Learning to function as an elder is not the most important thing. More important is the elder’s character. The qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus are well known, but a good role model is indispensable. Moreover, many elders have told me there are few of these around.
We can look, though, to the apostle Paul on this count. In fact, he invites emulation as he offers himself a living example of the kind of character needed to effectively shepherd God’s people. In fact, he explicitly points to himself no fewer than five times as an example to follow (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1, Phil. 3:7, 4:9, 2, Thess. 3:7-9). This is not arrogance or a humanly deficient effort. He is simply like a parent who, when teaching a child how to tie his shoe, says, “Here, watch how I do it.”
One of the more notable and, for elders, most relevant instances is found in his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders found in Acts 20. Let’s look over those men’s shoulders and listen as Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, speaks to them.
Knows whom he serves (19)
“You yourselves know . . . how I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which came upon me through the plots of the Jews.” (Acts 20:18-19 NASB)
The most singular insight into spiritual shepherding is that we need to be clear about whom we serve. Paul was clear that he was called to serve the Lord and not people. Following his example, we also should see ourselves as called to “serve the Lord” and not people.
I was once given the advice by an godly, elderly woman, “Remember, you are not serving people, you are serving the Lord.” There is a world of difference!
True, in serving God, we do serve people. But the apostle makes his example clear: any service he renders to people is part of a larger objective, namely, the service of God. As elders, we cannot forget this essential truth, or we’ll never be spiritually effective. If our highest aspiration is to serve people, they will let us down, discourage us, disappoint us, and reject us, and most of the time they won’t thank us. However, the elder who is “serving the Lord” as his highest aspiration will be sustained by the Lord with the hope of being rewarded by the Master Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). Then under the guidance and direction of the Master, we serve people as his under-shepherds. Ultimately it is Him that we serve.
“. . . with all humility . . .”
If we truly are serving the Lord, humility is the natural adjunct to our lives. We are not in the place of lording it over others—that is earthly style leadership. Frequently in Scripture we are told of the importance of humility, and so the elders must strive to be first in humility, strange as that may sound. We must aspire to the “height of the bended knee.”
Passionate involvement (19c)
“. . . with tears . . .”
Paul was emotionally involved. Earthly leadership requires a man to steel himself from being affected emotionally. While an elder must not be controlled by emotion, he should nonetheless feel along with the Christian’s emotions. This is what we call empathy. When a believer weeps, an elder should be able to weep with him or her. When a Christian is in pain, the elder must learn to connect with that person in his or her pain. There is no way around it; the one who wrote the “manual” on elder ministry (i.e. Paul) is the one who displayed the example of godly use of emotion.
Personal sacrifice (19d, 23-24)
“. . . with trials . . .”
Elders experience a unique set of trials that the average Christian does not understand. There are pressures from people, pressures from one’s own goals, and pressures from the burden of the ministry. Add to this the stresses of job and family life, and you begin to understand the enormous sacrifice required to be a spiritual elder. Yes, there are great sacrifices. There is no getting around this either—like Paul, an elder must be willing to accept the trials. He must have strength despite opposition (19e).
“ . . . through the plots of the Jews.”
One of the biggest trials for elders is dealing with opposition. This conflict may come in the form of demonic forces or by human hostility. Many an elder has spent a sleepless night tossing and turning because of conflict or challenges to his role as an elder. Brother, don’t give up; you are not alone. This is standard fare for being a shepherd of God’s people. The elder who can’t stand the heat had better find strength with the Lord, or he will die in the ministry. See the example of David, another great leader of God’s people: David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered—but David strengthened himself in the Lord his God (1 Sam. 30:6).
Courage (20a, 27)
“I did not shrink back . . .”
With any conflict, the need for courage is essential. More so with elders because the stakes are so high. Our leading and shepherding should make a huge difference in people’s spiritual well-being. Courage is absolutely needed. Fear leads to procrastination, weak communication, uncertain leading, compromise, and loss of integrity. People will not follow a weak-spined leader. I believe one of the greatest impacts we have in others’ lives is when they see in us a fortitude where others shrink back.
“ . . . declaring to you anything that was profitable.”
Paul did not select his teaching material based on what he himself was interested in, but he taught with one goal in mind: to preach what would be the most profitable for the people. This required the wisdom to know what to teach and when to teach it. I image him assessing his listeners ahead of time and then devising a way to present the relevant teaching beneficial to them.
“ . . . teaching you publicly and from house to house . . .”
Paul could teach anywhere; he was not confined to the formal four walls of the meeting hall. He taught in large groups and small, meeting in the temple and in homes. Obviously not giving an exclusive list of permitted venues, Paul was merely saying he would adapt his teaching style and location to the needs of any willing and listening audience.
Many today are like the Samaritan woman who wanted a strict understanding of where to worship. Paul was flexible in his ministry methods. If you as an elder find a particular “method” of ministry is profitable and helping people learn, then stay with it. But remember that even a post that stays painted white needs to get a fresh coat of paint once in a while—in effect, it needs to change the faded, dull white paint into fresh new white paint. So, too, in ministry if there is no need to change something in the ministry, it may be that it needs a “fresh coat of paint” to freshen it up.
But we should be careful not to get stuck in the same patterns out of laziness or convenience. We dare not be like the Pharisees, who refused to change anything and had their theological justifications for what they did—yet missed the Spirit completely.
“. . . testifying to both Jews and Greeks . . .”
The Jews had a deep-seated mistrust of non-Jews, yet Paul broke across the ethnic, cultural, and class barriers. Today, elders should follow Paul’s lead and shepherd in such a way that all people feel equally welcome and cared for, whether black or white, male or female, rich or poor, “cool” or socially awkward. Especially when we emphasize the Bible’s teaching on male leadership in the church, we need to give extra attention to helping the women feel valued and affirmed in their ministries.
I have always felt that in the male-led ministry of the local church, women should find solace, affirmation, and protection from a world that demeans women on just about every front. The gospel is horribly disparaged when the unsaved sense that we discriminate unfairly. Paul’s example was should be ours.
Paul was obedient to the Spirit. Much ink has been spent in analyzing how he knew going to Jerusalem was God’s will. However, the point here is that regardless of how he knew, Paul was obedient. Despite the prospect of hardship and possible jail time, he was just as determined as the Lord Jesus Himself was to go to Jerusalem.
Internally motivated (24)
Paul’s driving goal was to complete his assignment from the Lord no matter the personal cost. He said, “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” (Acts 20:24)
Modeling spiritual maturity
The apostle Peter takes this modeling one step further—elders are to embrace this ministry of modeling godly character to others when he says to elders, “proving [yourselves] to be examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3).