The Essence of Eldership

Updated: Sep 19, 2021

I was talking recently with a friend about eldership, and specifically within a Christian organization that we are both associated with (youth with a mission). The idea of eldership is not new to this organization, indeed developing and maintaining healthy relationships with an appropriate circle of elders has been a value since their beginnings. However like for many growing organizations and churches, administration had taken a greater share of attention in recent years, so we often find ourselves often discussing "what is eldership" in the midst of also trying to redefine healthy leadership.

To shed some light on this, I thought I might share a few of my ideas.

First what is leadership?

Leadership in essence is concerned about society or the greater community.

  • They create rules so we have consistency, and so we can achieve shared objectives.

  • They manage shared resources such as finances, or compliance with rules.

  • They adjudicate disputed matters so that there is justice for all.

  • And sometimes they provide for the people's general welfare, like an HR department might do, or a deacon who prays for the sick, and cares for the vulnerable.

In the church we have deacons who serve in this role as leaders. Nearly all of the qualifications Paul offers revolve around moral character such as being “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom”. They are concerned with the practical details of church life, including administration, maintenance, and the care of church the physical needs of church members. As Acts 6 demonstrates, the first deacons served the church by distributing food to widows.

Those who function in leadership take on a role. Leaders are servants of the people given a role so they have authority. It's very important that we have leaders. They facilitate us all working together and caring for those who cannot care for themselves. But if leaders do not do their job well or use coercion to control people, the people will rise up and take matters into their own hands.

The three things I have noticed about leadership gone wrong:

  1. They don't take responsibility. For example, if a teacher always allows a student to disrupt the class, the other students will take matters into their own hands and become disrespectful of this teacher as well. Leadership is concerned about the social order of things.

  2. The person in a role can assume more responsibility than they should. For example assuming they are responsible for the choices or development of those they lead, and hence the leader thinks they have to teach a lesson. Threats and coercion (that we have masked as consequences) are the result.

  3. Or they can make those they lead responsible for something they themselves are responsible for. Government has done this with Covid, making citizens responsible for each others health. The government has called us to get a shot, wear a mask so that others do not get sick. As a result of government communicating this way, I heard recently of two young preschool children believing that if their Grandmother got sick with Covid, it was their fault she got sick. They were full of anxiety for something they had no control over. We are not responsible for our neighbors' health choices, if they eat well, exercise, wash their hands, wear a mask, use appropriate distancing, get a shot. We can only make choices for ourselves and those in our care. The government is responsible to make sure the Emergency Units are not over capacity, not us. We can assist, but it is not our responsibility. Another example is we make students responsible for each other. I asked a school principle once "what is he doing to make the school a safe place from bullying?" He replied "we train the children to be kind to each other, respect each other, self-regulate and to have zero tolerance for bullying." Notice he did not say "I am present on the playground during recess breaks and help the children find ways to express their aggression when they are frustrated." This principle was not at all taking responsibility for something that is his, the safety of the children in his care.

What is spiritual eldership?

Biblically, Paul explains an elder is to be mature in the faith just like a deacon, and “able to teach” (elder); they are expected to shepherd the flock of God’s people (shepherd); and to watch over the doctrine and practice of the church (overseer). In short, elders are concerned with the spiritual needs of the church.

In a typical church, elders or the pastor functions in practical ways to provide for the congregation. They preach, they appoint deacons or leaders to serve, give wise council, respond to crisis and sometimes redirect work in a different direction. All this work is useful and needed, but it does not really answer what is a spiritual elder? How do they shepherd, and teach and hold us true to values and doctrine? How do they influence us?

To answer this we need to flip our perspective around to see what are the needs of those whom we disciple?

Development of a disciple

I can see there are two things that we hope to see in a person being discipled, in our students.

  1. Firstly to grow up, that is to become mature, to become their own person. They would be full of ideas, full of curiosity, they seek autonomy & independence. They would also be resilient to challenges, bouncing back when mistakes are made or loss is encountered. And they would also be considerate of others while still being true to ones self.

  2. If maturity is a little slow unfolding, then our second goal is to see that they are fit for society. That they fit in, know and follow the rules, pass on the culture, keep to the same values. Today we often do this by learning life skills or by having a mentor or coach. In biblical times the rabbi was often involved in this forming of the student.

Diagram showing both the development of "maturity" and "fit for society" and how they influence each other.

These goals are not one in the same. For many reasons as a person gets older they may not always grow up, but at least we hope they develop skills to fit into society so as to function. We can see in scripture where Paul talks about both of these.

Paul gives us many examples of how we are to respond in different situations, how we are to behave in our different roles. For example how a husband is to love his wife, how a leader is to serve those they lead, how a servant is to serve their master. Today we script many interactions such as how is the student to respond to the teacher, how do we actively listen as a couple, or how do we set gentle boundaries for our children. We script and practice with role plays. This is not growing a person up, this is only giving them a script so as they can function.

Paul then goes on to talk a lot about becoming mature, such as in Ephesians 4:13-16. Here he talks about how "we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves..." We certainly want to see our leaders and elders be mature. However for quite a few of us, we might take a long time to mature, so as a minimum we need to know "how to function" until we do. I think of parenting, once we have finished raising our children and they have moved on to be parents themselves, we look back and see all the ways we could have done it differently, done it better. Parenting is a chance for us to grow up a little more. Marriage is the same, it's another opportunity for us to mature as we think of someone besides ourselves.

Now we can begin to answer what do those we are discipling need?

Making Fit for Society

To support a person becoming fit for society, we place people in roles, we provide structure often through routines, and finally script their interactions with others. For example reframing helps kids cope with setbacks and look on the bright side. Even as an adult I notice when this is done for me I feel much safer to try new things, to learn skills, or simply to experience a situation I do not feel ready for. It's a loving action to provide safety for those that are in our care.

