Training Leaders in the Local Congregation
My intention in this article, is to deal mainly with the formal leadership, and especially the eldership, in a Free Church context. I hope to provoke some thought and discussion at a local leadership level, especially about the importance of ongoing training.
Leadership in the church is very important. We should not take it for granted, nor should we be unwilling to re-examine our principles and practice in the light of Scripture.
What Kind of Leaders?
Good leaders have always been important to churches, and the Bible makes no apologies for setting a high standard. Good leaders will be used by God to lead, pastor and grow the flock. Inspirational and visionary leaders are God’s servants, and will transform a church and its people.
We should never be content to presume that good leadership only needs ordination and a title. As congregations we need to choose prayerfully and well, and as leaders we need to examine our gifts and develop our skills. We should always be learning.
a. Local (Titus 1 v 5, Acts 14 v 23)
In the New Testament, it was assumed that a local church would be able to appoint not just one, but more than one elder. The presumption was that there were enough suitable men available. Local, on the ground, leaders. Now that is painful for us because we have congregations with no local elders or maybe just one. Assessor elders are not a long-term answer. If we are to look at church planting, and the redevelopment of existing congregations, we must ensure that there is a local leadership equipped to take up the work and carry forward a vision. Too often, it’s been left up to Rev Lone Ranger. We have made financial strength the key factor in assessing the viability of a congregation to support its own full-time minister. ‘All we need is a minister!’ is the cry often heard. I would argue that the New Testament teaches a plurality of suitable and gifted local elders as the first step of viability. The biblical pattern is a team of local leaders encouraging an active body of believers.
b. Spiritual and Gifted (Titus 1:8 and 1 Timothy 3)
It is easy to presume that when we appoint local leaders, whether elders or deacons, our congregations prayerfully make their choice based on the biblical principles and qualifications given therein. Historically, is it not sometimes the case that men are chosen for pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons? (They are available, they are all we’ve got, and they are time served). It is sometimes assumed that the eldership is a promoted post from the deaconate. That is both unhelpful and unbiblical. We need to teach our congregations – and train our leaders – in a fresh and relevant way, all the Bible teaches in this area of the church’s life.
c. Men in Their Prime
The New Testament emphasis seems to presume men who are fit to lead. Men in their prime. Generally, they’re family men, of working age, with a good reputation in the community and workplace. Spiritually mature, yet with the energy and dynamism to lead forward the Gospel work of the local church.
They don’t have to be old (Timothy – 1 Timothy 4 v 12). Have we, unbiblically, expected our elders to be elderly? Of course, they can be, but surely, they don’t have to be? This is not about respect. There is no question that the elderly of the congregation are worthy of our highest respect and loving care. They are to be honoured and heard, but is it fair that the burden of effort needed in the heat of the spiritual day is left to those who are nearly spent? They deserve to be rested, and should be encouraged to hand over the reins of experience to the next generation.
This is a massive area in which we need to sit down as a church and look for answers. Men in their prime are also men at their busiest. Men with leadership gifts are often in positions of leadership in their secular employment too. They are in demand. How can they lead, and pastor effectively? How should congregational expectations change? How can the structures of the church be adapted to ease the burden on our leaders, and allow them freedom to lead?
I think it’s time to use gifted lay people far more in the administrative and delegated pastoral work of the church. We need to broaden our application of a whole body ministry, and give our spiritually gifted, energetic and busy leaders time to lead.
What Kind of Training?
There is no leadership position in the world in which people don’t need to learn and be trained. That is no different in the church. Christ with his disciples, and Paul with Timothy, remind us of that. Ministers, elders and deacons are never the finished article in this life. So what is involved?
a. Personal Responsibility (1 Timothy 4:7)
I think we need to beware of extreme examples of ‘nanny’ churches – where there are courses for everything, and where personal responsibility is minimised. Leaders must be self-motivated in pursuit of holiness, and develop their spiritual gifts through a life of devotion and prayerful obedience. You can’t beat that.
b. Biblical Education
Leaders must be guided towards the relevant Scriptures and taught, as leaders, to be moulded by the biblical pattern. Not just by what has been expected in the past or traditionally in the Free Church, or by what they would do in the secular world, or indeed just by the outworking of their own ideas.
