Working with the Eldership

Jay E. Adams

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 1, no. 2 (April 1992). Used by permission.

Probably the first most significant achievement of any minister who newly assumes the pastorate of any congregation is getting to know his elders well and learning how to function smoothly with them. No time can be invested more wisely during the first year of his pastorate (when, as a matter of fact, much else cannot be done anyway) than the time he spends developing and cultivating a close relationship to his elders. This, he should do, both individually and corporately.[1] He must learn to know these men through and through, and he must be willing to expose himself as fully to them as well. A relationship founded upon truth and mutual trust must be built. All of this is essential so that when he tackles the large tasks and faces the crises that inevitably will come, the pastor will not have to do so alone. In many situations, without the full understanding, confidence and backing of his eldership, a minister will be left in a precarious position. His attempts to exert the authority of Christ will be undercut, his efforts to exercise church discipline for the benefit of an erring and contumacious member may be foiled, and his ability to move quickly and smoothly in emergencies will be seriously impaired.

It is important for the new minister not to discount his elders too quickly. It is my observation that this is a fault of many pastors. When one notes how zealously and patiently Paul labored with Timothy over his timidity, it shows (1) that all was not sweetness and light among the elders of the New Testament Church (it is quite wrong to idealize the situation),[2] and (2) that it is wrong to despair of a man with potential, even when he has some glaring faults. Encouragement, giving him the right kind of task (one in which he is very likely to succeed), or a variety of other such efforts could make a great difference in the release and development of that potential.

The pastor should attempt to discover (1) whether there is potential (often gifts can be tested only by trying them out) and (2) whether there is a special reason for the elder’s weakness (e.g., the former pastor did everything himself, was afraid of elders growing in power, they received no help or instruction, etc.).

In general, the pastor should expect much from his elders and should let them know so. He should assume that they are (or with proper teaching and encouragement will become) willing and able to accomplish great things. What he expects, he will communicate. What he communicates, he will get. If he gives them the impression that they are hopelessly inadequate, more than likely they will turn out to be just that; and he will be sure his judgment was correct! But also he should be clear about his own willingness to help them to become all that God wants them to be. It is no wonder that so little is done by many elders; when you hear how their ministers speak about them, you understand.

Frequently, elders enter upon their work with great enthusiasm and genuine dedication, only to have both cooled in short order by the fact that they are called upon to do nothing but attend meetings and never become involved in the actual work of ministering to their flock. Moreover, even if they are encouraged to take part in such ministry, they are given virtually no instruction about how to do so. If they are instructed at all, usually it will be in doctrine, possibly also in church government, but rarely ever in the principles and skills of personal ministry to human beings. Rather than excoriating them for failure to enter into such work, instead the pastor might inquire about previous expectations and past training. If he finds that these were inadequate, he would be better advised to set up an elders’ training program (either formally or informally).[3] All of the exhortation in the world will not suffice when someone does not know how to follow it. Consequently, the pastor would do well to encourage his elders to sit in on counseling sessions with him, to learn how to conduct home Bible Studies with him, to make visits with him, etc. The training that most elders lack is discipleship, or on-the-job training. They need to be taught by example.

At first they must be given the opportunity working with the pastor to observe and to participate in such activities under supervision. Next, they may be encouraged to minister for a while on their own. After a time, they should gather others from the congregation who show promise, as their disciples, to train them in the same way that they have been trained. Some of these men eventually may develop into deacons or elders.

It is important, I have said, for a pastor to get to know his elders. That takes time but it also takes willingness on the part of the pastor to be warm, friendly, open and truthful to them. Inviting them over to his home, holding elders’ retreats for planning, prayer and fellowship in spring and/or fall, and a variety of other elders’ activities will be necessary to achieve closeness. Close relationships do not merely happen; they are built.

It is not enough to get to know your elders in the regular elders' meetings. They must come to know you and you must come to know them in a greater variety of contexts. And they need to come to know one another fully as persons too (rather than merely as "that guy who always votes on the other side of an issue"). If the eldership is to become a smoothly functioning body, exerting a powerful force for good in the congregation, its members will have to be molded together into a cohesive entity by effective pastoral leadership. Good leadership means—among other things—creative planning. Do some right away—with reference to your relationship to your elders (see the exercise for the pastor at the end of the chapter).

