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The importance of capable church elders

| by Bob Russell

In 1966, three-year-old Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky was without a preacher and meeting in the basement of a house. Still, the elders knew their 125-member congregation had potential. So, after unsuccessfully searching for an experienced minister, they decided the Lord was leading them “to a younger man who will grow with us.”

Butch Dabney, pulpit committee chairman, contacted a Bible college president and asked for the names of recent graduates with potential. “We’re going to hire a younger man, and we’re going to make him successful,” Butch said.

Isn’t that a magnificent attitude? “We’re going to make our preacher successful” ought to be the motto of every church elder. 

Wet behind the ears 

When they selected me, I was just 22 and knew I would be in over my head. I made a lot of mistakes and faced numerous difficult situations, but the elders wisely, repeatedly guided me through troubled waters. God blessed, and my ministry at Southeast lasted 40 years.

In 1 Timothy 5:17, the apostle Paul wrote, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” Sadly, I thought about that passage a lot recently when I learned recently that one of the finest young preachers we’ve ever sent forth was fired by his elders.

They felt he wasn’t submissive enough or respectful of the elders’ oversight. Even though the church was growing, they terminated him—immediately. Their decision to dismiss their lead pastor after less than three years has resulted in unrest in this megachurch, with considerable negativity spread via social media.

Looking back over my 40 years, I’m increasingly thankful for elders who directed our church. They were indeed “worthy of double honor.” They respected me in spite of my youth and inexperience. Though most were more than twice my age, they never had a condescending spirit or ridiculed my ideas.

I’m thankful for elders who understood their role and were comfortable enough in their own skin to be supportive despite my inexperience. They valued encouragement more than correction. It wasn’t ever a tug-of-war to see who was “in charge.” It was about exalting Christ and winning the lost.

A fellow elder 

I’m thankful for those elders for many reasons. To name some:

• They treated me as a fellow elder. Our elders didn’t have clandestine meetings without me; they saw themselves as co-laborers with Christ. A few times when I needed correction, they confronted me personally with a gentle spirit. 

• They were willing to remain behind the scenes. They didn’t insist on being on the platform or their pictures hanging on the lobby wall. They recognized that just as there is one quarterback on the field, there is one point man in the church. 

• They grew with the church. Just as staff members need to continue to mature as a church grows, elders must evolve and adapt. Our elders came to understand that they could no longer micromanage a congregation of thousands and a staff of 50 ministers. They had to trust the staff to oversee daily operations.

• They empowered me to lead the staff. It’s unrealistic and unfair to ask a preacher to be accountable for a church’s spiritual health and then not give him the authority to make reasonable changes. 

• They kept the big picture in sight and didn’t allow a handful of croaking frogs to keep them up at night. The challenge that I faced, along with every other elder, was to remember souls were being won, believers edified, and Christ exalted—in spite of a few problems.

• They were generous to me when I stepped aside and have continued to provide a generous pension. They didn’t attempt to see how little they could do to get by. They modeled the instruction of Jesus who said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive.”

A crown of glory 

Simon Peter promised faithful shepherds that “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:-4). I’m thankful for the privilege I had of serving with wonderful, capable elders. 

They made me look much better than I was and the local church became a place of harmony, joy, and salvation. I’m confident a crown of glory awaits them in eternity. Well done, good and faithful servants!

Photo source: istock 

Bob Russell

At just twenty-two years of age, Bob became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church. That small congregation of 120 members became one of the largest churches in America, with 18,000 people attending the four worship services every weekend in 2006 when Bob retired. Now through Bob Russell Ministries, Bob continues to preach at churches & conferences throughout the United States, provide guidance for church leadership, mentor other ministers and author Bible study videos for use in small groups.

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