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Selecting Servant-Leaders

Some thoughts on the preparation and selection of Elder candidates

When I wrote this, the U.S. was grinding its way through another election cycle. More than once I found myself growling about the process. When you consider all the time and treasure which are expended it’s enough to make the blood boil. Even worse, from my point of view, is how candidates are selected. There are times when I’ve seriously wondered if the country wouldn’t be better served if candidates were chosen by random lot. On average would it be much worse than the slate of candidates we’re actually given? Perhaps all political parties should be abolished and the country’s leaders, themselves, selected by random draw.

I know, I know! That’s just the cynic in me talking. Our process in this country is no worse, and often much better, than what goes on in most other places. Lest anyone take umbrage at some of my comments, let me hasten to say that, given human nature and the examples of history, I’m very grateful for the form of government we have. It sure beats the alternatives. Our system of government with its checks and balances has done a pretty good job of keeping the grossly incompetent and/or venal out of public office. Or, more accurately, limiting the damage when we’ve been dumb enough to put them into office. Given fallen human nature, the old boys who wrote the U.S. Constitution came up with a fairly decent system.

Methods of leader selection

But when you stop and think about it, the system of government is not nearly as important as the character of the leaders chosen to run the government. In his essay Constitution for Utopia, John W. Campbell, Jr. points out that any form of government will result in utopia (defined as an optimal – not a perfect – society), provided that the rulers are wise, benevolent and competent. The real problem is how to select such leaders.

Through the centuries a great many systems of selecting leaders have been tried. Campbell rules out the selection of leaders by random chance, which I facetiously advocated, presumably because even if people were, on average, wise, benevolent and competent (which they certainly are not!), random selection would ensure that we got at least a few ‘bad apples’ in every draw.

What of Plato’s notion of training people from infancy to be ‘philosopher kings?’ Campbell points out that there’s no reliable test to predict who will grow up to fit the criteria. Also, as any high school student can tell you, the way to get high marks on any subjective test is to tell the teacher what he wants to hear regardless of whether the answer makes sense. So, even if we could define what a ‘philosopher king’ is, there’s still no reliable way to select and train them.

Aristocracy has worked rather well in certain periods of history. The idea is that a wise, benevolent and competent leader will breed true and pass the characteristics on to the next generation. But Solomon pointed out long before Campbell, that it doesn’t always work that way. “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune.” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-21 NIV)

Communists have tried the theory that the selection of leaders should be the sole prerogative of the politically indoctrinated. This suffers from the same problem mentioned before: It’s all too easy to feed the testers what they want to hear. It also suffers from rigidity because it perpetuates the assumptions and theories of the founders of the system.

Immunity breeds corruption

Campbell evaluates a few other ways of selecting leaders and finds flaws in each. Though it may be politically incorrect to say so, he points out that one of the worst methods of rule is to do away with leaders altogether and install popular democracy. The idea is that leaders are not needed because everyone gets to vote on everything. In practice, what has repeatedly happened is that popular democracy becomes mob rule. A mob will do all kinds of things which not a single person in it would condone or approve.

What makes a mob so corrupt and destructive, Campbell says, is immunity. The individuals which comprise it are anonymous, therefore there is no one to call to account.

In light of this, leaders, however they are selected, must never be given immunity. They must be held accountable. They must be a minority which is not allowed to achieve a position of security. They rule by the sufferance of those they govern.

A pragmatic test for leader selection

How, then, should such leaders be selected? Campbell suggests that it should be by a pragmatic, non-theoretical test. He proposes the following: In order to qualify for leadership, a person’s average earned annual income over the prior 10% of of his life must be in the top 20% of the population. As with any man-made system, there are probably some hidden flaws and unintended consequences in this proposal, but I found myself strangely attracted to it – even though I, myself, don’t meet the proposed criteria! It would certainly tend to weed out the incompetent.

As I was reading Campbell’s essay, it dawned on me that much of what he was saying applies to the church. Particularly his points about immunity and selecting leaders by a pragmatic test.

The form of church government

Now, the New Testament is pretty clear on what form church government should take. There should be autonomous local congregations which are governed and overseen by Elders (plural) who actively speak and teach. (In New Testament usage, the terms Elder, Shepherd, Pastor, Overseer, Presbyter and Bishop refer to the same leader. They are alternative names which describe different aspects of the same role. Also note that in the context of the church ‘leadership’ is characterized and defined as ‘service.’ Yes, an Elder ‘rules’ and ‘oversees’ but he is primarily a servant.) Those who advocate some sort of hierarchical structure or ‘located minister’ or ‘Senior Pastor’ system, need to take another read through the New Testament. What follows is specifically about Elders, but some of the principles apply equally to other leaders in the church.

