Whose Heart Attack Is Most Important?

He was the most powerful “head elder” I’ve ever met in more than five decades of preaching. When a meeting wasn’t going his way, he’d say, “Well, it’s time to go out and greet the people.” (We met before services.) Without a word, the rest of the elders rose and followed him out of the room without question or comment. If someone made a suggestion he didn’t like earlier in the meeting, he’d say, “When “you boys” get as old as I am, you’ll understand we can’t do things that way.” And that was the end of that.

It was the most depressing time of my ministry. We were stuck, and there was no way out with that kind of leadership. We were going to do things the way we’d always done them because that’s the way we’d always done it. Any class, project, program, or special emphasis was defeated before it was started.

One night after services, an elder started talking with me: “Jerrie, I know it must be discouraging for you. I know we shouldn’t let things keep going on this way. I know we shouldn’t let brother John Doe defeat everything. But I don’t think I can go against him. You know, he’s already had one heart attack. And I’m afraid if we didn’t go along with him he might have another heart attack. I just don’t think I could live with myself if we resisted him and he had a heart attack and died the next day.”

My reply: “Have you ever known of a man forty-six years old having a heart attack?”

Elder: “Yes.”

My response: “Why is his heart attack more important than my heart attack?”

[bctt tweet=”Why is his heart attack more important than my heart attack?” username=””]

What did I learn from that?

  • This head elder got much of his power from acts of service years before. Some people said, “This man and his family helped us, gave us food during the depression.” That’s the way to be great in the kingdom. (Matthew 20:26-28) However, he used good will to dominate the leadership group.
  • All blame doesn’t go to the head elder. If a situation is chronic in a group, it’s because everybody likes it the way it is more than what it would take to change it. He didn’t dominate without permission from half-dozen other men who wore the title of elder. They cooperated with him to be dominated. Isaiah wrote:

But I will put it into the hand of those who afflict you,
Who have said to you,
“Lie down, that we may walk over you.”
And you have laid your body like the ground,
And as the street, for those who walk over (Isaiah 51:23, NKJV).

When someone tells me, “People are always running over me,” I ask, “When did you lie down?”.

[bctt tweet=”“People are always running over me.” “When did you lie down?”” username=””]
  • Strong leaders need to check often about how they’re coming across. They have the choice in not exercising all the power they have to invite other people to express their views and supply their leadership. This virtue is called self-control.
  • When one operates out of fear of what might happen — heart attack, suicide, nervous breakdown, or anger explosion — he doesn’t serve the person or the group well. That kind of manipulation and agreement to be controlled isn’t exhibiting the spirit of Jesus.

How have you dealt with toxic head elders?
How have you dealt with your tendency to become the head elder?
Please comment below:

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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

17 Responses to “Whose Heart Attack Is Most Important?

  • Jim Mettenbrink
    5 years ago

    Bro Jerrie
    This is a symptom of what I believe is one of the greatest problems in the Lord’s church. A few years ago, a sister called me from the east coast wanting to know what they should do. A newly appointed elder (col. in USAF) stood before the congregation telling them if they did not do what he said, the church would withdraw from them. All of the deacons resigned that day. The elder didn’t understand his role. He never got out of his commander suit and into his shepherd suit. It seems to me many if not most elders see their role as a board of directors rather than their primary role as a shepherd. It seems most see the American corporate business model as that of elders.
    About 25 years ago I presented a couple class lessons on the elder as a shepherd. Following that, a former elder said, “Jim, you make it sound impossible to be an elder.” Although I asked if I mishandled the John 10 model, he said no. I suspect he had in mind the board of director model as correct. I reminded him the early church had paid elders. That’s how they were able to get the work done.
    In my 40 years as a Christian I can say I have been in only a few congregations with elders. But I have only known two elders which had a grasp of their role as a shepherd. One who who stuttered and worked in a warehouse (not the usual image folks want today) would call those who were not in worship that morning. By 3 pm he had either gone to them or knew what their circumstances were. This was a contrast to the other two elders in the congregation. A few years ago, he was ailing in the hospital. The family gathered around him ans sang hymns as he passed into Abraham’s bosom awaiting the glorious resurrection.
    I know a man who was appointed as an elder in teh last couple years. he has two children ( adults). One divorced her husband and went into lesbianism. he son has never married and has several children. I stayed with them one night about 20 years ago. They allowed his son to bring his paramour into their house all night!!!!
    This week I received a letter from a brother who identified with a congregation of about 300 several months ago. It was nearly two months before one of the elders greeted and became acquainted with them. That was a month or so ago. This Sunday he and his wife sat in a different spot in the auditorium. Afterward the same edler came to them and introduced himself and asked if they were passing through. He could not rmemeber they had a chat a month ago.
    A friend of mine who was selected as an elder in Mississippi a couple years ago, told me of the previous years there following Katrina. One elder had always flirted with instrumental music. One Sunday he played a musical video during the Lord’s Supper. My friend and his wife went responded to the invitation to insist the elders repent of this action. The preacher tried to smooth it over, but the insisted. Another elder apologized to the church. At that time a brother who was the father of a teen who was involved with the youth group was accused of propositioning a couple of the teen girls. Nothing was done. Also four teen girls were involved in lesbian relationships. One of the girl’s mother was frantic, but another was indifferent to this fornication. SInce my friend has ben serving as a shepherd the problems have been resolved. These incidences just scratched surface of what I learned in the last couple decades.
    Bro Jerry, it is my opinion the greatest problem in the church is biblical ignorance and the church is prone to select elders who are equally ignorant of God’s word. Week after week, class after class, I begin the class period with an oral quiz covering the material from the previous class(es). Far too often only a few respond and many just stare blankly. We had a daunting task on our table. Keep the faith and pray fervently. Jim

