My First Year as an Elder — Bill Thornton

When I started the new blog New Shepherds Orientation in January 2015, I emailed many elders and their wives.

These were my questions:

  1. What did you learn during your first year serving as an elder that might be helpful to new shepherds?
  2. What did you learn during your first year serving as the wife of a new elder that might be helpful to new shepherds and their wives?

I received responses from forty-two elders and fifteen wives. The responses appeared on the first page of my website for a month.

This month completes the responses.

For the post this month, I have the last, longest, and most reflective of all the responses.

Please read. You can find a “mustard seed” to better understand the challenges of shepherding and suggestions to improve for prospective shepherds, present shepherds, wives of shepherds, and Christians who are to respect, honor, and follow their leaders.

Beginning First Year

by Bill Thornton

I’ve changed jobs at least 14 times since High School. Nothing prepared me for the newness of being an Elder. I started off with some concepts that I wanted to be as an Elder- Caring, Compassionate, Communicative, Lively, and Sincere. Genuine also comes in there. But always, and I mean always, I sought to do God’s Will. Prayed for it. Questioned myself daily. Studied to assure positions were pointed in the correct direction. And through it all, still kept seeking to know if I was in His direction. This continued not only the first year but on-going.

So I learned that no matter how confident and poised and studied, I would doubt myself and the Elders and the Congregation in many ways.

My history has been one of reading the Bible front to cover several times, and being studious in classes, and even taking notes during sermons. I’ve done that since my teen years. I regret not attending a Christian College with Bible studies. I was surprised to find that only half the Eldership personally studied the Bible or had read it front to back. So, one thing we did as Elders was to study together Saturday mornings, since many of us taught or attended different classes. Additionally, there were so many strong differing options about scriptural topics that I would write each one and start studying. My list of topics was three pages long—-the list not the results. In addition to the studying, I spent a large amount of time spent meditating on study and checking for bias or false premises. I have not completed my studies, and I do not see an end in sight. The more I think I know, the more I know that I don’t’ know.

So I learned that no matter what previous learning I brought to the Eldership, more study was needed.

I never pretended to be the biggest or longest prayer giver, but I wasn’t the least either. I would often throughout the day pray or talk with God. Becoming an Elder expanded the number of times, the hours, the occasions, the broader coverage for the needs of others, and opportunities for prayer. Prayer at times of surgery or birth or death, or baptism or troubled marriages and conflict needed deep sincere prayer on an on-going basis.

Prayer was closer to ‘never-ending’ than at any time before or since. And prayer was much deeper and more in touch with my soul.

So I learned to pray deeper and with more meaning and purpose than ever before.

Some Elderships may meet once a month, and others more frequently. My individual commitment was weekly meeting, visitation, studying, teaching a class, and talking one on one with members. There were easily weeks where I was spending as much time as an Elder as I was as an employee at work. If at all possible, an Elder should have enough time and energy as if he had no other employment.

I learned there was more time commitment to being an Elder than I understood.

Classes on team building tell you that each time there is a change in membership there is a change in the team. That is very true with Elderships. Being in a public class with them, worshiping, and visiting with them is totally different than working together as elders. Who are these men? They seem different from what you saw ‘outside’. The same applied to me: they would learn more about me. I would have to learn to trust them more, or be more cautious when speaking, or use my instincts to read their body language. How to act? I tried to be open and honest as much as I could dependent upon trust. Sometimes there was not enough trust. Team building is an on-going effort.

I learned that team building amongst Elders could take longer than in the workplace.

As personable as I could be, I [with the other elders] would be targets of criticism. Some were warranted, some unfair, some misguided, and some hurtful and mean spirited. I would ask myself, where was the respect the elders should receive? What did I do to deserve this treatment or their respect? I couldn’t always answer that question, and I had known some elders who faced such criticism. Where did the doubt and criticism come from? Late-night phone calls to discuss objections to some topic or action within the church. Somehow I placed most of it in the category of misunderstanding. Let them know you deeper; help them understand; relate scripture to them. And yet… wears on anyone.

I learned that people in leadership should expect favor and criticism during their tenure.

