One of the first things Paul told Timothy and Titus when he left them to organize the infant churches of Ephesus and Crete was to appoint some good leaders. He gave instructions that describe in an ad hoc fashion the basic character traits to look for (1 Tim.3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). Pastors are familiar with these spiritual and emotional character qualifications. Many have written doctoral dissertations and practical monographs on them. I have several such books on my shelves as I write this. (Which is why I am not repeating them in this article for pastors). Because of our (correct) emphasis on what Paul has to say in these passages however, there tends to be a couple of assumptions regarding elders and overseers. One is that these qualifications are all there is to the process of choosing elders in your specific church. The other is that anybody who “fits the bill” should be able to join the eldership of a church. I don’t think Paul held either of these assumptions.
I’d like to suggest that there is more to picking overseers than making sure they match the character traits Paul outlines, because these qualities do not automatically call a man into eldership. The traits are not rare skills that in themselves create leaders; they are basic elements of Christian growth that should be found among many men in any healthy church. They are minimal maturity markers. Compare them with Paul’s description of Spirit-filled living in Galatians 5 or his outline of love in 1 Corinthians 13. They fit perfectly. A man with these qualities is simply a mature Christian. Remember that in both Ephesus and Crete the churches were brand new, composed of men and women freshly regenerated from various religions, who had known the Lord for only a few years at most. It was the wild, wild, west. Spiritual cowboys, bandits and sheep rustlers abounded. There were self-styled “leaders” in these churches that were borderline or full-blown cultists, seeking to subvert the real gospel (Titus 1:10-16; 1 Tim.1:3-11; Acts 20:28-31; Gal.1:6-9). Thus, Paul lays out the essential shape of Christian character so that Timothy and Titus have a baseline from which to begin. The maturity level of these young churches was far lower than most of our churches today. Not that we don’t face many of the same struggles, but we do have more mature Christian men in our fellowships than were available to Timothy and Titus.
Practically, this general maturity level among Christians (not all, of course) means that choosing good leaders is more than a matter of finding the few that meet the basic growth requirements. It involves discerning which among these good men the Lord is specifically calling to work in pastoral leadership in your local congregation. Note an assumption I am making here—God the Holy Spirit raises up pastoral elders/overseers. It is a calling, not a right. The Holy Spirit brings men into spiritual leadership (See Acts 20:28). This means that the existing eldership has the task, not of creating leaders, but of discerning or discovering which mature men in the body are actually called and gifted to meet the pastoral needs in this specific gathering. It’s about finding the Spirit’s guidance over and above the minimal requirements laid out in the pastorals. With that in mind I’ll offer four pieces of advice. It’s just advice. If the shoe fits, you know what to do.
Look for men who love the Lord and the gospel more than they love their ecclesiology. A good elder is more impressed with the gospel, the lordship and grace of Jesus, than with being a leader in the church or with any other aspect of his theology. This is why I don’t recommend appointing elders who are too eager to be “leaders.” I know, First Timothy 3:1 says that any man who desires to be an overseer desires a noble thing. But he does not say that the man is necessarily noble in his motives for desiring it. And he specifically warned the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-31) that some men seek leadership for the wrong reasons. Watch out for these. Norm Wright, the Christian counselor and author, commented about marriage that it’s not so much finding the one spouse that will make you happy as avoiding the many who will make you miserable. It takes both and internal desire and an external call to bring a man into spiritual leadership.
Look for men who know and love your church. They need to have a real understanding and commitment to your mission statement. All churches have missional ideas (they do things in a certain way and for certain reasons) whether they write them down or not. I advise writing them down and getting genuine consensus on them. Then, when you’re looking for those the Lord may be raising up to help with the work, look for guys who “get it” with regard to the ethos, direction, flow, flavor, or style of your fellowship. This means they should have been involved for years (if you have an older church) or from early in the church’s life (if you have a young church plant).
Look for men with an instinct for unity and consensus. Communal spiritual discernment (an eldership’s primary goal) is a skill in which people come to agreement as to how they sense the Lord is leading. Loose cannons, no matter how gifted, are not usually good elders.
Look for men who are already doing it. People with pastoral gifts will guide others gently and well into thinking like Jesus, whether or not they have official titles. They tend to be guys that other people trust intuitively in spiritual matters. This will show over time (which is why Paul says not to appoint people too quickly). The natural leader is one that automatically and effectively sees and reaches out to the spiritual needs around him. Leadership decisions are the most important ones we make. Pray hard, go slow, get consensus, and the Lord will guide you.
Just a Thought,