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Where Have All the Elders Gone?

Where Have All the Elders Gone?
May 26 Tags: leadership | 26 Responses Print Save as PDF

An alarming trend seems to be happening in many of our assemblies in North America.  Many assemblies have just a few elders, with no upcoming younger men ready to step in.  Many assemblies have lost elders (death, moved geographically or stepped down) with none to replace them.  If this continues it is obvious the negative impact it will have.

Defining elders

Let me clarify what I mean by elders. I’m specifically thinking of shepherds. Those who genuinely care for the spiritual well-being of the local churches they are leading. Biblically these are the pastors.  They feed, nurture, protect and care for the sheep. They are invested in the lives of the flock. They are not merely decision makers or administrators or event planners.

They are also not merely firemen who put out fires when they arise but are proactively on the alert for the attack of the enemy and the disease of sin within the group.

A significant need

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that in order for our assemblies to grow and maintain a healthy spiritual state, strong elders will need to be in place to lead the people of God.  We need strong shepherds who will give their lives for the sheep. Not as a hobby but as a passion to lead the people of God into a greater knowledge and relationship with the Lord Jesus.

We need more shepherds who will visit the weary and encourage them in the way. We need more shepherds who will admonish the unruly in love and grace and point them to the Savior. We need more shepherds who will feed the hungry with the Word of God. Above all, we need more shepherds who will lead the flock by example, modeling the way of faith and devotion to the Lord.

Simple observations

As I speak to many in assemblies there are some common traits that keep coming up.  These observations do not apply to every assembly or region but they do apply to many. I am sure there are others and I would be interested to hear your comments below.

  • Discipleship has been dropped in many assemblies.  Elders need to be disciple-makers.  Many elders have no young man or group of men they are discipling. This is a tragedy as without discipleship there can be no hope for real growth in others.
  • Visitation is a thing of the past. To many elders, visitation means a visit to a home only when there is a problem. Elders who care about the saints will be active in visiting them on a regular basis to pray with them and to listen to the needs that are causing heartache.
  • A lack of decision.  One comment I keep hearing is that “Our elders take forever to make decisions.”  Leadership that can’t make decisions in a reasonable time will frustrate the people of God and create mistrust.
  • No plan to train up others. Elders who are proactive in training up younger men will be prepared to meet the needs of the leadership as older men are no longer able. It’s healthy to have new, fresh insight into the leadership of the church.
  • Elders who refuse to give up control.  This is a major issue in our assemblies as many elders try to hang onto control too long and do not allow or encourage younger men to take up leadership.
  • Elders who refuse to change. It’s a sad reality that the assemblies have lost a large number of solid men and women because of elders who refused to make needed changes within the church. Holding onto preferences and preaching them as doctrine has cost us dearly.

A note to young men

There has been a lot of criticism about the lack of younger men who are ready to step up into leadership. We can point fingers and say that it’s someone else’s fault but the reality is that we need to be seeking the Lord and taking our responsibility seriously. Much of the criticism is unfounded but much isn’t.

I see men in their 30’s and 40’s more interested in video games, cars, sports, making money, TV and movies than they are about the Word of God, the people of God and prayer.  I see young people who don’t think the people of God are high enough of a priority to make it out to a Sunday night or mid-week meeting.

The plague of materialism and the quest for pleasure and comfort seem to be front and center while the Lord Jesus is pushed off into a corner.  It may be that you (young man) want to follow the Lord but are held back by sin and can’t break free.

All of these scenarios require one thing: repentance. A genuine falling on our knees before the Lord and saying, “I’m yours! All of me.”

Conclusion

I care about the assemblies so deeply. I want to see them grow and be a vibrant testimony for the Lord. Many are, and I thank God for each assembly in tune with the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for elders who lead by example and care intimately about the saints in their fellowship.  Unfortunately, many assemblies are perishing from a lack of vision and shepherding.

May we all present our lives as living sacrifices and seek his face to help us be the leaders he wants us to be in humility and grace!

