The Elders' Meeting
Elders' meetings — blessing or curse? Ask that question of most elders in the church of the Lord and they'll probably tell you that meetings are a necessary evil. Can't get along without them, but they don't rank up there with TCBY frozen yogurt on the top ten list of fun things to do.
I agree. In fact, one of the few times I grumble about the ministry is when I am reminded that I will attend meetings several evenings per week for the next 23 years or so. Meetings usually are a pain in the neck.
I think I know why. Most meetings are held because it's time to hold a meeting. Either the church's book of order prescribes a certain frequency, or the local church is in the habit of holding meetings according to a set schedule. But in either case, meetings become a rigid requirement. It's as if the Lord had added a verse to Acts 20: "Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock over which the Lord has made you overseers. Above all, go to meetings. And make sure they run late."
It's easy to lose sight of the goal, to forget why we meet "the first Monday" of the month. Nowhere is it written, and few would dare even to suggest that attending elder meetings is the only way, or even the best way, to shepherd a flock. Yet, I know of cases where the following would not be an unusual conversation:
I nominate Bill for the office of elder. He is wonderfully qualified, has a shepherd's heart, has demonstrated a desire to care for God's people, and is a man of the Word and prayer.
I agree, but remind you that Bill has a conflict on Monday evenings. He's on the hospital board, and it meets the same nights we do.
Too bad. I withdraw my nomination.
A Modest Proposal
Allow me to make a modest proposal about meetings. MAKETH 'EM WORTHWHILE! Make sure they are genuinely profitable for the elders who attend; and make sure they have set time schedules so elders don't lose half a night's sleep. If you can't make them worthwhile, don't meet!
How is that possible? Ask yourself what appears on a typical agenda for your elder's meetings. It probably looks something like this:
Approval of Minutes
- reports of committees
- disciplinary cases
- doctrinal or ethical problems - education and nurture
- building and grounds
- other matters
Notice how much of that is administrative, not pastoral in focus. I must come back to that on which I've been harping for over 2 years in this column. The eldership is a pastoral office, not an administrative one. It's time our meetings reflected that definition!
Allow me to suggest a new, all-purpose agenda for elder's meetings. It's barebones, consisting only of 3 items each meeting. It is:
- Pastoral Consultation
In each case, the items appear on the agenda with specific purpose. In every case, they seek to answer the question: "How can this time together bless the elder in his work, and make him more effective in the care of the flock?" I trust you'll allow me a bit of personal reflection, as what follows arises out of our experience here in Dallas.
The first item in our barebones agenda is study/training. It ought to be at the heart of every elder's meeting. I believe this part of the meeting is the principal way the preacher ministers to his elders, and the most effective way the elders encourage and build each other up. It is mandatory.
Obviously, "study/training" can cover a lot of territory. My own practice is to schedule 30-45 minutes at the beginning of the meeting. I try to hand out a study sheet the previous weekend, so the brothers have time to reflect on the topic in advance. Topics range from the nature of the office of elder (always the first study each year, and always based on a Bible study of Acts 20:28f and 1 Peter 5) to how to minister effectively to single women; from tips for visiting in the home, to the relationship between pastoral love and church discipline; from ministering to children, to caring for the dying.
In each case, I try to prepare several components.
- First, a case study. By that I mean a written description of a situation I (or someone else) has encountered. Sometimes the case studies are fictional; usually they are not.
- Second, key Scriptural passages appropriate to the issue are reviewed. Finally, time is spent in discussion of the pastoral questions: "What do you believe is the problem? What would you do in this situation? What would be your strategy for ministry? How would you apply the Scriptures? If a sin is involved, how would you work toward repentance, and what is the criterion for determining if repentance is evident?"
A side benefit of all this study material is that it becomes most useful for potential office-bearer training. Several times per year, we hold a seminar for those we believe may well be candidates for office. Observing them "in action," as a case study is presented and discussed, is a wonderful way to gain knowledge for future nominations.
This element of the meeting is hands-on consulting with each other about specific cases in the life of your church. It is far from a free-for-all discussion, however. Rather, the attending elder (each elder has a district or care group for which he is responsible) seeks some wisdom and advice from the brothers about a thorny problem. He sets the focus. Obviously, not every situation is discussed. In fact, only those are brought to the table that could not be handled by the elder alone, or by the elder in consultation with the pastor. That keeps the focus sharp.
This is the category, as well, in which formal disciplinary action is to be taken. It is interesting, however, that such discussions have a much more pastoral flavor, as opposed to a judicial one, when they arise out of the context of such consultation.
We conclude each meeting with a time of serious wrestling before the Lord in prayer. We truly believe that no elder, no body of elders, can do the work Scripture assigns unless we lay before the Lord the needs of the flock. Having spent much time in study about a particular subject, many individuals in similar circumstances come to the minds of their district elders. Prayer is thus very personalized. Having consulted with one another about local pastoral cases, the burden we feel leads us inexorably to our knees. Often, we spend as much time in prayer as we do in consultation.
Our meetings have become something we look forward to. The blessing received more than compensates for the time spent — usually about 2 hours. We seldom return home unable to sleep, for we have together placed our burdens before the Lord. We have become better pastors because we are reminded each month that such is our calling, and because real help has been given. And, because meetings are viewed as tools to equip elders, rather than seen as the main component of the elder's work, there is less pressure on those gifted elders who may have a scheduling conflict. Most of the material is transferable over breakfast or lunch to those unable to make the meeting.
I encourage you to take a look at your typical agenda. Determine whether it is sharply focused for pastoring, or whether unnecessary administrative matters have begun to eat up your time. Ask yourself the question: are our meetings worthwhile as tools to equip the elders of our church? If not, begin the process of restructuring!