Elder immunity

Given that congregations should be led by Elders, how should we go about selecting them? Let’s first take take a look at the idea of immunity. Unfortunately, in many congregations Elders are virtually immune. In part, this stems from a genuine reverence for the role. Godly people are very hesitant to criticize someone who is in a God-ordained role. Another complication in many congregations is that while there is a procedure for appointing an Elder, there is no mechanism for removing one. As a consequence, once someone is ordained an Elder, he’s in for life. To compound the problem, Elders often are not required to give an accounting of their leadership to the congregation, nor do they seek input from it. The congregation is isolated from the decision making process and is in the dark about how and why decisions are made.

While this style of leadership can be quite stable, just as often it is hide-bound, rigid and out of touch with the needs and spiritual condition of the church body. More importantly, is it biblical? I think not. Elders who are immune tend to forget that they are servants of the congregation. They can be tempted to “lord it over the flock” (See 1 Peter 5:2-3). According to Hebrews 13:17, leaders in the church certainly will be held accountable. “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account…” (NIV) In the context it’s probably speaking of them giving an account to God of their handling of the responsibilities entrusted to them. But I think it goes further than that. Though the New Testament doesn’t explicitly say so, I believe that Elders should also be accountable to the congregations they serve. There are hints…

Consider the few records we have which mention the appointing of Elders or other servant-leaders in the church. It would be foolish to get too dogmatic about it, but I have the impression that while it was an Apostle, Evangelist or group of Elders which appointed or ordained the candidates through the laying on of hands, it was the congregation which did the actual selection of those who were so appointed. If I’m right about that, it means that existing leaders received and acted on input from the congregation. It also implies at least a certain degree of accountability to the congregation.

There’s more. 1st Timothy 5:19-20 says, “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” (NIV) In my experience, this verse is usually used as a defense and safeguard against unjust or frivolous accusations. It certainly does protect – and I think it was intended to. But, when you stop and think about it, the verse also assumes that there is a procedure in place to call Elders to account. They are not immune. They must answer for their wrongdoing. They are, in fact, held to a higher standard of accountability than the rest of the congregation. Elders who sin are rebuked publicly. It sounds very much like Elders are answerable to the congregation. While action against an Elder is not to be taken lightly, a congregation should have some mechanism in place to “hold their feet to the fire.” Something we did in the congregation where I served as an Elder was require the Elders to report to the congregation once a year about what they’d done during the past year and what their plans were for the coming year. This requirement helps Elders to focus more on what they should be doing. It helps the congregation get a better feel for a man’s effectiveness in the role.

But here’s the rub: Suppose that there is no moral or ethical failing. Suppose that there is nothing you can really put your finger on but, for whatever reason, a particular man is ineffective as an Elder. Suppose the congregation made a mistake in selecting a particular person. Once a person has been ordained to fill the role, how can you remove him? It’s a real problem. It’s extremely difficult to overcome the inertia of incumbency. In the absence of sin (and, unfortunately, sometimes even when blatant sin is involved) it is rare that there will be 100% agreement that an Elder should step down. Should even a majority ask for an Elder’s removal, it has real potential for causing hard feelings or even a split in the congregation. If the entire congregation is agreed that a particular Elder should step down, it’s still likely that he will have hard feelings toward the congregation. The net result is often inaction. Because the spiritually minded do not want to cause division, they remain silent. If they become too frustrated, they eventually leave rather than cause a disturbance. In the meantime, the congregation continues to cripple along with an ineffective Eldership. Since the Elders feel immune, because they are not made accountable, they continue to make poor decisions. As a result, the congregation either stagnates or falls prey to fads and false teaching. How can this type of situation be avoided? How can Elders be held accountable, not only spiritually, but in effectiveness? How can Elders be removed as gracefully as possible? Since the Bible does not seem to give specific guidelines, it’s a real dilemma. Each congregation will have to arrive at its own conclusions.

In the congregation where I served we gave these questions some long and hard thought. Several of us came from congregations where the Elders effectively were immune. The congregations had little input and the Elders were secure in their incumbency. We did not want to repeat the experience. The solution we came up with is term limits. Elders were appointed for three years. At the end of three years they were required to step down for a year. If they wished to serve again, they had to again go through the process in which their qualifications were examined and approval was again given by the congregation. Our system was not perfect. One obvious limitation, was that while it provided a graceful way to get rid of ineffective Elders, it also limited or constrained the service of those who are competent and effective. Why should those who are doing an excellent job of serving have to step down? Why should the congregation be deprived of their leadership after an arbitrary period of time? However, after taking everything into consideration, the three-year time limit seemed like a good compromise. [Note: After I left the church scrapped the term limit requirement.]

Elder qualifications

Having taken care of the immunity question, we’re still left with the problem of a non-theoretical, pragmatic test to screen Elder candidates. Fortunately, just as the New Testament defines what form church government should take, it also provides the basic parameters for Elders. The qualifications of Elders are listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9 and 1 Peter 5:1-4. But, until recently, I had not considered them in terms of Campbell’s criteria.

