Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders

I’ve been thinking about how our understanding of elders and their roles as shepherds relates to the big picture, the story the church has been brought into by Jesus. With elders, as with many other parts of church life, it’s too easy to think about them in isolation, as though we can simply turn to the proper chapters of scripture that address them and retrieve the list of rules that will tell us what to do. A much healthier approach is to start with the larger story in which we live, and let our understanding of the church’s shepherds grow out of that context, out of that story.

That larger story announces the reality of God’s reign in the world and his willingness to love and redeem the world. It is the story of how the creator God remains concerned with his creation, and is active within it. It is the story of how that God made for himself a people, by making covenant with Abraham, and with his rescued descendants at Sinai. It tells of God’s pursuit of Israel even when the covenant was broken. It tells how, in Jesus, God has made a new covenant with his people and opened the door for men and women of all nations to join Israel in becoming the covenant people of God. That story offers a way for humans to live within God’s reign, and warns of judgment for those who continue to live in rebellion against God’s reign. That story brings humans into participation in God’s plan to fight the darkness that has corrupted the world, and announces that his victory is certain, and what is wrong will be made right.

The church exists because of that story. It exists in that story. And it exists as an expression of that story.

When we talk about shepherds and elders, we can’t jump out of that story and imagine that we’re just dealing with a simple fact of ordering religious life. The shepherds actually function, like the rest of the church, within the context of that larger story. Continue reading “Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders”

I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding

A couple of years ago a movie was released that I suppose a few have seen, although I have not and hopefully presume that not many of you have either. Indeed, it is astonishing that there was a market at all for Black Sheep. The film is set on a sheep farm in New Zealand, and tells the story of a farm where a bit of genetic engineering goes terribly awry, creating a new breed of—wait for it—Zombie Sheep. Yes, Zombie Sheep. The generally docile creatures turn bloodthirsty, devouring whatever humans they can find, and in true Zombie film fashion, develop the ability to turn some of the bitten farmers into mutant were-sheep—hideous creatures covered with wool, frenzied and ready to join the attacking horde-flock in their quest to devour the remaining humans.

This may well be a parable of the church.

While much attention continues to be given (appropriately) to training leaders and discussing the evolving model of elderships within churches, but we need to talk more about the other side of the relationship—what we sheep bring to our relationship with our shepherds. Like any relationship, we can’t work on only one side of the equation. For our model of shepherding to become truly effective, it can’t just be about the shepherds. We have to also develop our sense of what it means to receive shepherding. You can’t have good healthy shepherds in a church full of bloodthirsty zombie sheep.

Continue reading “I Just Wanna be a Sheep (Baaaa)—A Sermon on Receiving Shepherding”

Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions

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.

Continue reading “Elders Part 2: Making Decisions about Making Decisions”

Elders Part 1: The Value of Growing, Caring Shepherds

(Note: My faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, are organized into autonomous churches governed by multiple elders. In this series, I’m going to write some of my observations about how those elderships work, or don’t. If your faith tradition has another organizational practice, don’t let my language freak you out too much. I would imagine much of what is written here about our leadership structure would be useful across other church leadership structures.)

Elderships have a bad reputation, and sometimes for good reason. Churches with dysfunctional leadership teams get burned by terrible decision making, the failure to spiritually care for hurting people, and harsh judgments. Beyond that, there is a thick layer of communication problems that have built up over time, and elderships that have made good and wise decisions have often struggled to nail the follow-up and communication elements of leadership, intensifying distrust and creating distance between themselves and the congregations with which they have been entrusted.

One of the reasons leaving Little Rock was a tough decision for us was that Kelly and I were aware of how common those problems are, and also extremely comfortable with the leadership team at Pleasant Valley. Perfect they most certainly are not, but they are largely functional, and are committed to fulfilling their role in that body as well as they can.  They are extremely prayerful and wise.

That made it hard for us to leave, because we were afraid to trade in the blessings of that highly functional group of shepherds for the unknown element of wherever we would land! Frankly, it was terrifying to walk away from that group of shepherds who had shown us much love and blessed us with much wise counsel over the years. So far, those fears have been misplaced, and we’ve found the eldership here at Cedar Lane to be extremely supportive and helpful. I see in these men the same dedication to spiritual care that I loved and admired at PV, and a commitment to growing in all the various ways they show leadership throughout the church.

Leaders committed to their own personal growth and development into caring shepherds model these things for their churches. They foster two extremely important cultural climates within the church. The first is a culture of personal compassion, where people actively seek to care for other people. In a community dominated by this culture, people extend hospitality to their brothers and sisters, making space for them in their lives. They seek ways to help others carry their burdens, and take initiative to get involved with people on the level of their broken and hurting hearts.  When elders take compassion on as their primary job, it helps everybody else understand that this is really the church’s job. We create a culture of compassion.

Secondly, eldership have a unique opportunity to model a culture of growth for the church. When elders commit to  growing and demonstrate that they are in full pursuit of what it means for them to live as disciples, they foster those kinds of attitudes within the church. On the other hand, how many eldership out there are communicating, intentionally or not, that their own lives as disciples is a fixed entity? How many are communicating that discipleship is about being stable and static? Growth is essential to our lives as disciples, it is a fundamental part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—somebody that is learning from him what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Elders committed to their own growth as disciples create an expectation within the church that we are all growing, that discipleship is an active, ongoing process.

These two factors could make a tremendous difference in churches across the country. I’ve been in two churches where it already is making a difference. And I know that those two elderships are just getting started.