The training needs to be biblical. Take elders, for example, through a passage like 1 Peter 5 v 1-4. It speaks of elders being Overseers – ordained by God with pastoral responsibility, teaching responsibility, a duty of care, and loving, authoritative discipline. My experience and knowledge of the church ‘courts’ (an unhelpful, unbiblical term) in the Free Church over my lifetime with regard to pastoral care is sadly negative. There has been an almost unqualified failure to understand and administer effective and restorative discipline. Far too often pastoral care has been – or at least perceived to have been – heavy-handed and distant.
The same passage (v2, 3) speaks of a willingness to serve and an understanding that the church needs servant leaders. This is an area where spiritual leadership is so radically divergent from its business counterpart. Being a spiritual leader in a congregation is a fantastic privilege, and should be undertaken with enthusiasm, commitment and great humility. Leaders are to be Christ-like examples to the congregation, not dictators – and that is a deeply challenging task. Our congregations don’t want us to be like a Board of Directors, they want us to be like Christ. We are not running a business, we are shepherding a flock. In terms of leadership qualities, I believe a genuine, biblical outworking of servant leadership – an oxymoron in the world – is the single most important leadership quality the church needs today.
I am a great believer in the radical nature of the local church. For a long time, I have heard ministers talking about Presbytery as the radical Court – I can find little evidence of that biblically and certainly not practically. Local churches must bear the burden of training (or using available training resources) for local leadership. There must be organisation and delegation of tasks and appropriate use of gifts. Training may be one to one, it may be informal, but it has to be ongoing. It is good for leaders to be made aware of congregational needs and problems and be involved in providing effective solutions.
Where there is a full-time minister (teaching elder), it is important that he takes time with new elders (and existing ones if they can bear it!) in training them. 2 Timothy is Paul’s personal training manual for young Timothy and is a great template. Encourage elders by teaching them what is expected biblically and practically. Help them to develop their gifts, give them goals, and teach them accountability.
Communication is crucial in training. It is probably true that ministers need to work on this more than elders. It is hopeless to communicate with an eldership team on a need-to-know basis. Ministers need to recognise that they are part of the team, not the team incarnate. We need to delegate, and not feel the necessity to be in control of everything.
Ministers are notoriously bad at delegating. We need to trust our congregations and our fellow leaders to serve wholeheartedly. Leaders must feel a sense of belonging and ownership – a responsibility before God for the spiritual well-being of the flock. For that to happen, good communication is vital. Elders need to meet more often than just to organise the Communion season or purge the roll (what a beautifully outlandish phrase). Regular discussion, prayer and informal training is to be encouraged. Development is very difficult where no sense of purpose, trust and spiritual unity has been communicated.
It may also be worth having specific and regular training or development workshops (call them what you will) with the leaders of the congregation. Different areas can be discussed each time. How do you lead a Bible study? What is involved in effective pastoral care? How do we discern and use the gifts of our members? What is our strategy? How can we outreach more effectively? There is no shortage of topics – the biggest headache will be time management. Use of time is a massive challenge today, and we must each look very hard at our priorities and whether we are wasting time in the types of burdens we are placing on our leaders.
Communication and teamwork are key factors in developing a willingness to change, develop, mature and be trained. When that is the case locally, then maybe we will be more open, communicative, trusting and humble at a denominational level too!
Training is an important principle in our Christian lives. After all, we are disciples – learners – of Jesus Christ. As leaders, we must be blazing the trail! There is no shortage of resources available for leadership training that is biblical, reformed and Presbyterian. With a bit of work, they can be adapted to local Free Church situations. What can’t be resourced from outside are two very important qualities for us all in this area – hard work and a humble, willing spirit. I hope we all strive for these qualities with a felt dependence on the Holy Spirit. He will empower us, and our churches will be what He wants them to be – for His Glory.