The Kindest Elder I’ve Ever Known

Neal Pollard

He was appointed an elder during the Reagan administration. At the very time he was appointed, the congregation was reaching the climax of a very traumatic incident. A man who was a charter attender, but not a member, when Bear Valley began meeting, he has seen every great work this congregation has dared to do, walked through its every valley, and he has done so with as even-keeled and unflustered way as I have ever known. I have heard him preach both here and abroad, watched him do short-term missions, make difficult shepherd visits, hug and encourage more people than I can remember, and seen his kindness and humor generously displayed. He was not usually the first to speak when elders conversed, but his insights have always been profound. He always did what he did with class and compassion.

I was crestfallen when I recently heard Maynard Woolley tell the eldership that he was ready to step aside as an elder after nearly 30 years of service. Only Harry Denewiler served more years in that role for the Bear Valley church of Christ. He stayed on a couple of years after five great men were appointed to this work in 2016, helping them to acclimate, learn, and grow under his, Ernie Barrett’s,  and Dave Chamberlin’s tutelage. A telling tribute to the breadth of his leadership was the collective, deeply respectful, regret that he was going to resign. Maynard is a man who one appreciates more and more the longer one works alongside him.  His faithful wife, Donna, has both encouraged him and endured, as an elder’s wife for so long, what not many women living have.

Some men impress with refined oratory, outspoken and charismatic ways, and larger-than-life personalities. Others live more understated ives, but their value cannot be overstated. Maynard Woolley is such a man. We will miss his formal oversight, but we look forward to his continued faithful service and loving example. Thank you, Maynard, for what you’ve done and for who you are.  Bear Valley bears the imprint of your bearing.

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What Preachers Wished All Members Knew About Their Elders

Neal Pollard

While there are doubtless men who wear the name “elder” that do not meet the biblical qualifications, many of the church’s greatest heroes and biggest assets are her shepherds. I have been privileged to serve under a total of 21 elders in 26 years of full-time preaching, and what I am about to say applies to each of them. Part of their work is public and visible, but I dare say so much more of it is conducted before the eyes of only a few or one sheep or even at times only before the eyes of God. My experience with elders is that they are humble men and they will never tell you what I am about to tell you.  Here are a few things elders wish all members knew about them.

—Elders do…

  • Care.
  • See people at their messiest.
  • Sometimes get the brunt of the lashing out people do when in pain.
  • Always, always put people first.
  • Give generously of their time.
  • Agonize.
  • Hard things none of the rest of us can or will do.
  • Have insight into sensitive situations that others may not.
  • Have feet of clay.
  • Pray fervently for the needs and problems of the flock.
  • Desire to communicate to the church as much as they feel they can.
  • Want to have a relationship with every member.
  • Love God and seek to please Him above all else.

—Elders don’t…

  • Give up on sheep.
  • Defend themselves.
  • Do it for the glory.
  • Seek the praise of men.
  • Hold a grudge.
  • Play favorites or have double standards.
  • Read minds or judge motives.
  • Want to lose a single sheep.
  • Publicly share everything that’s on their plate or comes their way.
  • Want to lead God’s people away from Him and His will.

In an elders meeting last night, one of our shepherds was asked to read Hebrews 13:17. The elder chairing the meeting said, “This passage encourages me.” The elder who read said, “This passage frightens me!” As each of them discussed the sober meaning of that passage, I thought back to things I’d seen each of them do recently. It made me so thankful to serve under an eldership that takes their work seriously. Are they perfect men? Impossible! Are they God’s men? Absolutely! Please pray for the eternal work elders do in congregations around the world every day!

