Every Sunday morning my church’s elders gather to pray for the worship service and the various ministries on campus. Though I am not a pastor at our church, as a pastoral associate (basically a seminary student on staff) I have been invited to attend and I have joined frequently. Last Sunday morning I was approaching the prayer room and saw something I hadn’t seen before—there was a woman sitting inside the prayer room surrounded by our church’s elders. I hesitated to enter the room for a moment, but am glad that I finally did. What I experienced in that room was worth a whole semester of seminary.
As this woman poured out her distressed heart, all the elders compassionately nodded along and never interrupted. After she ceased speaking and reached for a tissue, elders spoke up and told her of the great love God has for her. They encouraged her that she wasn’t alone in her doubts and that she could call on the men in the room and the women in her life for encouragement. One specifically encouraged each man in the room to think of and pray for this woman whenever they see her and when she comes to mind. After this all the men stood up and surrounded her to pray.
As each elder inched closer to her and laid hands on her, I was back to the mental state I was in outside that room before I entered. I thought, “Should I put my hand on an elder’s shoulder?” And though I know I’m probably wrong for thinking this way, I thought it would be a form of stolen valor!
But I did stay and pray, it gave me time to reflect on three lessons I wanted to share with other seminary students. I’ve learned these from the elders in my church, and write as an un-ordained pastoral associate, wanting to share them with others:
1. Titles don’t matter.
This may sound unnecessary to address. Most people who read a post like this probably have a good sense of the humility required to be in the ministry. But it’s worth acknowledging that the temptation for any young man seeking to be an elder can easily become one of recognition and status.
Examine your heart to see whether you want to feed the sheep or whether you want to be known. James and Jude were both half-brothers of Jesus. Take a moment and look up James 1:1 and Jude 1:1—they were slaves, not men seeking to be known as anything else. Fellow elders-in-training, be humble.
2. Spend time with elders.
You’ve heard it a thousand times before. One year of shadowing an expert in any field is worth more than 4 years of learning about that field in college. The same is true for eldership. God appointed men to shepherd His people. They are qualified, godly men (1 Timothy 3:1-8). If you want to be an elder, you need to shadow these men whom God appointed in your local church.
Listen, if you’re in seminary or college or in a full-time job, make time to prioritize interaction with an elder or two. Ask a godly elder in your church if you can attend the next funeral he does. I can’t express how much I’ve learned by watching men I look up to shepherd families through loss. Ask an elder if you can get lunch and have him tell you what his week of shepherding looks like, practically. Ask an elder if he’ll give you teaching opportunities in his Bible study. Also ask him to help you prepare!
This is exactly what Paul is telling Timothy in 2 Timothy 2. The elders in your church have the charge from God to entrust the Gospel to faithful men who will teach others the same things! Don’t let them off the hook! When you get involved in a discipleship relationship with an elder at your church as you pursue eldership, you are linking yourself to a long-chain of Gospel faithfulness that links you all the way back to the early church. After the apostolic age ended, God placed elders in the church to shepherd His people. This is the highest and greatest privilege you can pursue.
Don’t waste another moment. Don’t wait until someone offers you discipleship. Go spend time with an elder!
3. Submit to your elders.
In Hebrews 13:17 we read, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Fellow elder-in-training, do you have a heart of submission toward the godly men God has placed in your church? This is not a call to do whatever an elder tells you to do and imitate them mindlessly. In fact, the Word of God is your measure for living, not your elders. But this is most definitely a call to recognize the God-ordained purpose of these men in your church.
In God’s wisdom He placed men in your church who “watch over your soul.” In God’s wisdom He reminded these men that what they do has an eternal outcome—each and every man who shepherds the flock of God will stand before God and give an account of how he cared for God’s sheep.
This attitude of trust in the men God placed in your church will translate into the humility required to be an elder yourself one day. On top of that, trusting the men God ordained to lead your church also places you in a position of obedience to God because a plurality of elders is God’s ordained method of church government until Christ returns.
There may be a person reading this who thinks, “This is good and well, but I’m not in a healthy church with a bunch of godly men to look up to.” And brother, I’ve been there! Let me encourage you. Before you throw up your hands and give up, pray that God would soften your heart toward the people you are in a local church with. There are likely still a few of His sheep in that church. Something I would’ve done better when I was in that situation is I would’ve shepherded the sheep more than I complained about them. But there’s also something else you can do and should do as soon as you can.
Find another godly man somewhere near you. Find him at an evening service of another church. Find him by signing up for seminary. Find him by calling a church and asking for help. Don’t deprive yourself of the godly influence of a man who is shepherding others. This is God’s model for the upbringing of elders. So brothers, let me close out with a final encouragement.
Does your heart burn within you for the ministry? Tell an elder about it and ask him to disciple you today! Do you desire the office of overseer (1 Timothy 3:1)? Pray that God would confirm that calling in your life through other godly men and then go pursue those men and have them examine your life! Do you want to shepherd God’s people in some capacity in your local church? Do it! Share the Gospel. Minister to that widow in your church. Bring meals to hurting families in your church. Don’t let your head get full of knowledge while your hands and feet atrophy. Shepherds shepherd sheep even when no one is looking. You don’t need to be pass an ordination exam in your church to love sheep.
Finally, I told you to not let elders off the hook. Ask them to disciple you. Remember that Paul commands the elders to “teach others also.” Just tell an elder you want to be an elder one day and then show up everywhere he goes until he asks you not to. Fellow elder-in-training, hang out with your elders and learn as much as you can. It is worth more than seminary.