Most of the time, when men become elders, they have very little idea of what things are going to be like. What should they expect in meetings? What’s expected from them outside of the meeting room? What kinds of questions are people going to start asking them that they never would have heard before? What do you do when your thoughts are on the fringe? It can all be shocking at first, and it takes a little while before it begins to feel somewhat normal. I’ve heard a lot of men say it was at least six months or a year before it felt normal to them—even two years is common!
Typically, churches add elders in batches, and since a new batch can take a little while to adjust, they often assimilate into the way the group already does things, going with the flow while they learn to swim. Commonly being a part of an eldership is a moderating force on individuals, bringing them towards a center of thought. That’s mainly healthy and appropriate, part of the way the Spirit runs the church, but there is at least one by product of that process which is potentially negative.
It means it’s difficult for newer elders to influence the process of leadership. Now, I think they soon enough can have a substantial impact on the direction or content of leadership, affecting the kinds of decisions that get made and the vision that the leadership begins to develop. However, it can be extremely difficult for them to have influence on the way vision is formed and communicated, and the way decisions are made. Changing the way decisions get made is much more difficult than changing the kinds of conclusions themselves. But which is more critical?
There is a great amount of diversity in the kinds of elderships that exist in churches, and the kinds of processes they use to lead the churches they serve. But I think it’s useful for all of them to think occasionally about the types of practices they use, and how they could be made better. We’ve done just a little bit of that here at Cedar Lane, and I remember being in a couple of cycles where that happened at PV. It’s a tough process to do honestly, but there are a couple of things to think about that can make it easier.
1. Does our process match our personnel? The tendency of elderships to change in waves or batches means that it can be helpful to periodically look at the way decisions are made and see if it matches the current group of elders. What is the best way for the group to communicate? When is the best time to meet, what should the meetings look like, is there somebody particularly gifted to chair the meetings? All of those questions could easily change with the make-up of the group.
2. Do we have appropriate ways to reach consensus, express dissent, and/or make decisions? Some groups of elders work together for so long that the process gets blurry and even less formal than necessary because the elders easily predict the thoughts and actions of the others. Hence, proposals that wouldn’t achieve the necessary support aren’t seriously brought up or seriously considered, and the role of the dissenter fades away a bit. That’s unfortunate, because the right within the group for a person to express dissent is significant and healthy. That’s not at all to say that because of one dissenting voice a decision can’t be made, but the expression of dissent still enriches a good leadership. Protecting the balance between the place for expressed dissent, the desire to have consensus when possible, and the need to sometimes make decisions that override dissent, is important in creating good leadership processes.
3. Does our process move at an appropriate pace? Does it move too quickly, and bypass time for discernment and prayer? Does it fail to leave time to outside people that need to be considered? Or, does it move frustratingly slow? Does failure to prepare for discussion lead to decisions being pushed back through meeting cycles endlessly? Does it fail to respond to issues quickly enough to be fair to the people affected?
4. Is there room for the spirit in our process? Do we have a chance to meditate on scripture and the state of the church? Does the meeting give a chance for the elders to really practice spiritual discernment, even when that presents ambiguities? Have we given thought to how this works with the leadership as a group?
None of that is to suggest that the administrative tasks of being a shepherd are primary or that the whole role revolves around meetings—it is so much more than that, and much of the important stuff happens outside the conference room as shepherds work in the lives of people. But these processes should not be ignored, because they can be such a source of encouragement or disillusionment that they can affect those other pastoral roles. They shape how elders think of their role and the work of the spirit in their life and in the church. The effect can be negative—I have no doubt that the church as a whole has lost many good shepherds because of their frustration with unhealthy processes. On the other hand, it’s been my good experience to see many men greatly encouraged by healthy, prayerful processes.
(I’m writing this within the contexts of the Church of Christ, although I imagine it will be somewhat useful to those who use different language for their leadership systems.)