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“I Praise, I Participate, I Proclaim”

Neal Pollard

Yesterday afternoon, the Bear Valley eldership stood before us one by one to talk about their priorities both for themselves and for us. They distilled them into five simple words that describe five profound concepts: (1) Worship, (2) Communication, (3) Fellowship, (4) Accountability, and (5) Leadership. They told us that as the religious world is growing more homogenous in their worship style (a la community church model; rock concert-ish), distinctive New Testament worship has a chance to stand out even more. Yet, we need to always be improving our efforts in leadership and participation. They emphasized that communicating news, ideas, and needs is a process that will always need work and priority. No church ever arrives in this regard. They spoke of the importance of building a closer church family, knowing each other through age-related opportunities and entire congregation opportunities. This happens when we’re all together, in the classroom, and away from the building. They stressed the importance of holding one another accountable, for faithfulness, commitment, and support. Otherwise, there is no way to move from ideas to action. They told us that all of us exert leadership in some area. There is formalized leadership positions, as outlined in the New Testament (elders, deacons, preachers, teachers). But, inasmuch as we all have a sphere of influence (cf. Mat. 5:14-16), God expects us to lead. Throughout their entire presentation, they were specific about strategies aimed at helping us be successful. I appreciated the great challenge this was for us to work and grow. There were so many quotable sayings from their collective lesson, but the one that struck me most was made near the end. As we have adopted three planks of emphasis as a church, based on Acts 2:42-47 (praise—worship, participation—fellowship, and proclamation—evangelism), we were challenged to think: “I praise,” “I participate,” and “I proclaim.” It can be so easy for us to approve the church’s need to grow and improve in these areas or to expect the elders to do these things. But, no matter who we are, we can and must ask, “What can I do?” The key to being a great church is the willingness of every member to make personal application. It’s not, “What are they doing?,” “what are you doing?,” or even “what are we doing?” No! It must always primarily be, “What am I doing?” I’m thankful that our elders spoke with confidence and clarity about the fact that there is plenty of opportunity to be involved in making Bear Valley a strong, relevant church, a city set on a hill shining a light in spiritual darkness. Thank God for strong leadership, which encourages me to say, “Here am I, send me!” (cf. Isa. 6:8).

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Armchair Elders

Neal Pollard

He shouts at his TV with a mouthful of Cheetos. “I can’t believe you! Four receivers downfield and you throw it behind the line of scrimmage to a man who’s double covered! You’re pathetic. Must be nice to get millions of dollars to make awful decisions. Where do I sign?” After several additional one-sided conversations with the TV, Mr. Potato (first name: “Couch,” aka “Armchair Arnie”) dusts crumbs off his potbelly with those trademark orange fingertips and limps into the kitchen, stiff from sitting three hours, to get another snack before the second half of the NFL doubleheader.

Water cooler wide receivers. La-Z boy linebackers. The game’s true experts do not prowl the sidelines with headsets, nor do they actually suit up, strap on, and sweat it out. The guys with all the answers are the ones who would crumble with fear if placed on the same field with the athletes they so roundly criticize for bungling with the ball.

I have observed that the same temptation can occasionally strike some with regard to elders. Whether it be their judgment or painstaking decisions, their handling of a member’s problems or needs, or their overall “job performance,” elders get taken to task more often than they realize by pew chair presbyters. They may criticize elders for what they did or for their failure to act, for being too strict or too lenient, for showing favoritism or trying to please everyone, for being too conservative or too liberal–all with the regard to a single action taken or decision made.

There is a striking similarity to the “armchair quarterbacking” done by unfit, unqualified spectators at sporting events. Those who can’t are apt to criticize those that can and do. It is far easier to question and condemn the actions taken by elders without the benefit (and angst) of wrangling with problems and decisions oneself. How we can eloquently outline the plan of action we would take absent the pressure and responsibility of being in the position.

Let’s pray more for our elders and pass judgment less! Let’s support them with might, not scrutinize them under a microscope. They need our cooperation and submission (Heb. 13:17). They could do with less backbiting and murmuring (cf. 1 Co. 10:10).

That’s not to say that elders are beyond reproach and rebuke (1 Tim. 5:20). Occasionally, an elder or eldership may be deserving of question–particularly in the area of doctrine or their personal qualification. As a longtime Falcons fan, I had to endure the likes of Scott Hunter, Pat Sullivan, and June Jones! They were terrible quarterbacks, though much better than I could ever have been. Elders will answer directly to Christ for their shepherding of the local flock. We, as embers, will also answer for how we cooperated with and supported them. Let’s all resolve to get out of the chair and join them on the field (cf. John 4:35)!