The openness and honesty that must develop soon between a pastor and his elders is necessary for good communication (cf. Ephesians 4:25). The pastor can foster this by announcing (in his own words, of course) at the very first elders’ meeting:

Gentlemen, I am a sinner, and I shall fail. At times you will be disappointed in me as well as in other members of the congregation. I will need exhortation and help now and then, as indeed, you will too. Therefore, you can expect me to be honest and straightforward with you. If I have any complaints or any concerns, you will hear them from me: you won't hear them first on the grapevine. And I expect to hear your concerns and your opinions directly too. I shall not allow your honesty or your frankness with me to separate us. Rather, I shall always encourage it as I consider it essential to the adequate communication that is needed to bind us together. I will appreciate you all the more for your truthfulness. So come to me; don't go to anyone else, whenever you have a suggestion or complaint.

It is important for a younger pastor not to allow age to separate him from the older men on the eldership. It is precisely those men who often will have the most valuable counsel for him. Yet, his tendency will be to drift toward those of his own age. The tendency must be overcome. If anything, special attention should be given to this matter. Ordinarily, these older men are even more easily approachable than some of the younger ones, and will be deeply appreciative of any efforts along these lines that he may make. Their counsel often will provide just the balance that a young impetuous man may need. As a general rule, a new pastor ought to give careful consideration to what they say and only for reasons of greatest weight disregard their counsel. The older men frequently provide a continuity with the past. By talking to them about things that have been from time to time, a pastor can understand better the things that are. Congregational attitudes, sensitivities, etc., that are otherwise inexplicable, become meaningful as he can place them in context.[4]

The elders of the people (as the Bible often describes them when speaking of their representative character) provide another vital link in the congregational communication chain. Through their eyes, and from their perspective the pastor can take more accurate soundings from time to time. Perhaps there is no more important link to preserve and to strengthen. The congregational chain often is as strong as its weakest elder link.

In short, let this brief reminder of the necessity of establishing a firm relationship with the elders be heeded. There is no more vital relationship for the pastor to develop and maintain on the highest level possible.

Elders’ business meetings ought not be held too frequently. Too many meetings is ordinarily indicative of a group that likes to talk, but achieves little. Setting a closing hour[5] as well as an opening hour (a good practice for most meetings) keeps long winded discussions to a minimum, and tends to make deliberative meetings (as they should be) more decision/action oriented. The body has met to conduct business; that is what should be done.

Other meetings for prayer, general discussion, etc., should be held.[6] An elders’ weekly prayer breakfast might be in order. A time for prayer and fellowship before the evening worship service, concurrent with the youth meetings, is another possibility. Typed agendas for business meetings help to keep everyone on track, give an idea of how rapidly work is progressing toward the closing hour, etc. Mail or distribute agendas a week ahead and urge members to jot down questions and observations on these, and to gather data about the matters to be discussed beforehand.[7] Too much business time is wasted on informing, asking last minute questions, and failure to do prior research. All such matters should be attended to as fully as possible before the meeting itself.[8]


[1] It is best to start properly upon assuming the pastorate; but at least you can begin correcting matters now if you did not previously.

[2] The unrealistic way in which some apply the biblical criteria for elders and deacons not only discourages men with potential, but it seems quite foreign to the New Testament approach.

[3] An excellent manual by George Scipione, designed to train elders (or potential elders), has been published There is nothing else like it in print. This manual takes elders through all the biblical passages pertaining to their qualifications and work in a personal and throughly practical way. The book is broken into a series of lessons, each culminating in homework assignments. By all means get a copy if you have not seen it. The handbook, entitled Timothy, Titus, and You, is available from the Pilgrim Publishing Company, Phillipsburg, N.J.

[4] Cf. The Christian Counselor’s Manual, pp. 218-221, for an example of this.

[5] And be sure you stick to it.

[6] Business meetings should be kept to a minimum. Instead, emphasize the prayer and fellowship meetings by holding them more frequently. It is possible to get along with regular monthly business meetings; other meetings might be held on a weekly basis. When times of prayer and fellowship predominate, the character of the business meetings will change too. Also much of the inconsequential small talk will disappear. And a good bit of congregational business will be settled informally by consensus outside of the business meeting (as it should be).

[7] But be sure to have extra copies on hand for the meeting. You can count on some members forgetting theirs.

[8] The original included the following here:


For the Student:
Report on the following.

  1. Interview several elders to determine what they know about their office, what they do as elders and what their attitudes about their work may be.
  2. Ask them what sort of training for the eldership they have had (if any).
  3. Ask the elders what lacks they most keenly recognize and what they think may be done about them.

For the Pastor:
Design a yearly program for getting to know your elders better. Be sure to schedule each element.