I often think of when our daughter went to a friends' 3rd birthday party. The birthday boy began to open his presents with all the other children sitting around watching. All of a sudden the children decided they all needed to help and each of them began grabbing presents from the pile and started unwrapping. Immediately the parents jumped in helping their child to put the present back and wait patiently as the birthday boy continued. The children were not mature enough at this stage for this social interaction, so the parents had to script their response so as chaos did not break out and the children could enjoy this time together. For adolescents, it is the aunts, the uncles, the big brothers, the coaches and teachers that often play this role in the child's life. Playing organized sports lead by a team coach is a significant opportunity for adolescents to experience this supporting environment. In adulthood we have the master craftsman, the mentor or marriage coach, or the mediator when we have disagreements, all guiding our interactions so that we can fit in to society and function.

Note that none of these parents, relatives, coaches, teaches, or mentors have an agenda except to compensate for lack of maturity. None of them implement consequences for the child or young adult not fitting into society, for not staying within the structure. The structure, the routines the scripting are all there to serve, and are to be changed if they are not helping. I think of an adolescent who has a routine to help them do homework. If the routine is not working, change the routine instead of punishing the child.

Another example is Japanese culture which is based on respect. When a child reaches the teenage years, they are introduced to "keigo" - DEFINE. These practices are steeped in showing your consideration and respect for a person older than you, or to those with a different position or experience in a company or society to you. These practices are full of roles and scripting creating a harmonious culture where elders influence and pass on values and wisdom to youth.

Inviting Maturation

Of course we at some point expect to get some resistance to these roles, structures and scripts. We are looking for this because this push often signifies the beginning of maturation. It could be a 3yo saying "me do it", or a young adult saying "I don't agree with these rules." Even though there are healthy and unhealthy reasons that the child pushes back (for example, they could be alarmed) our response is still to help them take the next step.

I have summarized our responses to resistance in this diagram below. At the top of our agenda is to always preserve the relationship. If things go wrong, a parent or elder is best to stop and give an unconditional invitation for the child or young adult to exist in their presence. Perhaps we mention that we will get through this, that we will find our way. If a couple is fighting, the best thing for one of them to do is remind the other that they will be okay, that they will work this out, that they are looking forward to relaxing together later. It takes the pressure off.

I have included Step A in our responses, because indeed there are some times we need to set limits, to say "no" so as we can all function safely. For example, if a child has forgotten his permission slip to go on a school field trip, then he cannot get on the bus when the other students are ready to go. Once the "no" had been given, I now envision a wise teacher bridging this disappointment, signifying to this student they belong and are significant to that teacher even thought they can't be with the class this time around. The teacher maintains the relationship. Or perhaps we see an opportunity to what I call implement gentle coercion. I remember when I gave my resignation for a job I had had for 10 years, my boss wisely gave me the opportunity to reconsider. I still ended up resigning, but I appreciated his leadership because even though I would not be present anymore the relationship was not broken. It was simply time for me to try new things.

Too often I see parents and elders going too far with trying to change the behavior. Never do threats or manipulation have a place here. No ultimatums means no power struggles, lines in the sand, or resentment. We are looking for that internal change, not forcing change by our outward pressure. At this point we simply must let go of our expectations. This leads us to the Step B in our responses. We decrease the coercion, we put aside the rules, we change our minds and not the minds of those we influence.

In parallel to this we can also invite the connection, we give them a reason to want to be with us. We make things work for them, and we invite them to depend upon us for their needs. If they are capable we also invite their emergence, we listen to their voice to their ideas, we make space to try things their way, to try their solutions to the problems at hand.

I have a role play I work through for parents when I facilitate parent workshops. In the role play we step through the process of family problem solving. In the end parents often comment that "this is not at all about parents solving the problems, it is a way to help the children solve their own problems." This is how we can best help, it is to allow our children or those we lead to try new things, to make mistakes and learn.

Putting it all together

The primary job of an elder is not to influence, not to impart values, not to correct or teach a lesson or hold accountable. It is to invite connection, to offer an unconditional invitation to exist in our presence even when those we care for feel inadequate. We must NOT make our signs of significance conditional on them measuring up to our values. We see this in the story of the prodigal son. The father's invitation was unconditional. It was not dependent on the son's measuring up.

As elders we must always take the responsibility for the relationship. We risk rejection, we make up for deficiencies, we provide where there is need. We invite dependence for their needs as an act of invitation into our presence. If we want to impart values, what we value most will be most evident when those we care for are feeling insignificant, when they do not follow through on their good intentions. Do we value the person OR we value our rules, our expectations and our vision of what should happen?

None of us wake up asking to be corrected today
so we know right from wrong!
We all wake up asking do we belong
and are we significant to those whom we are closet to?

An elders' second job is to make space for those we care about to emerge, to try their own solutions, to share their voice, to grieve their losses, to air their frustrations. For all of us, we need this space for expression and creativity to grow. One form is play, which is essential for development and our well-being. Another form for us adults is a time of rest. Both of these are engaging in activities that are not work.

Our youngest is in the stage of life where he desires a little more space to find his creativity. He often tells us to "go away" or "leave me alone". Instead of taking this personally, my wife and I see that he is finding his creative space and acknowledge we are here for him when he needs us again, for when he wants help or wants to connect again. It frees him from the pursuit of proximity, it frees him to find his own ideas.

As we make space for those we care for, as we show empathy, they also feel the space to feel empathy and can then act with kindness toward others.

Balancing leadership and eldership

Both of these functions are important, leadership is a role for so