One of the pastoral axioms that has resonated with me over the years is, ‘Whatever your Elders are, your church will become.’ For good or for ill, the Elders will shape the corporate life of the church. They will either help or hinder the mission of God for your particular church. Therefore, it’s imperative that we heed the Apostle Paul’s instruction and carefully consider whom we appoint to shepherd the church as Elders. So, what should we look for when assessing a potential Elder? I find it helpful to gather with the existing Elders to pray and think through a mental grid with the headings of character, competency, culture, compatibility and calling. Let’s examine each one.
The first grid to consider when assessing a potential Elder is the character grid. Because the role of an Elder is such an enormous responsibility, the Lord gives the Church qualifications that must be met over a long period of time before a man can be considered for the office. In John 21, Jesus appears to Peter after his denials, and Jesus asks him three times, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter responds, “Yes” and Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus is telling Peter to shepherd His people but notice that Jesus reaffirms Peter’s role in the ministry after Peter reaffirms his love and loyalty to Jesus. Therefore, the most important ingredient, the most obvious character trait needed for an Elder is a deep love and loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. To many this seems so obvious it goes without saying, however, it needs to be said and stressed because the Church isn’t simply a nonprofit business, nor is it simply a civic club and an Elder is not simply a successful businessman, nor simply an involved community member, nor is he simply to be a “good ol’ boy.” Leadership in the Church is fundamentally different than leadership in the world (Mk. 10:35-45; Jn. 13:1-7), therefore Elders need to be men whose love and loyalty to the Lord shape their character into Christ-likeness.
In addition to love and loyalty to Jesus, the Bible lays out the qualifications for Elders in two key places (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9), and since the lists are penned by the same author, and almost identical, let’s consider 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
In these seven verses the Apostle Paul details 17 qualifications of an Elder, which breaks down into 4 categories. 1) Relation to God. 2) Relation to family. 3) Relation to self and 4) Relation to others.
Relation to God
- A man:
- Above reproach: untarnished reputation
- Able to teach: can effectively communicate the Gospel
- Not a recent convert: mature, established believer
Relation to Self
- Sober-minded: mentally & emotionally stable individual
- Self-controlled: temperate, able to master one’s own feelings
- Not given to drunkenness: free from addictions
- Not a lover of money: free from the bondage of money
Relation to Family
- Husband of one-wife: One-woman man. Honor’s his marriage covenant
- Respect from children: successful father, has his kids respect
- Manages own family well: provides for, loves on, and leads
Relation to Others
- Respectable: honorable, well-lived
- Hospitable: lover of strangers, engages non-Christians
- Not violent: even-tempered. A peaceable man
- Gentle: loving, gracious, patient
- Not quarrelsome: peaceful attitude, non-contentious
- Good reputation with outsiders: well thought of by non-Christians
When men of Christ-like character are shepherding the church, they promote unity, maturity, and spiritual growth. Therefore as an Elder Board is seeking the Lord’s guidance through prayer, it’s of utmost importance to really consider a potential Elder’s character. Once you’ve established there is a long-term lifestyle of Christian maturity, then you’re ready to move to the second portion of the grid.
The next portion of the grid is in the area of competency. Does the potential Elder have the requisite skills needed to effectively shepherd others? Paul tells us that an Elder must be “able to teach.” Does this mean a potential Elder must have the gift of teaching? Not necessarily, but it does seem to indicate he must be capable to explain the Scriptures accurately and in such a way that it benefits others spiritually. He should be known in the congregation as a man whom others can go to have the Scriptures explained clearly and winsomely to them.
Another skill that is needed is an ability to disciple others. Does the potential Elder’s life demonstrate an ability to disciple others in their walk with Christ? Is he able to help others grow in faithfulness, love and knowledge? Remember, an Elder Board isn’t primarily a decision-making board, but a board made up of men who shepherd others in discipleship after Christ and make decisions on behalf of the church.
While an Elder Board isn’t primarily a decision-making board, decisions do need to be made, so another requisite skill is an ability to process information and interpersonal dynamics and think biblically and clearly on given matters. In addition, are they able to strategize and execute a plan to help move the church forward in its mission? Is there evidence of this type of competency, blended with the character component in this man’s life? If so, you have the making of a potential Elder.