26 Responses to Where Have All the Elders Gone?

  1. Travis DeVries

    There is the right balance in the article which puts the blame for our current state of affairs on both parties (young men and existing elders). Our repentance concerning this situation needs to be very personal and humble.
    “Be the change you want to see in the church”
    (Apologies – Ghandi)

    • Mike Klomp

      There is a good balance in the article and I definitely believe that the onus is on each individual to themselves, study and indeed take on the desire to fulfill the requirements for elders in their own lives. Some would say the those things listed for an elder to be are just for elders but I would challenge that idea and say that the character requirements are there for all believers to fulfill in their lives. As Travis states “Be the change”. Where are the young men and gals who desire to be discipled and approach the older to work with them in this?
      Elders do need to be on top of decisions and indeed proactive in their decisions as well as current with culture and none of this has to do with ever changing doctrine, but putting Doctrine in motion. I have just read “Leading with Love” by Alexander Strauch which is an amazing book on the necessity of loving the people and not being distanced from them. Leading is an active thing that puts a person in front of the pack in areas like study, care for others, love in the lives of the church of God and is not distanced in any way. Leadership like that, which is not afraid to make the tough decisions is what draws youth to see it in genuineness. I am blessed to be able to see that in motion and It drew me from the moment I stepped into the doors of my assembly and continues to this day.Loving example that follows the heart of our Lord is a commodity that is beyond words as far as value is concerned.This article is a call to Elders and sheep alike to step up to the plate and say I desperately want to serve my Lord by knowing Him and loving those He died for and will make it my sole souls desire to do so.
      A great book to read is called brother indeed, it is the biography of Robert Cleaver Chapman and it exemplifies leading with love as many of the principles in Strauch’s book “Leading with Love” comes from Chapman’s life.

    • Crawford Paul
      Crawford Paul

      Amen. My initial thought is that leadership must take the initiative first in making sure the church is healthy. While the onus is definitely on all of us it starts with leadership.

  2. Tim Horne

    I enjoyed this article. Good insight and thoughts. May it be a catalyst for conversation among both elders and the youth.

  3. Dan

    I fit the demographic you describe in the middle section of the article (male, 30’s and 40’s). I served as an elder in a small rural assembly starting in my 20’s with a few men not much older than myself. I appreciate the pastoral definition for eldership that you describe above (visitation, feeding, nurturing and protecting). We felt this was a critical part of our calling and strived to function fully as elders in that capacity.

    This is not intended to be a rebuttal to your article, in fact, ours is not the success story that it initially seems. But what you describe as biblical eldership, if done well, constitutes a full-time job, drawing on hours that can only be taken from other (at least equally) important things. You listed video games, cars and sports as competing interests and distractions for my demographics – I’d like to add my wife and young children to your list and to share that, for us at least, it was not possible to act fully as elders without significant costs to our families. I can scale back my work, I can scale back attention to physical health (which is still very important), but our families NEED quality time. I can testify that, what was described by many at the time as exemplary, did not end well for those involved.

    There was a generation that sacrificed their children for the sake of ministry. Many of their children did not continue walking with the Lord or did so in a way that was very guarded about how much they would give to the church. Perhaps many of those children might have grown up to be the elders we so lack today, the middle generation who might have mentored the 30 and 40-somethings to step into those roles at an appropriate time instead of having to do so prematurely.

    • Crawford Paul
      Crawford Paul

      Thanks Dan and I do know your situation a little. You make a good point which is outside the scope of this article. Balancing family and leadership is not an easy task. There are ways this can be accomplished which can be addressed in another post. I agree 100% that families should not be neglected for the work of the Lord. My dad being a full-time worker was very busy but he always made sure my mom and us kids were a priority. I cannot remember ever thinking we were being abandoned or were not important. It can be done! 🙂

      • Dan

        I think one way that the balance can be better achieved is by having a range of ages on the oversight committee. I agree that age is not a factor (there are 20 year olds who meet the biblical definition of an elder, and 50 year olds who do not), but having a group of elders that are ALL under 40 may pose challenges. An older or elder or two may off-set some of the heavier pastoral “lifting” at times when family and other obligations are too great for the others. Also, having a range of ages means having a range of experiences to draw on for counselling and a range of options for congregants to turn to with their questions or concerns (eg. a 60 year old elder will have more to say about dealing graciously with a son-in-law or grandchild than I would).