As I go through the lists, I have to admit that some of the qualifications of Elders are subjective. Take, for example, the statement that an Elder must “not be given to much wine.” How much is much? It’s a judgment call. Some would say that any is too much. Others would say that drinking is permissible as long as the guy isn’t an alcoholic and never gets intoxicated. In the congregation where I served, we ruled out all social drinking and the consumption of alcohol in public. We did tolerate an Elder having a glass of wine at dinner in the privacy of his own home. But, it’s a judgment call and each individual congregation has to decide just what the requirement means.

Another qualification of an Elder is that he must be “able to teach.” I’m fairly rabid about this qualification. One reason I feel so strongly about it is that I’ve seen far too many Elders who, in my opinion, couldn’t teach their way out of a wet paper bag. But that’s the rub – it’s my ‘opinion’ that they can’t teach. In someone else’s estimation they might be a fine teacher. You also have to consider context while evaluating whether someone is capable of teaching or not. Teach who? Teach what? The fact is that a person may be a very capable teacher in one setting and a flop in another. Though I hate to admit it, the requirement that an Elder must be able to teach is not entirely objective. A candidate’s ability to teach must be evaluated in the setting of the individual congregation where he will serve.

Pragmatic, objective tests for Elder candidates

Several of the other Elder qualifications are also subjective. But there is at least one that is not. As I was reading Campbell’s essay, this one leaped to mind. The letters to Timothy and Titus both say that an Elder must be “the husband of but one wife.” (The Greek literally says, “a one-woman man.”) Most commentators these days seem to take the position that if an Elder is married he must remain faithful to his wife. I’ve heard all the arguments that say that an Elder can be single – as in never married. I’ve heard the arguments that the requirement doesn’t apply to divorce and remarriage. I’ve heard the explanations that these passages say nothing about the issue of polygamy. Blah, blah blah. Yadda, yadda yadda. Choke, gag puke! May I submit the radical proposition that the Apostle Paul, and therefore the Holy Spirit through Paul, said exactly what he meant and meant exactly what he said? I suggest that this is not a subjective option which can be interpreted any way we like. It is an easily verifiable, pragmatic and objective criterion which is there for a very good reason. In contrast to some of the other qualifications, it’s very easy to see whether a man is married. It’s an objective, pass/fail test. Has he got more than “one woman” (whether he’s married to them or not)? Again, it’s an objective, pass/fail test. Is he guilty of serial polygamy – as in divorce and remarriage? Another objective, pass/fail test. As far as I’m concerned, Scripture is clear on this issue: If a man is not married, or he has not been able to keep his marriage together, or he has multiple wives, he is not qualified to oversee the Lord’s church as an Elder. Period. He may have many sterling qualities and talents; he may be a very godly man but he is disqualified for the role of Elder. He might make a wonderful Evangelist or Teacher, but not an Elder.

A related issue is that of children. In Titus 1:6 it says that an Elder’s children must believe (NIV, NASB, ESV) or be faithful (KJV, NKJ). Here we have some more objective criteria for an Elder candidate. Does he have children? Yes, or no? Are they old enough to make an informed choice about how they are going to live their lives? Yes, or no? Further, have the children decided to live a godly life? Yes, or no? Similar to the arguments that say an Elder doesn’t have to be married, there are all kinds of justifications for ducking these tests. I’ve heard of cases where men have been put forward as Elder candidates who had no children at all, or whose children were infants. But we ignore these criteria to our own peril.

As the home, so the church

Why is this so important? Paul tells us in 1st Timothy 3:5, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (NIV) The family is the proving ground of a man’s ability to oversee and shepherd the church. Without the experience gained in the home, a man is not fit for a similar responsibility in the church. If you want to know how a man will perform as an Elder, just look at his home. It’s high time we ditched the politically correct malarkey so many pattern church government by, and the business-school theories used to pick Elders (if churches have Elders at all), and get back to the objective standards of Scripture. Oh! And by the way, here’s another pragmatic, objective test that is sure to raise the ire of many these days: Paul assumes that Elder candidates are of the male persuasion. Women need not apply.

Growing Elders at home

All this brings up an important corollary. We want our Elders to be wise, benevolent and competent, but are dismayed that so few of the available candidates actually actually meet the criteria Paul lays out. If one of the keys to effective oversight and leadership in the church is effective leadership and oversight in the home, we need to equip and enable the men in the church to be effective at home. Is it possible that one of the reasons there are so few qualified men who could be appointed as Elders is that we have not emphasized their role in the home as we ought? But that takes long-range vision and planning. We tend to operate with a quite short horizon. Perhaps if we taught men how to love their wives (Ephesians 5:25-28) from before the time they marry, and to raise their children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) from the time the kids are born, we’d have more men qualified to lead in the church 20 years down-road. Let me forestall the notion someone is sure to bring up, of sending our men to Bible college to learn how to be effective husbands and fathers. It just isn’t going to happen that way! Even if it were possible to send everyone to Bible college – which it certainly isn’t – a student would typically get only a single one-semester course on family and marriage during an entire four-year degree program. No, it’s going to take major commitment on the part of existing leadership in the churches to provide year-in and year-out training, mentoring and support if we are going to develop the kinds of homes, and thus the kinds of leaders the church needs. Something to think about!

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