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Watching Godly Elders

Neal Pollard

We are blessed with seven wonderful elders here! They span in age from 48 to 81, are of varying backgrounds, personalities, and skillsets, but collectively they reflect God’s wisdom for a plurality of godly men shepherding the flock. With the magnitude of the work and workload here, I cannot help but stand in awe of the great job they are doing. To watch men like these, I’m reminded of the powerful good done by apt, able elders. Far from an exhaustive list, they:

  • Show Hospitality—They open their homes freely and frequently, getting to know the sheep.
  • Keep Track—They make it their business to account for the sheep, knowing they will give an account for each of them ultimately.
  • Cast Vision—They do not lead from the rear; they thoughtfully, decisively get out front and show the way.
  • Greet Visitors—They care about our members, but they are constantly focused of who’s new around here.
  • Contemplate Problems—In the spirit of Solomon, they are presented with and must decide often complex, hairy matters…in real time.
  • Faithfully Pray—Listen to men pray and you get a pretty good idea how practiced they are. These men are devoted to it.
  • Show Heart—They aren’t afraid to demonstrate their care, concern, and love. We see it in their passion, their tears, and their involvement.
  • Manage People—Sheep are also of differing temperaments, needs, problems, and levels of maturity. They deal with “all kinds.”
  • Consult God—How exciting to see overseers humbly searching for and submitting to a “Thus saith the Lord.”
  • Balance Time—They do all of this while being competent employees, conscientious family men, and character-filled Christians.
  • Set Direction—They are tone setters in a basic way; What they emphasis, we will make important. We hear their voice, in the assemblies, meetings, and private conversations.
  • Make Mistakes—Despite sometimes unreasonable expectations from some, they are terminally human and inevitably subject to imperfection.
  • Follow Jesus—They are good shepherds walking behind the Good Shepherd. They want to serve, please, and imitate Him. Ours do a fantastic job of that.

Have you seen what a great job these men are doing? Have you taken the time to stop and let them know? Many churches veer from the straight and narrow path because of ungodly elderships. Thank God for the shepherds at Bear Valley!

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WHERE ARE THE ELDERS?

Neal Pollard

  • At the hospital, attending a surgery
  • At home, hosting a family or families and getting closer to the sheep
  • Hosting and attending church activities
  • In private meetings with hurting, needy members
  • In meetings together, praying over and discussing the needs of the sheep
  • Spending time with their wives and children, nurturing that needed part of their lives
  • On their knees and in their Bibles, strengthening their walk with the Good Shepherd
  • Teaching our Bible classes, leading our worship, and even preaching as needed
  • On the job, exemplifying Christ before the world in a superlative way
  • Weeping with the weepers at funerals
  • Found among our graduates, parents of newborns, celebrating newlyweds, and other happy moments experienced within the flock
  • In Bible studies with non-Christians or Christians wrestling with some Bible matter
  • Looking for visitors and new faces in our assemblies
  • Working, sleeves rolled up, on workdays and other occasions where they can serve
  • Enjoying fellowship, their very actions reminding us they’re normal and one of us
  • Watching and listening carefully, especially at the teaching and preaching that is done, ensuring the spiritual food their sheep ingest is healthy and nourishing
  • Holding up the hand of faithful gospel preaching, having their hands help up by their preachers
  • Touching base with the deacons, encouraging and aiding their success in ministry
  • Attentive to little children, the elderly, the alone, and others that many might unintentionally overlook
  • Ensuring the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, rooting out divisiveness
  • On the phone and in the homes with erring sheep, striving to retrieve them and, sadly, if necessary, leading the flock to withdraw fellowship from the irretrievable
  • Setting the spiritual tone, emphasis, and direction of the flock

Our elders, like faithful elders everywhere, do a lot that is unseen by the majority.  It is hard to quantify the time and effort each of these godly men put into their work, but God sees it. What is more, God rewards it. My prayer is that righteous elders everywhere will take heart at what an inspired elder once wrote: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

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Bear Valley elders among our 2016 High School graduates

What God Does Not Expect Of Elders

Neal Pollard

Sermons preached on the qualifications of elders often, rightly, emphasize the importance of selecting men who qualify to serve. In the Lord’s church,  covetous, inhospitable, intemperate, cold, imprudent, biblically ignorant, pugnacious, and newly-converted men (among others) have been appointed to that important work who should not have been. That hurts the local church! Many times it has been said that “bad elders” are worse than “no elders.”