We all generally go into jobs with a degree of preparation. A common practice in the church has us teaching or fulfilling the role as deacons, and with some age [ and hopefully maturity] we could expect to get “promoted” as an Elder. Oh yea, we meet the briefly stated qualifications we all read and study. Many Elders are business leaders and managers. Jerrie Barber has taught leadership classes to help plant the idea for men and young men to aspire to be Elders, and some areas to pay attention, like prayer and study and discussion. Beginning with the first year as Elder I began to wish I had more education and experience and wisdom in a variety of areas.

Some are:

Elder Development
The how, what, and when aspects of an individual’s function including time management; generic elder procedural practices including minutes, public vs. private notations sharing, practical rules of conduct including agreements, confidentiality, local cultural considerations; how wives fit into sharing the role as Elder; because it is all new. What are the Procedures and Practices of the Eldership and specific Roles and Duties of each Elder?

Always include studying The Word together. Praying together. Breaking Bread Together.

Elders also bring preconceived ideas or prejudices into the Eldership. How they see the role of Elder [maybe as Boss keying on authority instead of responsibility]; duties more like a Board Member; their ideas of where budget spending should go either missions or youth or building or whatever; attitudes toward preachers [maybe part-time or limited years at congregation]; individual goals they want to use the office of Elder to achieve. During the on-going team-building discuss everyone’s different viewpoints and how they fit [or don’t] into the Eldership.

Serving as an Elder can be the most rewarding and challenging time. A concept we struggled with as elders was who shepherds the shepherds? Seek the solution of having other shepherds as trusted brothers and confidants. Remember to pray for yourself, as a person and not just as an Elder. Know your own decision-making process. Understand the principles by which you live, and the values that are important to you. Always remind yourself you are not the Savior, Jesus is. Only He Saves. We serve.

Cost of Serving
This obviously will include time and effort and study, but there is more. I still cry over members who chose to leave [the congregation -marriages – friendships- God] following their own will instead of God’s. The death of children and revered parents and grandparents, especially if we truly share in the joys and sorrows of each other. This is the emotional toll paid. During conflict, your family pays a price in their attitudes toward the congregation…and they don’t always get rid of the resentment. It would be grand to serve with no conflict, enormous growth within the congregation, preachers–deacons-elders loved by all, and everyone coming to Christ. The reality of the role tarnishes the dream of serving and can change the innate functioning as an Elder. Each person will determine their own cost.

Generic listening skills with an empathic, deep ability to remain objective at all times. An awareness of when my emotions get involved in the discussion so I could revert to objective listening and thoughtful response.

Family and marital counseling to assist everyone in family situations including marital difficulty, child-raising, and family unit togetherness.
Grief during death, divorce, job or financial loss, and how to objectively assist.

Depression is such a large issue with many people either through chemical imbalance or emotional and psychological issues.

Conflict Resolution not just for resolving conflict but also how to see conflict arising and how to minimize its growth.

We may be strong believers and know The Word but the increasing amount of Spiritual Doubt, Dis-Belief, and Apathy toward Scripture, the Church, and Christ are new to us that are entrenched in Him.

I’ve thought of the persona of ministers and religious leaders. They tend to be innately more kind and generous toward people than businessmen who are taught to drive performance. Would classes from a Bible College help with fundamental knowledge and understanding of issues faced by religious leaders in addition to deep scriptural study? Probably. It may be beneficial to have more structured training to develop Elders, with continued learning.

How and when do we approach doubting members? How are we to find out they doubt or are ready to leave? Shepherds are to know and feed their flock. This requires spending time with them personally. Are we ready to provide the answers and direction that will assist them? Even then, they may not listen.

Listen to the various excuses people will give for their behavior. I’m a sex addict; I was born this way and can’t help it; I don’t care what God would say; He wouldn’t tell me No. It doesn’t matter what scripture says, people will do what they want to do. Even in direct contrast to scripture, and asked how they can disobey or how they would explain to God, their answer is basically I don’t care, God would not want me not to be happy. It’s as if they think they know God when they directly go against His wishes. This is really disheartening because as an Elder, you know God and His Will; but they cannot be persuaded.

