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The Burden of Leadership

By Mike Mazzalongo     Posted: Sun. Jan 15th
This lesson explores the personal and spiritual demands and responsibilities required of church elders.

I am always appreciative of people who think that, as a minister, I may need the congregation's prayers in order to do my job. Prayers for those who provide leadership in the Lord's body are often spoken during our public worship assemblies, but I am aware of the fact that many of these prayers are offered up in private when members are at home as well. Many brethren have made it a point to inform me that they are praying for my family, and these are so appreciated. The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explain why these prayers for all church leaders are appropriate and necessary. Hopefully this information will guide and encourage the prayer support on behalf of those called upon to lead God's people, especially the men who serve as elders (who are also referred to as shepherds, pastors, bishops, or overseers in different Bible passages - Acts 20:28).

Leaders Carry a Heavy Burden of Responsibility

Leaders become leaders for two reasons. First, they aspire to leadership because they have the desire to serve in this particular way.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.
- I Timothy 3:1

I believe that Paul is explaining that the desire to lead needs to be part of the calling when God turns a man's heart towards leadership in the assembly. The Spirit of God draws a man to this role and puts a desire to lead God's people into his heart. It is not healthy for a man to take on leadership, especially church leadership, if he does not have the desire to do good works on behalf of the Lord as a leader of God's people.

Another reason men want to lead is because they genuinely feel qualified to do so. In most cases they believe that they possess the skills and personal resources necessary to serve the church in this way. Paul, the Apostle, reviews these qualifications in I Timothy 3:1-7.

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Among the many requirements listed, we note that some are conditional. For example, a man must be married and have believing children. These are not virtues that are judged subjectively, they are objective conditions that are easily seen and confirmed. You are married or not. Your children are believers or not. These conditions must first be met before being considered for a leadership role in the church.

There are, however, other qualifications which are more subjective in nature. For example, Paul teaches that an overseer must be temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or be pugnacious, have gentle (meek) character, etc. These things are qualities in a man that are not always easily detectable simply by looking, since they are character traits that he needs to develop over time. Carrying the burden of character means that he must maintain the conditional qualifications (married with believing children), and develop skills and virtues like teaching and hospitality as he continues to grow in the character of Christ. This is a personal burden that he carries in order to first qualify and then continue in the role of church leader.

Of course, all are weak and sinful in the eyes of God (Romans 3:23). However, to retain effectiveness and credibility, God's leaders have to demonstrate that they can maintain their qualifications while improving their ability to teach and grow in Christian character even after they've reached spiritual maturity. I believe this is a great burden of responsibility and requires not only the effort of the individual but the prayers and the encouragement of the entire congregation. And this is my point! Why should we continue to pray for our leaders? We continue to pray for them because they carry this burden of personal responsibility to maintain their conditional qualifications while growing in Christian virtue.

This personal responsibility is made more difficult for leaders because their spiritual development is carried out in a very public way. Each individual member must develop spiritually but unlike the leaders, that personal growth is not being watched, and in many instances, commented on by others. When you are a leader, you are working out your salvation and developing your spiritual character in front of the entire church. This can become quite wearying for not only the leader but his family as well, since they too are often held to a higher standard of spirituality because the leader of their family is also a leader of the church "family."

Leaders Carry a Heavy Burden of Ministry

Another great burden that leaders carry is the burden of ministry. According to the scriptures, elders have a very specific ministry to carry out. Church leaders are entrusted with the duty to:

1. Guard the Doctrine

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
- Acts 20:28-30

We know that the church participates in the process of nominating and selecting those who will serve as elders, however, the Bible says that it is the Holy Spirit that actually sets a man into that position ("the Holy Spirit has made you overseers" - Acts 20:28). The Bible does not say that it is the congregation that gives a man this authority of leadership, it is an office received from God. The same passage teaches that the reason for this appointment is that this leader will, "shepherd the Church of God which he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you not sparing the flock and from among your own selves men will arise speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them." - Acts 20:28-30. Paul explains that the first duty of the church leader is to guard the doctrine (teachings) of Christ because these will be attacked early and often.

