40 years of ministry. Above all, it has kept me from burnout. The blessing of working together with others with differing yet complementary gifts has been a safeguard not only for the team but for the entire church as well. People have remarked that after seeing and experiencing being shepherded by a team of elders, they do not want to go back to the traditional pastoral system.

I believe that senior pas-tors must make the training and appointment of elders one of the priorities of their leadership in a local church. If not, the demands of the flock leave them little time for discipling. Sadly, rare is the pastoral leader who gives priority to this all-important task.

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Neil Silverberg, MDiv, pastor, teacher, author, is president of Masterbuilders, Knoxville, Tennessee, United States.

July 2019

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