        • Crawford Paul
          Crawford Paul

          Really great points Dan. I believe that this is the beauty of plurality. A group of men with different gifts, experiences and backgrounds can be a powerful team for the Lord by working together. Not all elders should be considered in the same role, but they should be considered equally qualified.

  4. Tom

    Dan brings up a good point, and I think it’s addressed in scripture. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Bible Theology says “In both the Old and New Testaments, the term ‘elder’ indicates one of advanced age (Heb. zaqen [eqz]; Gk. presbyteros [presbuvtero]) who had a office of leadership within the people of God.” Bear in mind that ‘advanced age’ in both Israel and the church was probably not, on average, seventy-five or eighty.

    There is a window of opportunity in a man’s life between his early 50s and mid-60s that corresponds well to this scriptural pattern of being “older”. Twenty- and thirtysomethings, if they are doing things right, have too many responsibilities to function well as elders, and too little experience. It’s no wonder they experience the conflict Dan speaks of.

    For too long I’ve heard that “elder” means “spiritually mature” rather than simply “older”. While spiritual maturity is critical, it seems to me life experience and stage of life are factors that require consideration too.

    • Crawford Paul
      Crawford Paul

      There’s no definitive age given in the NT about elders. An elder is to be older spiritually and that is why one of the qualifications is not to be a novice. There is some thought that the apostles were in their 20’s and of course we know that Jesus was around 30 when he started his ministry.

      There’s no indication that an elder should be over 50. You have heard that elders means spiritually mature for too long because that’s the main meaning in the NT. It’s a solid Biblical concept.

      • Tom

        1. “Apostles” and “elders” are not synonymous terms. In fact, they are repeatedly distinguished in scripture (Acts 15:6,22). The apostles appointed elders (Acts 14:23). Some of them may have functioned similarly for periods of time. But the roles are distinct. Our conjectures about the age of the disciples can hardly determine our church practice, can they?

        2. I did not say that an elder must be over 50, nor did I imply that scripture does. I said that in our current social arrangement, that age corresponds well with the scriptural principle of being “older”. I recognize there is plenty of room for different speeds of reaching spiritual maturity.

        3. Respectfully, you’re wrong on the etymology, Crawford. Presbuteros is used multiple times in the NT as an indicator of age, not merely spiritual maturity (see 1 Tim 5:2, Acts 2:17, Luke 15:25, etc., and every reference to Jewish “elders”, who in that culture were almost certainly not youngsters). When you invest a word with a spiritual meaning, you are adding to the literal meaning, not inverting it.

        4. Consider 1 Timothy 3:4 (“with all dignity keeping his children submissive”) and Titus 1:6 (“his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination”). Can this legitimately be said of twenty- or thirty-somethings with small children? Surely we are not concerned with whether a man’s toddlers play with blocks in the pews during the Lord’s Supper; we’re concerned with whether his teenagers or young adults are behaving dishonorably and causing him public shame.

        5. In our present society, far more men in their fifties and sixties are in a position to retire early or devote more of their time to the assembly as the income required to support their household tails off. Their children are grown and may well have left home, and their testimony and maturity is indisputably established at that point. This is what I mean by a “window of opportunity”. We ignore reality at our peril.

        6. Of course an elder must be “spiritually mature”, but that is not the “main meaning” of presbuteros in the NT. Your argument is with the dictionary, not me.

        I believe we do ourselves and those young men we recognize as elders too early a grave disservice. Even in situations when appointing a twenty- or thirty-something has “worked out” by our subjective assessment, I’m quite sure if you asked them they would tell you that those years were a lot tougher for them and presented many conflicts beyond the usual.

        There is plenty for young marrieds to do in the assembly, and everything that has been said about mentoring is spot on. We are being quite trendy in following the denominations in recognizing young leadership.