Elders, therefore, are responsible for making sure that what is taught at every level in the church is accurate according to the Bible. This is one of their primary tasks as leaders in the church. There is no end to the many ideas and philosophies that swirl in our highly connected society. Our spiritual leaders are to protect the congregation from false teachings even if it isn't maliciously done. Sometimes volunteers teach in error concerning some doctrine or biblical detail. The elders are responsible to make sure that no incorrect teaching is introduced into the church regardless of the manner in which this is done.

2. Encourage and Appoint Evangelists

Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.
- I Timothy 4:14

The Bible teaches that when there are no elders, it is the responsibility of the evangelists to recruit, train, and raise up church leaders (Titus 1:5). The cycle is complete when these same elders/leaders exercise their responsibility to recruit, encourage, and provide training for young evangelists as they did for Timothy. It is then their task to make sure that preachers are sustained and supported in their work and have the encouragement that they need to continue faithfully serving in this difficult role.

We see God's wisdom in this cycle. Evangelists go in to establish the church in the first place. They plant the church through their preaching and teaching (Matthew 28:18-20). They then raise up elders (shepherds, pastors, overseers) for that particular congregation (Titus 1:5), and with time those elders seek out men that have a gift for preaching in order to commend them into ministry. In this way the cycle begins anew and the church grows as a result (2 Timothy 2:2).

3. Guard the Flock

Paul encourages leaders to protect the church from false teachers (Acts 20:28). They are also charged with the task to protect the church from division (Romans 16:17), as well as protecting the church from immoral conduct and the growth of improper moral influences in the congregation (I Corinthians 5:1-9). Shepherds put out a lot of fires in this area, and this is a danger that they must continually be attentive to. Their work is often delicate in nature (e.g. helping a spouse deal with the news that their partner has cheated on them with someone who is also a member of the church), as well as time consuming (e.g. formal and informal meetings to deal with matters that affect the church).

4. Minister to the Weak and Those Who Are Sick

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord;
- James 5:14

It is interesting to note that James tells people who are ill and suffering in the church that they should call on the elders to pray for them, not the deacons, teachers, or evangelists (James 5:14). This does not mean that the preacher or a deacon or a church member cannot pray or minister to anyone who is sick. James is saying that the elders have the primary responsibility for ministering to the sick through prayer.

I can tell you from experience that members are always happy to see me, the minister, arrive to visit with them when they are in the hospital or nursing home, but in the mind of the individual who is ill the visit isn't complete unless the elder comes to pray and minister to them as well. They want the shepherd to hold their hand and whisper a comforting prayer to them. They want to hear their elder say, "keep up your courage, don't be afraid, and we are with you." This type of ministering is an important work, but it is tiring and takes up a lot of time. For this reason we need to support our leaders and encourage them for the effort that they make in personal ministry.

5. Resolve Disputes

Elders are often called upon to resolve disputes between members and sometimes between factions in the church. In the early church we see that the Apostles and the elders in the Jerusalem congregation gathered together to resolve an important doctrinal dispute that had taken place in Antioch (Acts 15). Note that it was the leaders in the congregation that had to listen to both sides of an argument and then make a decision as to the course that needed to be followed.

I am always struck by the idea that the Apostles were there and yet it says the Apostles and the elders together had to resolve the dispute in question. This they did together! This is one of the clearest indications that the Bible recognizes the authority and the leadership role of elders. Sometimes we need a judgment call on a matter and we must allow our elders to make that call if we cannot come to some resolution on our own. This requires wisdom and patience, and for this reason we need to pray for our leaders so they will have the kind of wisdom and patience that will enable them to make difficult decisions on matters where a wrong choice could seriously harm the church.

These, therefore, are the God given tasks that elders need to carry out.

They must be on guard to ensure that Christ's word is being taught accurately, and that false doctrines do not enter the church. They must also encourage those called to ministry and minister to those who are weak and sick. They also must strive to maintain peace and order in the local congregation. When they are appointed to their position as elders, this is the work that they take on. This is the ministry that they agree to carry out. Therefore, we need to pray and cooperate with them because church leadership requires time, effort, and sacrifice if one is to become a true shepherd.

I have emphasized these things so that those who desire to become elders would understand the burden of ministry that comes with this role. Do not become a shepherd if you are not ready to carry the weight of responsibility that comes with this position, and never criticize an elder if he chooses to retire because he can no longer manage the demands of the job and needs to rest. Being an elder is not a lifetime commitment.

