I don’t measure up. That feeling stirs in my heart when I read the daunting biblical qualifications for church leaders. From one perspective, what the Lord asks of leaders isn’t very different from what he asks of every Christian. Who shouldn’t be gentle and hospitable? Who shouldn’t avoid the love of money? But “above reproach” is a tall order. God has high expectations of church leaders, and “we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Oversight of the body of Christ should never be taken lightly. First Timothy 3:1-16 compels anyone who tackles this “noble task” to ask serious questions. How “self-controlled” is good enough? How much teenage rebellion is allowed in the home of a leader who tries to “manage his own family well”? “A good reputation with outsiders” is important, but we all have our critics. Does “able to teach” mean instructing individuals one-on-one, or must an elder be a public speaker skilled in addressing large groups?
Other than Christ himself, who perfectly fulfills these requirements? Who is worthy to lead God’s church?
One qualification for church leadership is an inner motivation to serve. No arm-twisting is required when the individual humbly but persistently “aspires to be an overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1). This aspiration not only refers to God’s initial call, but also to a desire to continue serving, even during rough patches when it’s tempting to give up.
Leadership requires honest self-evaluation. Neglecting this point makes us vulnerable to pride and moral failure. “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Leaders who lack self-awareness slip into sloppy habits. They become too comfortable being in charge, too accustomed to the spotlight, too used to getting their way in meetings and being the biggest voice in the room. Leaders must check our attitudes, guard our hearts, and engage in unvarnished soul-searching. Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves . . . test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). David prayed, “Search me, God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23).
Wise leaders also make themselves accountable to others.
Spouse. An elder must be “faithful to his wife” (1 Timothy 3:2), and a godly spouse is a valuable sounding board, providing wise counsel.
Congregation. “Above reproach” doesn’t mean perfection (a standard that would disqualify all of us), but it implies that the congregation is confident about the leaders’ maturity in Christ and finds no glaring faults that would inhibit their ability to lead. Deacons “must first be tested” before they serve. Even if a formal pre-ordination process isn’t required, at minimum this implies thoughtful examination by the congregation before pressing someone into service.
Other elders. First Timothy 5:17-25 pictures a healthy leadership environment marked by mutual accountability. Honor leaders who serve well. Protect them against frivolous, unfounded accusations. Confront and discipline those who sin. “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” and rush leaders into service prematurely. And remember: We benefit not only from interacting with our own leadership teams, but also by connecting with elders and staff from other congregations for mutual instruction and encouragement.
Who is worthy to lead the Lord’s church? None of us, actually. But throughout history, our gracious God has called, equipped, and empowered imperfect people who, despite their weaknesses and inadequacies, step up and give him their best.