        I just don’t think we are being prudent. Or biblical.

        • Dan

          Tom, can I ask what you think the disadvantages (if any) might be of having only elders in that 50-60 range?

          I personally am in favour of the idea of having ‘younger’ elders, and by that I mean younger than the 50-60 years of age rage. I think that existing elders can integrate young elders slowly, and carefully, into the work of leadership.
          I think that wise elders realize that if they are bringing in a young elder who still has a young family, they shouldn’t overload them with responsibilities right out of the gate.
          I disgree with the stated notion that assemblies are just bringing in young people to keep up with the trends. I think bringing in young people is recognizing that they have gifts and abilities that can be used to help lead, and to encourage and build up the local church.

          • Bernie

            Hey Dan:

            I’m sure Tom can make his own reply – I’m just jumping in because your note caught my eye…

            What disadvantage does an assembly face if the elders are all 50 or 60 ish? Zero. Zilch. None. Such a meeting these days is a rarity of course – which is I think what you’re getting at. But the scriptural and ideal model is exactly that – a quantity of spiritually mature older men who are gifted and serving as recognized elders. Ideally they are mentoring younger men who will one day become elders. I concede that this model is a terribly uncommon thing these days and that is a very severe problem for the assemblies to face.

            Instead of the biblical model, what we *DO* see in NA are a bunch of meetings where there are either no or painfully few mature men in that ideal age range. So emergency measures are taken – and younger men are pressed into service out of necessity, not conviction or design. Or a full time worker is given a super-elder role. Or, in the worst cases, a pastor is recruited. This isn’t indicative of a wrong model or plan on God’s part, it’s indicative of our spiritual poverty.

            So where do young, gifted, zealous men fit?

            In a normal meeting, no committed person, young or old, is held back from doing virtually everything an elder should be doing – even if they don’t have the formal title. There is no license needed to love and care for the family of God, no special permission needed to be a wise and trustworthy counselor, no fiat from the ruling powers to be a careful and prayerful teacher of the word.

            If young people are not already actively doing most of the work, the title of ‘elder’ isn’t going to help them to begin to do it. And if they’re not already doing the work, they shouldn’t even be in consideration for the formal title anyway. Bottom line, the formal title means (virtually) nothing; an assembly can be encouraged, can appreciate the gift at hand and can be edified by young people who are not and perhaps never will be formally recognized as elders. Not being recognized as ‘elder’ will hardly prevent a gifted young person from edifying by exercising his/her gift(s).

            You mention not ‘overloading’ young men who are elders with responsibilities out of the gate. That seems to me an indication that they aren’t (yet) actually elders at all. They may be on their way to long and distinguished service as elders one day, they may be very fine, contributing members – even VITAL members – of an assembly. But they’re not elders until they’re ready to be elders.

            There has been scripture offered by Tom to the effect that elders should be older men – perhaps as old as 50 or 60. You may disagree with that interpretation and perhaps you do, but your disagreement needs to be based on biblical ground or its merely a stated personal preference; interesting but of no real weight beyond your own inclination.

  5. The main issue here seems to be discipleship. One person, or a few people, can’t do it all, no matter what age they are. The elders’ role is to guide the flock so that they can care for each other (1 Peter 5:3). I totally agree with Crawford that the training is a two way street. The elders need to initiate by caring for the saints and spending time with them outside of the meetings of the church, and then offer to train them. I can say from personal experience that there are elders doing this and it has been a huge blessing in my life. This will provide the example that 1 Peter 5:3. When things are being done biblically, sacrifices may be made but no families will be neglected. “When leaders lead in Israel, When the people willingly offer themselves, Bless the Lord!” (Judges 5:2)

    • Crawford Paul
      Crawford Paul

      Yes, modelling discipleship has a secondary goal of encouraging and teaching others to be involved in discipleship. It’s very contagious when this catches on.

  6. Tom

    Dan, I’m going to go back to commenting on the main stream rather than hit “reply” to you, as the indents are getting increasingly harder to read.

