If you hang around Heritage long enough, you’re going to hear about elders. You’ll hear us talk about how there are three terms used interchangeably in the New Testament for this office: elder, pastor, and overseer. You’ll hear us talk about how some of our elders are paid and some are unpaid, some have special assignments or expertise, but our elders lead us together. You’ll hear us talk about the importance of biblical qualifications found in texts such as 1 Timothy 3:1–8 and Titus 1:5–9. We’ll tell you to know who your elders are, to pray for your elders, and to take our lead as elders (Heb. 13:17).
Elders are a given around here. But how are elders given to the church? Scripture says that Jesus “gave” pastors to the church (Eph. 4:11). How does he do it? Put differently, how do elders become elders? And what specifically does that look like here at Heritage?
That’s what I want us to explore in this post. This is a topic the elders have been discussing for many months. That work has also led to some changes in our process, which we’ve outlined at points across the last year or so. Most recently, we unhooked our process of appointing elders from a fixed point on the annual calendar each year. There are good reasons for that. Here in this post I’ll summarize the Scriptures we’ve considered and our process as it stands.
Scripture doesn’t give us a detailed process for appointing elders. But we are given some principles. Let’s start with those.
We’ve identified three principles in Scripture that should inform our process of raising up and appointing elders. Here they are:
1. We should appoint elders prayerfully
We want to say to our elders, “the Holy Spirit made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). That means we need to be submitted to the Spirit’s leading in our process of appointing elders. So, in addition to laboring over the Scriptures for guidance, we do what the early Christians did in these moments: we pray. “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23; cf. 6:6).
2. We should appoint elders patiently
This principle needs a little elaboration. The concern for patience comes from Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (1Tim. 5:22). Apparently, there were reasons Timothy might have appointed an elder in haste: perhaps there was the practical need, or perhaps a man appeared ready and willing. But there are two dangers Paul specifically outlines involved with hasty appointments. First, hasty appointments multiply the effects of sin, and with it the responsibility for the damage, leading us to “take part in his sins” (1Tim. 5:22). Second, sin is sneaky and both character and doctrine take time to discern: “the sins of some people are conspicuous … but the sins of others appear later” (1Tim. 5:24). We feel the pressure to appoint men as well. But patience is an obedience we believe God will bless.
3. We should appoint elders together
Here’s an important question: from a human standpoint, who is involved in appointing elders? The importance of leadership in this process is straightforward in the New Testament. The Apostles “appointed elders” in every church they planted (Acts 14:23), and Paul exhorted Titus to “put what [remains] in order, and appoint elders” in Crete (Tit. 1:5). Less clear, but still there we believe, is the role of the broader congregation. The vocabulary for “appointment” in the New Testament is associated with voting in the context of civic assemblies. The appointment of the first deacons also points in this direction. In that instance recorded for us in Acts 6, there’s a clear sense of leadership but also congregational partnership (Acts 6:1–6). There is also a practical component to the mingling of leadership and the congregation in this process. It is not realistic for every member of a given church to have the same exposure to a prospective elder’s life and doctrine. But we can trust a process of examination together. Consider that the Jerusalem church was 3,000 strong. In summary, what we see in Scripture is a pattern of congregational agreement under elder leadership.
Four Steps in Our Process at Heritage
So, how do we intend to honor those principles we’ve just worked through? Heritage has been led by elders for most of our church’s history. But we have gone about the process of appointing elders in different ways over time.
Over the last few years we have been studying this subject and hammering out plans. In this process, we came to the conclusion that we were not adequately honoring two of those principles above. We were praying. But we are convinced that our process was not patient enough, and that we did not involve you, the congregation, thoughtfully enough. For example, in years past, our timeline allowed for two weeks between announcing a prospective elder’s name and a vote.
This period of study has led us to mature our process in some important ways. Today, our process involves four steps: cultivation, observation, candidacy, and appointment. Let’s unpack each of these in turn.
1. The first step, elder cultivation, involves nurturing a culture where men aspire to eldership, where boys grow up desiring to serve in this office, and where the congregation knows what to look for in a shepherd.
