“A thrilling frenzy of restless exhilaration!” That’s how John described his life as a church planter.
Living Faith Community, the church he planted two years ago, is growing faster than he ever expected. But people import problems. Counseling, conflict, marriage issues, mission drift—it’s all dizzying to John. He spent so much time preparing to start the church that he never considered what it meant to shepherd or lead beyond the planting. If you bumped into John around town, you’d probably detect early signs of burnout.
Recently, it dawned on John that he alone is carrying the burdens for the church. Theologically, he’s convinced a plurality of elders what Scripture holds out as best. John once aced a paper he wrote on elder teams for his Doctrine of Ecclesiology class. But now he’s in the trenches of a new church, and he has no idea where to actually find these men. He wonders, “What does it even look like to put an elder team together? How do I begin to transition leadership from me to us?”
Transitioning to a plurality of elders is an urgent topic—for both planters and pastors who don’t yet have this structure. Why? Because the quality of your elder plurality determines in large part the health of your church. It really is that important.
So, with this in mind, here’s how pastors and church leaders can kickstart the process.
First, teach, teach, teach.
Make it clear that a plurality of men serving together is an essential part of a flourishing church. The New Testament terms for pastor, overseer, or elder are never used to talk about a single leader ruling or governing the church alone. Show this to your people in Scripture; point them to Acts 20, Philippians 1, 1 Timothy 4–5, and 1 Peter 5.
For many, the term “elder” smacks of a quaint relic, like the Navy’s “quartermaster.” It sounds familiar, but unless you’re in the Navy, you’d have to Google it. Even church members may only know them as the guys who appear under the “Elders” tab on the church website.
But being an elder is significant. In order to serve as part of a healthy elder plurality, a pastor must learn humility. He must be willing to come under authority, traffic in nuance, and consider his gifts and position through the lens of what best serves the whole church. Serving as elders together ought to draw men closer to God and one another as they teach, lead, and care for the congregation.
Pastors, teach your church to see the beauty and significance of this biblical design. The strength, unity, and integrity of an elder plurality infuses the church with vitality and sustainability. Where pluralities experience depth and joy, churches grow in health and strength.
Second, consider establishing a provisional plurality.
There are many ways to do this. Perhaps assemble a leadership team from men in the congregation. Make it clear their role is temporary; make it clear that they’re not elders, and it’s possible some of them never will be. Nonetheless, these meetings offer a great context to observe men who may one day be elders. So encourage them. Let them know you still want to benefit from their counsel and friendship. Also, it’s probably wise to place a time limit on this team’s service so that there’s a natural endpoint.
Here’s another idea for churches in the early stage of this: you might invite an experienced pastor from outside your church to be a part of this team. If you’re leading a church plant, perhaps ask a pastor from your sending church. Not only does this maintain continuity and accountability, it provides less experienced men with a framework for how eldership ought to function.
Third, familiarize yourself with training materials that you can work though with potential elders.
Some helpful tools include the Study Guide to Biblical Eldership by Alexander Strauch, resources at Biblicaleldership.com, the Basics of Church Eldership at TGC, Gospel Eldership by Bob Thune, and the eldership training materials available through 9Marks. My new book The Plurality Principle also has a free study guide.
Because ministry can quickly deteriorate to a tyranny of the urgent, many leaders don’t prioritize training. But there’s nothing more important for a new pastor to do than find a way to train elders. It’s an investment into the church’s future since healthy pluralities lead to thriving churches. But it will also help you! Appointing elders who share the shepherding workload will free up big blocks of time. And doing this will prepare you for my next encouragement.
Fourth, make room now in your schedule to be the custodian of your church’s elder plurality.
As the senior leader of a local church, it’s your job to consistently give yourself to the health of the team. The overarching role of the lead pastor among the elders is to steward the group into a culture of care, trust, affection, doctrinal growth, and honest burden-sharing. Setting this example is particularly important at the beginning of a church.
How do senior pastors do this? By actively serving, loving, and shaping their fellow elders. By encouraging, celebrating, and stirring up the team toward mutual service. This requires humble leadership—listening well to feedback, graciously addressing others’ hurts, readily confessing sin, and admitting when you’re wrong. This work must be an ongoing and faithful practice—not merely once in a while when you feel like it.
Finally, remember God’s grace.
God is actively at work in your congregation pouring out his grace upon men so they can become pastors and elders. When Paul unpacks the qualifications for eldership in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, he often uses the present tense controlling verb “must be.” The elder “must be” above reproach, sober-minded, respectable, and so on. This verb tense carries throughout both passages.
This means Paul isn’t holding out a list of yet-to-be-achieved traits. He’s talking about preconditions—qualities already present in the men appointed. By using the verbs this way, Paul indicates that the Spirit of God is actively at work in the church pouring out grace on some men so that they will manifest these qualities. Elder training begins by recognizing an empowering process God has already begun. Which means you need to have the eye to spot where God is at work. You need to be able to see grace in the men of your church.
So, when I meet church planters like John who are spinning their wheels for God’s glory, I invite them to consider, “Which men are the people in your congregation drawn to? Who is known for their character? Who’s already influencing people for the right reasons?” Then exhort him to believe this promise: God is so committed to the future of his church that he is already at work preparing elders to lead it.
*This article first appeared on the 9 Marks website*