    Bernie has wisely preempted my response by correctly pointing out that (i) the only thing that really matters here is what the scripture says, and (ii) that a bunch of godly fifty-something elders is unlikely to ruin an assembly.

    I regret arbitrarily singling out the number 50 as a starting point for service as an elder since it provides people with an easy target. Obviously there will be outliers. My main concern is that the principles of the NT be followed in searching for elders.

    It seems to me three questions need answering before one seeks the work of an elder:

    1) Am I spiritually mature? Crawford rightly points out that this is number one.

    2) Am I in a position in life in which I can step up and serve the assembly without shortchanging my family? Scripture is clear that you cannot take what belongs to another and give it to God (Mark 7:11-12).

    3) Has my teen or adult children’s behaviour contributed to the establishment of my credentials, as per Timothy and Titus, or does it disqualify me?

    In current North American culture, where men go to school until they are in their late twenties and start having kids at thirty, that makes them approximately fifty before they would qualify scripturally in terms of their children’s behaviour. It is also the time of life when many men who have worked hard to establish themselves in the business world are in a position to cut back hours or retire early without creating financial problems for their families.

    That’s where the number comes from in my thinking. I’m not overly concerned how a bunch of fifty-something elders might be perceived, and I recognize there is room for a sliding scale given individual circumstances. The farm boy who marries at twenty, has his kids by twenty-five and is spiritually mature may be a fine candidate at 38, but he would be the exception.

    I cannot see any circumstance in which Christians in their twenties scripturally qualify as elders, but I am happy to be corrected on that.

    Crawford, you have certainly opened up a can of worms!

    • Hanniel Ghezzi

      The article states, “I thank God for each assembly in tune with the Holy Spirit”. I understand this to mean that we must recognize those whom the Holy Spirit has made elders (Acts 20:28).

      In response to your statement about not seeing any circumstances in which Christians in their twenties scripturally qualify as elders, does that mean the Holy Spirit hasn’t raised up existing elders who are in their twenties?

      • Tom

        Can God bless in spite of the fact that we sometimes misunderstand or ignore scriptural principles in our choices? Sure.

        Are there twenty-somethings doing good things in assemblies? Absolutely.

        Does that justify calling them something that, scripturally, they are not — yet?

        I’ll let you be the judge of that.

  7. Hanniel Ghezzi

    I have heard proponents of aged elders state, “elders should be elder”. Granted, older men have much to offer by way of experience and wisdom. But when I look through a missionary prayer handbook, I find that many of the missionaries have been laboring in their field since their 20s, some raising young children in the process. Why is that? Because missionary work requires energy as well as spiritual maturity. Such are the requirements of assembly work. Otherwise, who is left to shepherd the flock on the home front if our brightest and best are being dispatched overseas to the front line?

    It is wonderful to witness such energy combined with spiritual wisdom in local assemblies. Perhaps the younger elder could relieve the older with some of the teaching duties in the assembly. As a result, the older elder (especially retired ones) can focus on ministry such as visitation.

  8. I think it’s unwise to mention ages – unless only as a general guideline. Situations vary greatly. I spent years at an assembly related Christian retirement community in Florida where most were 70’s & 80’s so the “young guys” coming in in their 50’s were looked at as the youth of the assembly.

    Rich Brown from Indonesia tells of the work to recognize elders in a growing work of 200+ believers, yet the ones most qualified to be elders, (& doing the work!) are in their Teens and 20’s. I think we need to emphasize the idea of spiritual maturity, rather than the world’s emphasis of
    physical age. Many in their 60’s & 70’s are veritable babes in spiritual things.

    As for a man needing to be married and have older kids, that seems to me to be going beyond what is written. Paul’s reference to “Having his children . . .” is not a subtle way of saying “Must have children,” and in any case, that sounds like it’s referring to fathers of young or at most teenage kids; not grown up children. Paul could be very explicit when he needed to be, so the idea that in this instance, which would be extremely important in any new work, he suddenly used such veiled language, that most students of the Word have not been at peace with the more restricted meaning; that should give us a clue.

