Elders Who Stand With You 1,000%
Dr. Larry Crabb recalls an incident in the church he attended as a young man. It was customary in this church to encourage young men to participate in the communion service by praying out loud.
Feeling the pressure of expectation, Larry stood to pray even though he had a problem with stuttering. In a terribly confused prayer, he recalls "thanking the Father for hanging on the cross and praising Christ for triumphantly bringing the Spirit from the grave” (Encouragement: The Key to Caring, Zondervan, 1984). When he was finished, he vowed he would never again speak or pray out loud in front of a group.
At the end of the service, not wanting to meet any of the church elders who might feel compelled to correct his theology, Crabb made for the door. Before he could get out, an older man named Jim Dunbar caught him. “Larry, there's one thing I want you to know. Whatever you do for the Lord, I'm behind you one thousand percent."
Every pastor needs men like that in his church. We all need elders who know us, love us, and stand with us despite our blunders.
Many churches create a culture that revolves around their pastor. He’s the star attraction and expected to preach all sermons, mediate every dispute, oversee each program, and make most of the decisions. But pastor-centered churches are doomed to fail. Even if you manage avoid burnout, eventually you’ll relocate, retire, or die, leaving behind a church that feels abandoned.
You need to find faithful men who can share the leadership (2 Tim. 2:1-2). Church planting is not about being “the man,” but finding and training “the men” who will lead with you.
Finding Faithful Men
After planting several churches, Paul made sure elders were appointed. For example, in Titus 1:5, the apostle’s strategy for Crete was for Titus to put what remained into order and appoint elders in every town. Initially, these church plants existed without a body of elders, but not for long.
Paul counsels Timothy to “not be hasty” in establishing elders (1 Tim. 5:22). It’s critical to get right and disastrous to get wrong, so take your time. There’s no rush.
Yancy Arrington, teaching pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in Houston, offers a three-stage strategy planters can implement “which provides a gradual progression of leadership which might not begin with an elder body, but definitely ends with one.”
The first phase is essential in both promoting and protecting your church’s unique DNA, says Arrington. The planter, and the key leadership in a launch team, hold the vision, values, and strategy for your plant. In this initial season, everything concerning those areas runs through the lead planter.
When we planted The Gathering in 2014, I created an “Advisory Team” who met with me regularly to keep me accountable, pray with me, and share any words of counsel that came from the Lord. We started a study group for men who might be qualified as elders and slowly worked through a book titled Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch. Before we appointed any elders we met every two weeks for a year to study all the Bible passages about elders.
We wanted men who love our congregation (1 Tim. 1:5). Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., writes, “We need to be able to discern from the (elder’s) relational involvement in the church that he loves the congregation. We want to be able to recognize his love for the other members of the church by the fact that he’s already involved in doing elder-type work, even before he’s given the title.” Elders need to love the church.
During the second stage, after you appoint a few biblically qualified men, you’re still giving most of the direction in matters of doctrine, discipleship, church discipline, and overall direction of the church. Arrington says your new elder team is watching how you operate as the “lead elder” and learning your strengths and weaknesses (Heb. 13:7).
The elders we appointed at The Gathering did not agree with me at times. Their opinions were not always in line with mine because they are free thinkers and keen leaders. But it was clear to all of us that I was serving with them as the “first among equals,” and they trusted me to lead humbly and prayerfully.
Together you are growing a team that is a brotherhood, dedicated to one another and to the mission of God (Rom. 12:10).
In this phase your team could probably lead their own congregations. They stay because they love you, they love the church you planted, and they are devoted to making disciples who make disciples and plant more churches (Matt. 28:18-20).
I serve with an elder who previously worked at a Bible College and on staff with Child Evangelism. He’s solid and capable of leading leaders. Another elder was chairman of the board of a local hospital, chairman of the board at a downtown mission that serves the urban poor, and a leader in his former church. He’s a legend! A third elder was raised in Brethren circles and brings so much to the table! He understands the critical nature of this office.
At this level of elder development, says Arrington, there can be a blurring of lines concerning roles and responsibilities between the lead planter/pastor and his team. There may be an elder responsible for pastoral care, another for the preaching ministry, still another for the oversight of youth and young adults, but none of them is the founding pastor.
In Phase Three the lead elder-pastor should focus his time on discovering, developing, and deploying more teams of leaders who can help us plant more churches everywhere for everyone (Acts 13:2).
If, by God’s grace, you’re able to hand off your church to someone else before moving on to a new ministry or another church plant, my advice would be to leave an elder or two in place who started with you – elders who are with you one thousand percent! They planted the church with you, and they will inject church-planting DNA into every facet of the church moving forward. They will ensure that what drew people here in the first place to plant a gospel-centered, gospel-preaching, church-planting church, will remain a key ingredient in future focus.
Garth Leno and a team of friends planted The Gathering Church in Windsor, Ontario in 2014. He is now serving as the team leader for Pastor Care in the Canadian National Baptist Convention, leading cohorts of pastors, and working to plant more churches.