A while back, I was offered the opportunity to serve a term as an elder for our congregation, and I accepted. I’d like to think that I was a “younger elder”, since I don’t feel that I have accumulated as much wisdom as many others. Still, surrounded by the collective background of many other elders, things were kept in balance, and I hope that I was a useful contributor. Regardless, I learned a lot during that time.
Growing up, I think that I had the idea that becoming an elder was just something that naturally happened for those who had been in the church a long time. Like a hard-working employee, starting out in the mail room, taking a job in sales, working his way up to manager, and eventually becoming a Vice President, I though that eldership was just the natural “end state” of a mature Christian.
I was wrong.
While eldership means different things in various congregations, I have since observed (through personal experience, in watching others, and from the Bible) that it is a role.
Of course, no Christians are loved any more by God (nor any less) than anyone else, but it’s easy to forget this when we see people speaking, singing, or leading a congregation. Those roles may be more visible than the mission given to other followers of Jesus, but they are all part of a larger plan. The Christ-follower who helps her neighbors (quietly and inconspicuously), or the one who cares for a sick or disabled loved one for years – these are also critical roles in the Body of Christ. (By the way, most of those people that you see in the “outward-facing” roles of a church, will also tell you the importance of everyone in the Body. Even the highly-successful missionary Paul emphasized this in 1 Corinthians 12.)
In the same way, mature Christians who accept the role of an Elder have their duties to perform as part of the Body of Christ, but not every mature Christian is meant to take on this role, and that’s OK.
The best description that I have found of the role of an elder is a shepherd.
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
1 Peter 5:1-3 NASB
We should be careful to not read too much into that: I don’t think that elders need to dress in robes, carry staffs, or even like to spend lots of time outside (at least, I hope not!) in order to be shepherds. However, the principles of guiding others to [spiritual] food and water, keeping them safe from danger, and leading [by example] are definitely applicable. A healthy group of believers typically has people of all levels of spiritual and personal maturity. By definition, then, there will be some who still need to learn right from wrong in specific situations, or who need someone to walk with them for a while (perhaps as a mentor) to help them grow and stay on the narrow path. (See also Acts 20:28-30.)
As mentioned above, elders are sometimes called upon for other specific duties in a congregation. This might include things like monitoring the doctrinal accuracy of spoken messages, ensuring that the funds of the church are properly managed, or perhaps being scheduled to call upon shut-ins or hospital patients. However, I think that this sort of responsibilities could just as easily be shared by other members of the congregation, while still being a reasonable part of the “elder” (shepherding) role.
However, the shepherding part of the eldership role doesn’t actually need to be limited to that specific title. I encourage all mature followers of Jesus to consider how they can lovingly guide and support those who are newer to the faith. This might be done in the role of a group leader, a women’s ministry mentor, a family member, or even just a responsible friend who is willing to share wisdom when asked.
Yes, there is a higher level of responsibility in teaching others (see James 3:1), but for those who have cultivated their walk with Jesus effectively, it’s practically selfish to keep that acquired wisdom to oneself. (On the other hand, that’s not an excuse to just randomly blab what you know to everyone. This is about lovingly helping those who really need it, and who are ready to accept our support.)
No matter what your role, though, it is critical to respect those who lead, teach, and shepherd wisely:
But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 NASB
Being an elder is a spiritually, emotionally, and sometimes physically demanding role. Those who serve in that role effectively (for – like all roles in the church, when properly fulfilled – it is truly one of service) give up much for the benefit of others. (See also Hebrews 13:17.)
As a result, if you worship in a church or other community of believers that is overseen by elders, could you do me a favor? Sometime in the next few days or weeks, go up to them and ask, “Hey, you’re an elder here, aren’t you?” (at this point, because this statement is usually followed by a problem or a complaint, the elder will be put on the defensive), and then proceed to share a blessing that God has placed in your life, or a word of encouragement for the elder or others in the congregation. You’ll make someone’s day!