Other issues members brought to the Elders were:
A desire for Mission Statement without understanding our mission has already been pre-set: Love God and Keep His Commands, and Love Others as ourselves. Our Goal is Heaven. We do this by becoming Christ’s servants through being born again, keeping ourselves un-spotted by the world, and by proclaiming Christ to the world. Congregants wanted more of a corporation style statement.

Questioning and Doubting the work and abilities of Elders without listening to explanations, searching scripture, nor prayerful assistance to the Elders. Lack of general respect.

Emphasis toward Only Philosophies – only Grace; only Baptism; only Church; only Communion in worship; only mission work overseas; only faith; only Jesus; only our definition of Christian, and so forth. This negates the rest of scripture and God’s Will which I view as wholistic—all of it is necessary.

Are you Liberal or Conservative? Labels and judgementalism were prevalent; this is only divisive. One deacon asked me, and I chuckled. I explained I wanted to be as liberal with Grace and Forgiveness and Love as Jesus, and as conservative as possible in living a moral life. Not getting the expected answer upset him because he didn’t know how to label me.

Another label was being termed a Change Agent. I never did find out what was being changed.

There were occasions when members expected us to be able to read minds. Clairvoyance. How was an Elder to read minds, or know a spouse is truthful or not, more than their own spouse? It was almost laughable except it was serious.

Finally, I was surprised to see and experience the ends that members and Elders will go for their position or the possession of Power. There was: Subterfuge; Lying and backstabbing; Letter writing campaigns from outside and inside congregation; Retracting their agreements and using legalese to cloud their statements; and Threats of attorneys, lawsuits, and legal positioning.

In my previous roles in business or sport or classes, it was the take-charge characteristic that was equated with leadership. And that aspect is necessary, to a degree. Remember my desire of seeking to do His Will and not mine? I had to give up that aspect of taking charge; to stop pushing my opinion and ideas as the best ones; to no longer be singular in my decision making; these changes were for the pursuit of His Way and the most beneficial decisions for the congregation. Making the decision to not continue as Elder so the congregation would have a clean start; and so I would not become a potential Chief Shepard: this ultimately tested my resolve to not pursue My Way. This process was probably the biggest change, or ‘give up’ of myself. I guess a person would have had to see me in operation previously to understand this change. It has been for the better. Everyone who becomes an Elder will have personal changes even after a short stint. It is important for everyone to know themselves, and to see how they change ever so gradually.

Who said men don’t cry. The more involved with members with problems, members leaving, attacks upon the Eldership and self, and conflict within the Eldership brought more emotion to me than anything before. I took it to mean that I finally was letting my heart’s compassion and kindness come alive.

Over time I became less conversational and more guarded when talking with people. Even friends and family. It could be due to the practice of holding confidential matters to myself, or guarding issues within the Eldership and congregation. It could also be from the consistent scrutiny of me as an Elder. I can’t tell you it gets better since I am still not as likely to be a conversationist. Maybe it is because other things like sports and politics have very little interest to me. Spiritual matters really do interest me, and the different perspectives people have. For discussion and sharing’s sake; and to compare to scripture or opinion.

Just a note that has I was placing these thoughts onto paper, the more I searched the more I wrote. There are many issues and thoughts that are lost to time, but they are only mine to one day recover. My suggestion to you is to take time to stop and meditate weekly if not daily. I wish I was a journal-keeping person, but am not. You need a shepherd to shepherd you, mentor you, and befriend you in your role as Elder. Never forget that all Christians, even Elders, are to imitate and honor Jesus. He is our Savior. Not Elders.

— Bill Thornton, Berry’s Chapel Church of Christ, Franklin, Tennessee

For all the responses, read this page: My First Year

(Visited 659 times, 12 visits today)
Jerrie Barber
Servant of Jesus, husband to Gail, father to Jerrie Wayne Barber, II and Christi Parsons, grandfather, great-grandfather, Interim Preacher, Shepherd coach, Ventriloquist, barefoot runner, ride a cruiser bicycle

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