Harboring unfair expectations of men who would serve as elders is another hurtful trend that occasionally surfaces. A hypercritical spirit is a quality of human nature, though a quality the spiritually-minded ought to fight to personally eliminate. Let us briefly consider what God does not expect of elders.

  • More Than The Qualifications Specify. Gut feelings, intuitions, and hunches might work well when hunting, fishing, or making March Madness picks, but there is no call for them in selecting men to serve as elders. God does not need our help, tacking on additional requirements for an elder than He felt the need to supply for us. Adding to the Word of God carries a stiff penalty (cf. Rev. 22:18); therefore, our scrutiny of a man’s fitness to serve needs to stop where the Bible’s does.
  • Sinless Perfection. He expects maturity (1 Tim. 3:6), ability (Ti. 1:9), and stability (1 Ti. 3:4-5), but not impeccability (the Latin origin of this word means “not to sin”)! If so, no man could ever conceivably qualify to serve. Gnat-straining can keep a qualified man from serving as surely as camel-swallowing can allow an unqualified man to sit as watchman. With a 1000-tooth-comb, some would inspect the minutia of his life and his family’s. Those searching for flaws, who look hard enough, will always find things. Yet, such findings do not necessarily prove anything except his humanity and fallibility (cf. Rom. 3:10,23).
  • To Neglect Their Own Families. It is unfair to expect a man, as elder, to always place the needs of the congregation over those of his own family. Too many wives and children have been deprived of husbands and fathers due to disproportionate expectations of time, resources, and attention placed upon elders by members. Elders need the full cooperation and understanding of their families, while elders are obligated by God to supply the needs of their families (cf. 1 Tim. 3:4-5,7). Elders (and their families) are entitled to vacations and nights at home together. Elders will answer for not only their service as elders (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pe. 5:4) but also their influence and leadership in the home (1 Tim. 3:4-5; 1 Co. 11:3; Eph. 6:1-4).
  • To Be The “Complaint-Receiving Committee.” It is impossible but that complaints will come, but woe unto him (or her) through whom they constantly come. Murmuring and complaining got Israel into trouble (cf. 1 Co. 10:10), and members who find it impossible to speak to elders without doing such may find themselves in the same predicament. How many times has an elder heard you say something positive about another member, a successful program, or their efforts on your behalf? How many of your complaints have they fielded? Elders will answer for our souls. Let us find ways and opportunities to encourage, praise, and support them. Complain whenever you must, but compliment whenever you can.

Did you realize members have qualifications to meet with regard to the elders?

  • Love and appreciate them (1 Th. 5:12-13)
  • Honor them (1 Ti. 5:17)
  • Do not recklessly accuse them (1 Ti. 5:19)
  • Obey and submit to them (He. 13:17)

As we examine who would serve as elders, let us not forget to examine ourselves (2 Co. 13:5). How spiritually fit are we? Jesus’ words about beams and specks apply to our relationship with elders, too (cf. Mt. 7:3-5). Let us have high expectations of elders, but let us have only those expectations God has!

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The Shepherd Of The Sheep

Neal Pollard

“That grass is greener,” so he thought,
The sheep who wandered from the fold
Watching carefully the shepherd caught
The wanderer, so soon in the overseer’s hold.

The roaring waters so dangerously near
Forms a hazard for the trembling herd
But the herdsmen is wise, his vision is clear
With his guidance their safety is assured.

Surveying the cliffs or helping them rest
His vigilance is timely and needful,
For the sheep he labors to give them the best
For their well-being the shepherd is heedful.

The Lord chose imagery, graphic and vivid
To illustrate how His church should function
Lackadaisical leadership leaves Him livid
He urges them have compassionate compunction.

Watchful shepherds who tend with care
Are assets in the heavenly realm
Who carry, calm, who steer and spare
Who are willing to assume the helm

Stewards for the Great Shepherd of the soul,
They lead as they point out the way
And help us keep our sight on the heavenly goal
And prepare us for the Great Judgment Day!