The next part of the grid has to do with the potential Elder’s embracing of your particular church’s culture. Each church has its own culture, its own shared ethos. Wise leaders want to make sure a potential Elder embraces the culture of the community. It would be incredibly foolish to appoint an Elder who doesn’t share your particular doctrinal distinctives and who doesn’t embrace your mission and philosophy of ministry. At Trail Fellowship, we want to make sure that a potential Elder embraces our foundational principals (What We Believe, God’s Plan of Redemption, What Is The Gospel, and Our Mission). We want to make sure that he is committed to our theological vision, our mission, our people and our culture. This takes time to assess and again its why Paul’s admonition, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” is so valuable. Be slow and be sure that a potential Elder embraces the culture of your church, or you’ll regret it. If he checks out in the character, competency and culture grid, you’re ready to move to the fourth portion of the grid—the compatibility portion.
On the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed that his people would be unified “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” While Jesus’ prayer is for the Church at large, it certainly extends to the leadership of each church—the Lord would have his under-shepherds to be united, working as one for his purposes. Therefore, another ingredient that needs to be considered when assessing a potential Elder is their compatibility with the existing Elders.
Something to consider is, ‘does this potential Elder bring something to the team that would complement the existing team?’ Usually amongst Elder Boards, one is gifted for missions work, another has pronounced administrative talents, while another is a big-picture, visionary guy, others are gifted in processes and details, while still others are geared theologically. You want on your Elder Board people of different giftings, who complement each other, so that ministry areas are represented well, and when making decisions an area of ministry isn’t neglected.
Another important consideration is does the potential Elder get along with the existing Elders? Questions such as, ‘Is there friction between this potential Elder and any acting Elder? When communicating with others is there a pattern of humility and graciousness, which leads to edification, or is there a pattern of insistence and forcefulness, which leads to frustration? Does he listen to the experience and opinion of others or is he so head-strong others feel put off by him?’
When assessing a potential Elder, you need to carefully assess the compatibility component because you don’t want unnecessary friction, which can lead to the fracturing of the unity amongst the Elders, which almost always spills over into the life of the congregation.
If a man has checked the boxes of Godly character, he has requisite competence, he embraces the church’s culture and is compatible with the existing Elders, the final portion of the grid to consider is the area of calling. Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1 states, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Paul is not condoning selfish ambition or a carnal desire for a prominent position within the Body of Christ, but rather he is recognizing the office of Elder, the shepherding of God’s people is a noble task. Is the office of Elder something that God really calls us into? In Acts 20:28 Paul affirms it is. When speaking to the Ephesian Elders Paul states, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Emphasis added). As John Stott so rightly states, “So what we call the ‘selection’ of candidates for the pastorate/eldership entails according to Paul three essentials: the call of God, the inner aspiration and conviction of the individuals concerned, and their conscientious screening by the church as to whether they meet the requirements which the apostle now goes on to list.”
A potential Elder needs to sense the Lord is calling him into the office of an Elder, which will bolster him to follow the Apostle Peter’s exhortation, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherd’s of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” Again, a potential Elder must sense he is being called into the office of Elder, because the role of an Elder is not to be served, but to willingly serve others, even when it’s incredibly painful and taxing.
What do you do if a potential Elder meets the character, competency, culture and compatibility components, but when you approach him about becoming an Elder, after praying about it, doesn’t sense the Lord is calling him into the role in this season of his life? You trust the Holy Spirit is speaking clearly to him! The temptation at that point is to apply pressure, to twist his arm into service, but it’s better for all involved if you let him turn down the offer, and then continue to pray that the Lord through the Spirit will place a desire within him to serve as an Elder in the future. And trust the Lord to do it.
Some of the most pivotal decisions that are made in the life of a church is the selection of Elders. As was said in the opening, ‘whatever your Elders are, your church becomes.’ Hopefully this grid will help us identify mature, able leaders, who model Christ-like character and promote within the life of our churches health, maturity and fruitfulness.
 1 Timothy 5:22
 Hebrews 13:17
 That’s not to say an Elder can’t be a successful businessman, but that a successful businessman may not have the character needed to be an Elder.
 Adapted from: Driscoll, Mark. On Church Leadership. Pg. 15-16, Crossway, 2008
 John 17:21-23
 Elder, pastors, bishops, and overseers are synonymous words in the New Testament, Eph. 4:11, 1 Pet. 5:2
 Stott, John R.W. The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, The Bible Speaks Today. Pg. 92. Inter-varsity Press. England.