  • Jim Hatfield
    5 years ago

    Good thoughts. Setting up system where a lead elder exists requires both someone accepting the role as lead elder and at least a majority of the remaining elders accepting that individual as ‘lead elder’. Eliminating such a system, then, requires that either the lead elder ‘step down’ from holding the title or that most of the remaining elders stop working as if there’s a lead in the group. A certain degree of conflict, to be sure, but as a team of God’s leaders we have to place God’s intent of a plurality of elders above any conflict (or heart attacks) that may ensue. Through loving discussions, intent on serving as God desires, the ‘head elder’ must come to understand the position that either he or the remaining elders have placed him in, and the remaining elders must accept their individual responsibility to contribute, as equals, to the discussions and plans and concerns addressed as elders. If I am unwilling to assert my own thoughts and concerns and ideas, and just let others do what they want or think, then I’m not serving as God has instructed. And if I act as though I have some head role in the eldership, then again… I’m not serving as I should, and the eldership as a whole will not be as effective in shepherding the congregation.

    The situation is a two-sided problem, and should be one that both ‘sides’ work to eliminate.

    • Steve Kirby
      5 years ago

      Very WISE counsel and EXCELLENT overview!

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      5 years ago

      Jim, Thank you for your comments. We tend to blame the “head elder.” Rarely is a chronic problem the result of one person. The identified patient is where the symptoms surface: http://bit.ly/1RwKpz7 . The group created the problem and the group will have to cooperate on its solution.

  • Steve Kirby
    5 years ago

    If a “Goliath” continues to issue defiant challenges (1 Sam. 17:1-11), my experience has been that nothing will ever change until someone has the faith and courage to accept his challenge for the good of God’s people. Just like it was “shameful” for the whole army of God to cower at Goliath’s bullying (1 Sam. 17:11, 24), it is also “shameful” for “willing elders” to allow one or two elders to “rule the roost.” It’s not popular, nor is it pleasant to face the wrath of a “Goliath,” (1 Sam. 17:24-25, 41-44), but until someone has enough faith in God (1 Sam. 17:37) to decide to “face Goliath” (1 Sam. 17:45-47), the “status quo” “stand-off” will sadly remain. It is indeed as you say: “If a situation is chronic in a group, it’s because everybody likes it the way it is more than what it would take to change it. He didn’t dominate without permission from half-dozen other men who wore the title of elder.” And also as you say, it makes for a “most depressing time in ministry.” Your final bullet point is so telling!

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      5 years ago

      Steve, David took a great risk to fight the giant. But he had great faith. My observation and experience is that great faith doesn’t eliminate cold hands, sweaty palms, and dry mouth. I haven’t found a way to do scary things in comfort.

  • John Billingsley
    5 years ago

    I worked for one congregation where this was prevalent. In one business meeting the majority of the men decided to do one thing, however, this one elder decided he did not agree with it and after the majority had voted to handle the situation in one way, he convinced them to reverse their stand, and without another vote, it was decided to do what this “ruling elder” had suggested. Needless to say, I resigned shortly afterward and moved to another congregation.

    • Jerrie Barber
      5 years ago

      John, This is interesting and frustrating. I like to ask, “Where does he get his power?”.

    5 years ago


    • Jerrie Barber
      5 years ago

      Edgar, I miss being at the 3rd Monday workshop. Thank you for the comment.

  • Tom Atkinson
    5 years ago

    Excellent article!

  • This doesn’t only happen in churches with elders. Sometimes it happens in congregations with “charter members” that have no elders…and it can take an extremely devistating toll on a congregation – both to let it continue and to change it.

    • Jerrie Barber
      5 years ago

      Bryon, Good observation. The same dynamics operate in a family, church, business, and softball team. And you are right. When the principles aren’t biblical, there is pain in leaving them as they are and there will be pain in changing them. So the question is: do I want to suffer with what is or try to do what is best and suffer in the improvement?.

  • Steve Cummings
    5 years ago

    The fact that a group of elders would allow one elder to behave in such a bullying manner, and command this much dominance and control over the eldership, and thus the congregation as a whole, is plenty enough evidence that none of these men are spiritually mature enough, courageous enough, or biblically qualified to serve as elders. They should all should repent and either resign or re-sign.

    • Jerrie Barber
      5 years ago

      Steve, I think you have a good point. Who should inform the group of this? What does the Christian do who expresses this and they don’t agree with him?

      • Steve Cummings
        5 years ago

        The eldership has to be a self-governing body. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the eldership to police itself. They are the only ones who really know the facts in such a situation, so if they’re not willing to deal with it honestly, and collectively, then I don’t really know how it can be dealt with effectively. If only one elder feels this way about the dominant elder (which I highly doubt), then he should probably just resign from the eldership as a matter of spiritual integrity. In fact, an elder serving in such an inferior and dysfunctional situation would probably not only feel compelled to resign from the eldership, but would most likely no longer even feel comfortable being part of a congregation that is led by an eldership that allows one elder to basically rule.

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