Balanced Shepherding Among Elders
Elders, How is Your “Shepherding Balance”?
What’s shepherding balance? It’s the never-ending work of keeping two essential but very different sides of leading people from getting out of control. The two sides, of course, are shepherding people and the administration of things. One involves care, tenderness, and washing dirty feet.
The other involves decisions, finances, schedules, and programs. Among godly elders, both are motivated by love for the Lord and the church, so it’s easy to be blind to a common malady: the two are getting out of balance as one dwarfs the other.
Time for honest evaluation
God’s provision to help us avoid the sort of spiritual blindness that can keep us from even seeing that a problem exists is accountability. Churches that follow the Biblical pattern of plural leadership have a head start here since there is “safety in the multitude of counselors” (Prov. 11:14 ).
But accountability should never be limited to “the team,” for after all, the elders all share the same perspective on how things are going and often will answer, “We’re doing just fine.” And they may be, but they may not be as well! To help keep the right perspective, elders should be eager to hear what the people in the church think too. This can shed light on many areas but will be especially helpful in evaluating the shepherding balance.
Understanding the term “Shepherding Balance”
Someone will ask, “If there really are two important sides to balanced shepherding, why single out one with the term ‘shepherding balance’?” Quite frankly, the term is arbitrary, but it does make the point that the imbalance usually goes in one direction.
Shepherd care often gets swallowed up by administrative decision making. The needs and hurts of the saints move to the back of the time alotted for leadership functions as “agenda items” clamor for more and more time. It’s usually the shepherding side that gets squeezed, and our term attempts to give it a voice.
Taking a Deeper Look
Actually, no better voice can be given to shepherd care than was given by the example of the Lord Jesus and the apostles. Even though He knew the future and the path He must take, our Lord was repeatedly “moved with compassion” when He saw the people as sheep having no shepherd (Matt. 9:36). With only precious hours remaining before His death, He took quality time to wash the feet of His little flock, listen to them, answer their questions, and pray for them.
The apostles took up that example and emphasized the need to feed and tend the flock of God (Acts 20:28), and when temporal concerns would pull them away from time in the Word – which is the substance of spiritual sheep food – they quickly delegated those concerns to assistants (Acts 6). Deacons are part of the team and part of God’s provision to maintain the shepherding balance.
Getting to the Heart
What is the real cause of this problem? In most cases, it’s not lack of love or negligence. Elders want to serve the Lord and the people and sincerely believe they are doing what’s necessary. After all, where would the assembly be if crucial decisions were not made, bills not paid, and items crossed off the agenda one by one? Are not many of the problems tackled simply needs or complaints handed in by the saints?
Consider this analogy
In order to really understand the problem here, an analogy might help. The elders are called to visit a family in fellowship that seems to be struggling. Sitting around the table, the problems are recounted and everyone agrees that they are legitimate problems.
But one thing stands out. The pressure of bills to pay and a family to raise requires the parents to work multiple jobs with such long hours that time with the Lord gets squeezed into spare moments here and there.
What counsel is given? Put time with the Lord first, above all else. Start each morning in the Word and prayer and then seek the Lord’s help to divide the remaining time among the various needs and demands of the day. Things that accommodate this priority will continue unchanged. Things that refuse to accept “second place” are probably not in your best interests and will only hurt you.
Applying the analogy to elders
Elders must see that the point of all this is not a choice between one or the other, but keeping good things in their proper place. In a word, this means “people care” over “thing care.” And now we come down to the root of the matter. Washing feet and binding wounds can be dirty work! And humbling!
Much easier to sit in a warm room with good friends and make administrative decisions “for the flock.” Even spending some time in prayer is not so difficult. But actual shepherding work . . .?
What Can be Done?
- Wise elders will make dedicated time to really listen to the people. The goal here is not to “save face” or fish for compliments, but to build a perspective on their shepherding work by drawing out the honest thoughts of those in the fellowship. Better to hear the truth than watch them leave, voting with their feet.
- Put visitation of the people and families on the top of the agenda, and use remaining time for administrative work. When visiting, ask a few predetermined questions to give people opportunity to share their views as to what shepherding is all about and how they feel cared for.
- Demonstrate accountability by making regular brief reports to the assembly on lessons learned from listening to the people, thanking them for honest input and recounting efforts made to make necessary changes. Share this responsibility so that no brother becomes the “ruling elder.”
What if your elders don’t get it?
What if you’re in an assembly that fits the problem and yet the elders cannot (or will not!) see the need to change? Rebellion is not a worthy option. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Gathering with any who share the concern to pray specifically for the elders can work wonders. Just be sure the motivation is for supportive prayer and not gossip.
Leaving an assembly
If you feel the need to move on to another place of fellowship, do it in a godly manner, not creating division or drawing others after you. One good way to go about this is to let the elders know that your needs for shepherd care are not being met and that you are praying about leaving.
If you give a tentative time, say 6 months or a year during which you can be supportive, pray for the leadership, and watch for changes before finalizing your decision, this can help the elders take your words to heart – not as a threat but as a plea.
One of the fruits of the Spirit is faithfulness, and no assembly can survive without faithful and committed saints. However, sheep need care to become fruitful and this responsibility of shepherd care begins with the elders. Stewardship of resources is important, but elders must realize that there are no greater resources than the people in the church!