4 Cautions on Elder Training Programs

by Jonathan Leeman December 15, 2016

Some churches employ a kind of training program to prepare men for the office of eldership. At Capitol Hill Baptist we do not have such a training program in place. If your church does or if you are considering implementing a more programmatic or applicational process, I humbly suggest heeding these four cautions:

1) Consider who qualifies without the special incentive.

An elder is not a separate “class” of person or Christian (commoner/nobility; clergy/laity). Rather, he’s of the same class (member/member), but he’s an exemplary version of that class, one who can be held up as an example because he’s above approach and he can rightly divide the Word. What that means is, elder “training” consists of being an exemplary member. You want to be able to look out at the congregation and ask yourself, “Okay, who is living with integrity? Who is setting an example? Who do the people already turn to when they have tough life situations, or Bible questions?” Now, if your church is living as a family, you’ll be able to spot the men who are living that way. If your church is not living as a family, those men will be much harder to detect. In short, our elders and our church is looking to affirm men who are already living and functioning as elders—the men who have grown into that status through the ordinary means of grace.

2) Consider the implications on your church's discipleship culture

Related to that last point is this: you want to guard against teaching your congregation that there are two tracks for following Jesus: the serious track and the non-serious track, as in, “Hey, if you’re really serious about pursuing Christ, why don’t you join us for this elder training course?” Rather, there’s a sense in which I want all the men in my church to aspire to the qualities of an elder. D. A. Carson puts it well: what’s extraordinary about the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 is how ordinary they are. With the exception of “not a recent convert” and “able to teach,” every quality listed is relevant for all Christians. In my one-on-one time with other men, therefore, I will often ask a question like, “Do you aspire to be an elder?” or “What’s the difference between the present version of you and the elder version of you?” And, yes, I’ll say this to young immature men who are years away from being an elder. (Admittedly, I don’t say this to every man I meet with. There are some who, for various reasons, you know will probably never be an elder.)

3) Consider the doctrine/life imbalance such programs may facilitate

Being an elder is about your life as much as it’s about your doctrine. The challenge with most training programs is that, generally, they can focus on doctrine more than life. So if you start some sort of training program, you’ll need to work against sending the message that it’s having the right doctrine which really counts. Related to that…

4) Consider the entitlement or presumption the program may feed

If you do start something, you need to guard against the expectations guys will have, as in, “If I go through this study/program/course, then I’ll be an elder on the other side.” No, no, no. This course—at most—is like finishing school. It might help you round out some doctrinal details. What makes an elder is years’ worth of living the Christian life, being fashioned by the Spirit through the challenges and toils of sanctification, being immersed in the Word, being shepherded by other men, being broken of one’s pride, struggling to understand what it means to manage one’s family well, discipling younger saints, and rejoicing/grieving with other members of the body. So, again, if you decide to do something programmatic, make sure you communicate to guys at the front end they should have no expectations about what happens at the conclusion of the course.

Now, amidst my pooh-poohing of the programmatic, I’m making some assumptions: I’m assuming that you have a culture of discipling in place, which further means I’m assuming that your members are learning to live together as a family throughout the week. Developing this kind of culture is long-term work. It takes years. Programs are quick and easy. So if you do the programmatic route, fine, but make sure you keep your pedal on the gas of cultivating this kind of culture more broadly. You don’t want to fool yourself into thinking you’re raising up leaders because you’re scraping the cream off the top. You want the whole cake to rise.

This post adapted from an entry in the 9Marks Mailbag.