Elders’ meetings should not be an exercise in futility. Rather, to be effective for the church and interesting for the elders, some thought must be put into your time together.
1. Plan for meeting together more often and for a longer period of time.
We find meeting for at least four hours weekly is about right, 6-10 pm. Even then we find that we want more time. In fact, before one of our elders changed jobs, we would meet from 5-10 pm. The “once-a-month elders’ meeting” is the kiss of death for most elder teams. It usually means that the elders do not understand their responsibilities and are mere figure heads. Don’t die from pastoral atrophy.
We like to make our meetings enjoyable. We start out by eating an inexpensive meal together, for instance. We might do this in a restaurant or at one of our homes by bringing in pizza. Sometimes we include our wives, so that they can enjoy visiting with each other while we meet. Occasionally, the entire family of each elder joins us. The elders then pull aside in a separate place for their meeting. The meal cost is on the church in order to provide us extra time to be together. It’s a reasonable perk for hard working elders.
If a man cannot make this time commitment (and there is more ministry time needed besides this) then he should not be an elder. There are many good men who do not have the time to serve as an elder. You are not really pastoring people if you don’t do the work.
2. Challenge each other spiritually.
Again, if you only meet a short time, you will miss this important element. We sometimes ponder six characteristics of leadership: Character, knowledge, skills, affection, faith and enthusiasm. Give an honest report of your lives. Challenge each other with insights from Scripture and experience. Be honest. Repent in each other’s presence. Be direct with each other. Good men will love it. Petty men cannot stand it. But petty men are not to be elders.
3. Discuss the state of the flock.
I know that every church is not set up the same, but most healthy churches share actual pastoral oversight responsibilities among the elders. This usually takes means that a segment of the church is under each elder’s direct care, such as might be accomplished through home cell groups of some kind. For us, we divide the entire church into several “congregations” each led by a pastor. The congregations have between 15 and 35 people, depending on how new the group is. If you do not have such a breakdown of the church, it is nearly impossible to actually shepherd the people.
We find that taking some time to talk about issues among the congregations is our pastoral responsibility. We share our insights about how to handle certain problems that come up, or how to stimulate those under our individual “charge.” This takes quite a bit of our time together (usually 45 minutes to an hour), but it is well worth it.
4. Have an agenda.
Not everyone is organized. One of our elders is better at this than the rest of us. He enjoys putting together the agenda of items to work through each week. Find out who does this the best and let him lead you. Other elders can shoot agenda items to him by email or phone call so that he is fully prepared. This does not mean that all discussion is led by this elder, but only that he moves you through the evening. Forget Robert’s Rules of Order, which is great for running the legislature but lousy for running churches and elders’ meetings. The church is a family, not a nation. It is helpful for the group to make assignments with end dates for the agenda keeper to highlight to the group. Having an agenda makes sense, but don’t let the group slide into acting just like a management team at your work.
5. Actually pray for individuals and issues being faced.
The elders must be pray-ers. This is a portion of your time together that is so important it cannot be overlooked. It is not tacked on to the end of a meeting, but a major reason you are coming together. We find praying about “one item at a time” is best, with the freedom to pray as often as we wish. Sometimes we ask each elder to pray about members of his own group particularly. If necessary, we can walk and pray, or do something else to give us focus and keep us energetic.
If all the rest of the church prayed like the elders pray, how effective would your church be?
6. Study together toward a unified position on difficult issues.
This is the most often missed facet of elders working together. It is the responsibility of every elder to be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
We’ve used this time for much profitable discussion concerning vital biblical issues. Our longest study actually lasted two years, more time than most will want to spend on an issue. But this study has turned into a book that we hope will be of great use to the churches. Usually a study on a particular subject will take months, however.
Start with reading over the biblical material on the subject of interest. For instance, you may wish to come to a conclusion about who should take the Lord’s Supper, or what the Bible has to say about the prerequisites for joining a church, or about women’s roles in the church, or about divorce and remarriage, or who is allowed to be an elder, or what the real responsibilities of a deacon should be. Once you have an issue that is of pastoral importance, try to find every biblical reference to it. Go through that material first as carefully as possible, painfully working through each word and phrase. Decide on a “scribe” who can take notes carefully.
Next, you may wish to read a couple of books on the subject, perhaps on various sides of the issue. There may be one or two elders who read even more broadly on behalf of the group.
Attempt to craft a position statement on the subject. It might be short or long. You should labor over the wording until you are all in perfect agreement, reading and rereading it. This is not wasted time. It serves to get the position deep into each elder.
Following this, take the men of the church through a biblical study of the subject. Read slowly and carefully through your position, looking up the passages and talking about every aspect. Listen to their input and reshape the document as needed. If it won’t fly among the men, it won’t fly in the church as a whole. If it is received on this level, it will likely be enthusiastically received by the church.
Finally, present the document to the church as a whole. Or, if it is a matter pertaining only to the elders, keep your findings in your own notebook of positions about various issues of leadership and oversight. When appropriate, post these position statements on your website. This will help incoming members and guests to understand better what is expected and what the beliefs and actions of the church are. It will also demonstrate that the church is interested in being biblical above being pragmatic.
Usually an hour and a half of our meeting is devoted to such study, or more if possible. One of our men is particularly good at shaping what we talk about into a draft to discuss and perfect.
You will find that elders will own these studied positions and will be able to carefully lead others with conviction and biblical insight.
7. Make these meetings non-optional.
Every elder must make meeting together a priority. Some men who travel might not find it possible to be in town for such meetings on a regular basis. Consider changing your travel schedule or stepping down from leadership. The meetings are too important to miss. It is disappointing to the whole team for one member to fail to be there. It often means that critical issues will be misunderstood.
There is much more to do as elders than meet together. But it is nearly impossible to do the work you are called upon to do without meeting. It would be akin to asking a man and woman to parent a family when they never talk about what is needed or expected. It simply cannot be done correctly without prolonged and intimate discussion.