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The Importance of Capable Elders

by Bob Russell

 In 1966 Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky was without a preacher.  The three-year-old congregation of 125 people was meeting in the basement of a house. But the elders knew their new congregation had outstanding potential. After searching unsuccessfully for an experienced, capable minister for a year, the elders decided the Lord was leading them “to a younger man who will grow with us.”

     It was then that Butch Dabney, chairman of the pulpit committee, contacted the President of Cincinnati Bible College and asked for the names of recent graduates who had potential. He said, “We’re going to hire a younger man, and we’re going to make him successful.” Isn’t that a magnificent attitude? “We’re going to make our preacher successful” ought to be the motto of every church elder.

     When they selected me, I was just 22 years old and knew I would be in way over my head. I made a lot of mistakes as their young minister and faced numerous difficult situations, but again and again the elders wisely, gently guided me through troubled waters. God blessed, and my ministry at Southeast lasted forty years. And now, some look to me for counsel.

     The Apostle Paul wrote, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, …‘The worker deserves his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).

     Sadly, I thought about that passage a lot this week when I learned that one of the finest young preachers we’ve ever set forth was fired by his elders merely because they felt he wasn’t submissive and mature enough. They claimed he wasn’t respectful of the elders’ oversight, and even though the church was growing, they terminated him — effective immediately. Their decision to dismiss their lead pastor after less than three years has resulted in unrest in that church of 3000 attendees, with much negativity being spread throughout social media.

     As I look back over 40 years of ministry at Southeast Christian, I’m increasingly thankful for elders who directed the affairs of our church well. They are indeed “worthy of double honor.” They respected me in spite of my youth and inexperience. Even though most were more than twice my age, they never had a condescending spirit or ridiculed my ideas — well almost never!

     I’m thankful for elders who understood their role and were comfortable enough in their own skin to be supportive despite my immaturity and inexperience. They valued encouragement more than correction. It wasn’t ever a tug-of-war to see who was in charge at the moment; it was about exalting Christ and winning lost people over the long haul.

     I’m thankful for elders who treated me as a fellow elder. The passage quoted above says the pastor who preaches is especially worthy of honor and respect. Our elders didn’t have clandestine meetings without me. They didn’t see themselves as bosses but as co-laborers with Christ. A few times when I needed correction, they confronted me personally with a gentle spirit. (See Gal. 6:1.)

     I’m thankful for elders who were willing to remain behind the scenes. They didn’t insist on being on the platform or having their pictures on the wall in the lobby. They recognized that just as there is one quarterback on the field, there is one point man in the church. Like Aaron and Hur they were willing to hold up Moses’ hands so the battle could be won.

     I’m thankful our elders grew with the church. Just as staff members need to continue to mature as a church grows, elders also have to evolve and adapt along with an expanding congregation. Our elders came to understand that they could no longer micromanage a congregation of thousands and a staff of fifty ministers. They had to change their leadership style and trust the staff to oversee the day-to-day operation of the church.

     I’m thankful they empowered me to lead the staff. It’s unrealistic and unfair to ask a preacher to be accountable for the spiritual health of the church and then not give him the authority to make reasonable changes. Our elders gave me oversight of the programming and ministerial staff and didn’t attempt to create an awkward co-pastor role or establish lateral responsibilities (which is almost always an organizational chart that is destined for disaster.)

     I’m thankful for elders who kept the big picture and didn’t allow a handful of croaking frogs to keep them up at night. I’ve often said 95% of Southeast was great, 4% of it was not so hot, and 1% of it was nasty. My challenge and the challenge of every elder was to keep the big picture which was that souls were being won, believers were being edified, and Christ was being exalted in spite of a few problems.

     I’m thankful for elders who placed a high value on church harmony and who were perceptive enough to see the end result of decisions made behind closed doors. They made “every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). They understood leadership isn’t about control but about service to Christ and feeding, protecting, leading and loving His people.

     I’m thankful for elders who were generous to me when I stepped aside and have continued to provide a generous pension to this day. They didn’t attempt to see how little they could do to get by. They modeled the instruction of Jesus who said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

     Simon Peter promised faithful shepherds that, “…when the Chief Shepherd appears you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:-4). I’m thankful for the privilege I had of serving with wonderful, capable elders. They made me look much better than I was and the local church became a place of harmony, joy, and salvation. I’m confident a crown of glory awaits them in eternity. Well done good and faithful servants!

                         Bob Russell is retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Ky.

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Philippians 4:13