We all benefit from elders who carry out their ministry on our behalf. We should also share in the prayers, support, and encouragement of our elders and their families because they carry the burden of character as well as the burden of ministry. Another burden that elders carry is the burden of responsibility. Harry Truman, former president of the United States, had that famous sign on his desk that said "the buck stops here." This little saying meant that the blame or the responsibility ended with him, he didn't pass it on to someone else. Of course in politics the good thing about having the final responsibility is that you also get to make the rules. In business, the boss is responsible, so the boss sets the rules. The boss is the one who hires, the boss is the one who fires, and (he or she) cracks the whip if necessary.

In the church we already have the rules; they have been given to us by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:15-16), and are contained in the Bible. We don't make up our own rules and we already have a boss, so to speak, and His name is Jesus Christ (head of the church - Colossians 1:18). What God provides to help chart our spiritual journey as a group (church) are elders. They are the people who are responsible for teaching us the things of God and making sure that these teachings are done properly. He's given us these men to protect us against those who would hurt us spiritually. He has also provided us these leaders to guarantee that the gospel will continue to be preached even after they are gone.

The shepherds are here by God's charge to love and care for us even when we are weak or sick or troubled or dying. They, like Christ, are there to love and care for us even when we don't love ourselves, even when we have become unlovable. God has put this charge upon them nevertheless. This is the burden of responsibility for which God will hold them accountable.

I think most elders don't quite see all of this when they sign up to do the work. However, if they persevere and allow God to humble and remake them they will find that He can equip them through the grace of His love and the wisdom of His word to a maturity in Christ not attained by many because along with the responsibility comes an opportunity that not many receive. The burden of responsibility is great, but the potential to grow in Christ is even greater!

I am not an elder, but as a preacher I have a several reasons why I have prepared this study about church leaders:

It Is Part of My Ministry as a Preacher

Paul tells the young preacher Timothy, "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living in the dead, and by his appearing and His Kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction" (II Timothy 4:1-2). We note in this passage that the preacher is supposed to provide various words of encouragement and admonition not only for the members but for everyone, including the leadership. When Paul tells Titus (Titus 1:5) to raise up elders, he doesn't mean that he wants Titus to appoint these men in some kind of ceremony on a given day. The word "appoint" here means to raise up. In other words, Paul instructs Titus to find, train, and encourage qualified men to serve as leaders in the church.

The elders encourage, teach, lead, and comfort us. However, who encourages them? Who rebukes them? Who teaches them? Who admonishes them? The Bible tells us that the evangelists are supposed to do these things (2 Timothy 4:2). This is God's perfect and balanced plan.

To Inspire Others

How will a man desire if he doesn't see? Churches need more men who wish to aspire to the high calling of eldership. I want to plant the seed in the hearts of men to aspire to this role. I want to strike the fire in someone's soul so that they will give more of themselves than they ever dreamed that they could.

I also present this study to the wives of elders. No leader can lead without a help-mate who loves the Lord as much as he does. I want to give to each elder's wife and each future elder's wife the notion that her husband's calling and vocation is an enterprise worthy of her full devotion. I want her to know that as the spouse she shares in the success or the failure, in the reward as well as the rebuke. I call out to the elders' wives to make this a priority in your lives, knowing that if you don't, he won't either.

Summary

Finally, this exhortation is for the church. I want the church to know the value in the context of the height and the depth of the sacrifice that ordinary people are making for each member. Elders and their families are like your family, except for one main difference. When you go to bed, you think about your life and your family. However, when elders go to bed they think and pray not only for their own family but they carry the burden of your family with them into their sleep as well.

Perhaps you have had a tragedy or a crisis in your life, and one of your first calls is to the church office to speak to a minister or an elder. The shepherd will go through your crisis with you until it passes or there is some sort of resolution. Now, this was a crisis for you but may have been the fifth crisis that this elder has gone through with other members in the last ten days.

Remember that when you pray, and let your words and actions support them as they carry the burden of leadership for the church and the souls for which they are responsible.

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Dr. Stafford North
Professor of Bible
Oklahoma Christian University

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