This involves instruction on biblical eldership from the Word. Formally, we do this through the preaching and teaching ministry to the church. Informally, we hope that our example and presence as elders holds out the office as a noble task. We want our overall ministry as elders to draw men to a godly life, and to godly men to the office.
In this step we also identify possible elders. As elders, we keep a look out for who the Holy Spirit may appoint to the office. We do this with your ongoing help. This invitation is always open to you: at any time, you can write to an elder or to the team at firstname.lastname@example.org to commend a man for the office.
2. The second step, elder observation, is a low-stakes opportunity for a man to observe and be observed up close with the possibility of eldership in mind.
This second step is what it sounds like. This is a low-pressure, high-exposure opportunity for both elders and a prospective elder to explore the appropriateness of eldership. It is not a no-expectation process, in that reading and meeting attendance is involved, but there’s no expectation for either party that the relationship must advance to eldership. Think dating, not engagement.
This period allows us to observe his qualifications for the office, but also a few other things. Our team is aligned in ways that are narrower than our statement of faith. How we go about biblical eldership is one example. So, is he a fit for eldering at Heritage? We are also considering his capacity for the work, whether he has the energy or the time. Desire is also a consideration here. After getting acquainted with the office, does he want to elder, or will this be out of compulsion?
This process is six months because that is realistically the amount of time it takes for a man to get comfortable with our team, and for our team to get comfortable with him. There is also a bit of work that needs to be done. He will read and write on several books and papers before observation is over, on eldership, doctrine, and our church’s key documents.
3. The third step, elder candidacy, is where the elders formally examine a man for eldership with the help of the congregation.
As a man’s observation period concludes, he may be invited to complete a questionnaire and interview process with the elder team. This involves answering thirty or so questions on doctrine and character. His wife reads this and engages this material as well. If we agree as elders to bring him into candidacy, we’ll announce his name to you on a Sunday morning or at a Family Meeting.
This step takes six months as well. Why six months? There are a few reasons we settled on this. First, it allows time for a feedback loop, as the congregation offers us input on the man. If an issue of character arises, we have time to search it out and come to a resolution. Second, this timeframe allows you to hear the candidate’s name and perhaps his teaching in several venues over time.
Importantly, this period also gives the elders time to more closely examine the man’s doctrine: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). At the mid-point of candidacy, the elders will schedule a one-hour doctrinal examination. This is intended to be a serious step, but not a scary step, which is why we sometimes call it a “doctrinal interview.” This is a new part of our process, but we expect that this will be a clarifying, unifying, and encouraging step.
When all this is done and there’s one month to go in his candidacy, we’ll put his name before the church again with an invitation for any final input.
4. The fourth step, elder appointment, involves agreeing together in the Lord and formally appointing a man to the office of elder.
At the six-month mark we will join for a Family Meeting and vote to affirm a man to the office of elder. If we have led you properly, and if you have engaged the process carefully, then there should be no unexamined objections to a candidate on the basis of qualification by the time of vote. That bears repeating. We are not saying that there won’t be objections raised in the process. But that if we have all taken our role responsibility, there should be no known points of disqualification. If we put in this work together, this should make for confidence instilling appointments.
Once a candidate is affirmed as an elder, we will appoint him publicly at the next best opportunity. Here’s the kind of lofty language Paul got out when he wrote about the appointment of elders: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you…” (1Tim. 5:21). This how we want to feel and speak when we appoint elders. In the pattern of Scripture, current elders gather around them, lay hands on them, and pray for them in front of the congregation (Acts 6:6; 14:23; 1Tim. 4:14; 5:22). This solemn and public appointment emphasizes the weighty role into which new elders step and reinforces the members’ responsibility to submit to and pray for the leaders God has given. As it was for the early church, we want this to be one of the most meaningful and memorable moments in our life together as a church family.
A Worthy Investment
That’s how elders are raised up and appointed at Heritage. Healthy biblical eldership involves a great investment of care on the part of our elders, and on your part to pray and engage in this process.
But thankfully there is one who has even more invested in our care than any of us, captured in Paul’s words to the elders at the church at Ephesus: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20: 28).
Let’s pray, let’s be patient, and let’s engage in the process together.