    Some have held from I Timothy 3 “the husband of one wife” that the man must be married. But as Homer Kent points out, the way to say that in Greek is “The husband of a wife.” I think the problem with a lot of these restrictive views is that the point is overlooked that we are talking about a team approach to leadership where no brother has it all but all together make up what is needed.

    • Tom

      Hi Jack. Have very much enjoyed some of your posts.

      I agree that a lack of children or marriage should not be considered disqualifiers, but the fact that Paul mentions the children’s behaviour or belief as factors at all seems suggestive of the time of life he is talking about.

      I’d appreciate your thoughts on this aspect: the word “presbuteros” in the NT clearly refers to an “older” man by the standards of the day. The term is certainly invested with a spiritual significance above and beyond its literal meaning in the NT: we are agreed it is vastly more important to be spiritually mature than to be considered “older”.

      Does you think it is reasonable, then, to ignore the literal meaning of the word entirely?

  9. Leonard VandenBerg

    I realize my comment is a little late, but I can’t help but feel that the above comments against having younger elders might have a discouraging rather than an encouraging effect. The purpose of Crawford’s article is to encourage the work of shepherding.

    I’m a bit reluctant to say anything on the subject, as I’m not sure which category I fit into, being a 48-year-old dad of three kids under five. My children will need my time just as much ten years from now as today. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 clearly assume an elder having children in his home, so the Lord must think such a scenario is possible.

    One of the comments in the reply-section I found a bit troubling. I quote: “It is also the time of life when many men who have worked hard to establish themselves in the business world are in a position to cut back hours or retire early without creating financial problems for their families.” It basically suggests you have to be (semi-)retired and have a big bank account to have the time to be an effective elder… The problem with this idea is, that back in Bible times and up till a few generations ago in N.A. economic necessity meant that poor people had to keep working as there were no old-age pensions. The apostle Paul didn’t think that secular work prevented him from doing the work of an apostle. Read Acts 20:33-35 where Paul mentions his own example to be imitated by the Ephesian elders! If someone says: “But Paul didn’t have a family to take care of”, then notice that he says that he also provided for those with him. There’s no hint whatsoever about retirement.

    I know younger elders who are making the sacrifice of not taking big job promotions, so they can stay and serve in their local assembly. Maybe, eldership means being poorer financially in many cases. Maybe, your kids can’t be in two sports and wear designers clothes, and go to college on your account. One of the biggest hindrances to the development of elders, and spiritual growth in general, today is the desire to “build your financial empire, retire comfortably, and then use your time for the Lord”. I think the Lord deserves what is right, not what is left of our time. Retirement is greatly over-rated.

    Making sacrifices for the Lord requires faith. (Not spending enough time with your children is not an act of faith). Elders are to lead by faith in God (Hebrews 11:2; 13:7) and this takes courage.

    We need MORE elders, not less. I’m not sure how large the Ephesian church was, but I’m pretty sure there were more than two or three listening to Paul that day in Acts 20. It wouldn’t surprise me, if that group consisted of twenty men.

    One reason why there is a lack of spiritual leaders today is, because the devil is the ultimate rebel and opposes God’s authority and all delegated authority as well. The media focuses and admires any dissent against established authority. This mindset is influencing Christians as well. Skepticism keeps men on the sideline and hinders them from taking on responsibilities. We live in the last days and the words of Psalm 2 are becoming more relevant as time goes on.

    To all of you elders who are doing a good work for the Lord, keep at it!

  10. Tom

    I have no desire to be contentious so this is my last word on this subject, given that so many here are opposed to the idea of older elders. Let me repeat: the etymology of the word itself and three of the criteria by which we are able to recognize elders from scripture argue against young elders. I haven’t seen any adequate rebuttal to these facts.

    Straw men and arguments from practicality and perceived need should carry no weight with ‘people of the Book’.

  11. Mike Fitzhugh

    Excellent article, Crawford, and oh so true! Thanks so much for sharing these truths.

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