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L.E.A.D.

Neal Pollard

When speaking of the work of elders, there are multiple aspects of his work and his life outlined in Scripture.  He is an “elder” (“A person of responsibility and authority in socio-religious matters,” Louw-Nida, 53.77; “being relatively advanced in age, older, old,” BDAG).  He is a “pastor” or “shepherd” (“To care for, provide,” WSNT, Zodhiates; “To care for the congregation…to seek the lost…and to combat heresy,” TDNT, Kittel, et al, eds.).  He is an “overseer” (“one who serves as a leader in a church…caring for the needs of a congregation as well as directing the activities of the membership,” Louw-Nida, 53.71).  His qualifications are seen in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, his relationship to the membership seen in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 and Hebrews 13:7,17, and his authority in such passages as 1 Timothy 5:17, but among the three designations identifying him nothing may be more pressing and important than his leadership.  Too often, preachers or other influential members fill the vacuum and void of leadership left by elders who fail to assume this role.  When this happens, God’s pattern for church life is not followed.

Wendell Winkler once wrote, “Leaders cannot lead where they do not go anymore than they can come back from where they have not been.  They influence some by what they say, more by what they do; but, most by what they are” (Leadership: The Crisis Of Our Times, 15).  Citing the example of Isaiah, Franklin Camp wrote, “Isaiah’s response (to God’s question in Isa. 6:8, NP) was as though he were afraid that someone else might volunteer before he did. This attitude is that of which real leadership is made. When there is a challenge placed before the church, read leaders, like Isaiah, are ready to accept it” (Principles and Perils of Leadership, 50). Then, J.B. Myers adds this, that “a leader is one who guides others and directs a course of action. Fundamental to leadership is the willingness to take the initiative in behalf of a group, such as the church” (Elders and Deacons, 166).  These and other men have written books or articles, preached sermons, and taught classes urging the church’s elders to be leaders.  The need is as great today for this as ever!

How can elders effectively lead today?

Love.  Be tender and compassionate, as a shepherd. Be gentle and wise, as an elder.  Be faithful to God’s will, loving Him first, as a leader.

Exemplify.  Study and follow the example of the Great Shepherd.  Have a long track record of righteous living, as an elder. Show before you tell as a leader.

Admonish.  Realize the care attached to warning, as a conscientious shepherd. Summon the benefit of experience, as an elder, to be reminded of the abject neglect attached to ignoring sin “in the camp.”  Appreciate that sheep need a clarion, understandable voice from the leaders.

Decide.  Know that confusion and scattering lies in the wake of an indecisive shepherd. Trust the accumulation of wisdom gained as one who has reached the age befitting an elder. Grasp the connection between decisiveness (even if unpopular) and leadership.

Bigger, stronger congregations hinge upon good, godly leaders.  The faithfulness of Christians rests in the hands of capable leaders. Evangelism flags and fails minus the sure guidance and equipping of leaders.  Pray for every elder everywhere to L.E.A.D.!

 What It Means to Be An Overseer

Neal Pollard

Elders are identified with three broad terms.  As Gary Hampton has put it, those who serve congregations in this honored way should not be offended that the term most often associated with them is the one that identifies them as old.  Not only are they “elders,” but they are also “shepherds” and “overseers.”  “Shepherd” describes their pastoral function:  caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of the flock, knowing the sheep, and building relationships with the sheep.  Too often, people confuse preachers as the ones associated with this role.

They are also “overseers.”  In one way, this term is almost self-defining.  They are to oversee the affairs and activity in the congregation they serve.  In another way, there may often be confusion about what it means to oversee.

  • They should not be “over hearers.”  They must be communicators and “contactors.”  They cannot rely solely on hearsay and rumor.  They cannot afford to be so detached from sheep life that they are uninformed. While they rely on information from preachers, deacons, and the “general membership,” that cannot be their sole means of information regarding church life.
  • They should not be “over meeters.”  I have heard it said that elders should visit two hours for every one hour they meet.  Although that may be unscientific, is it not saying that personal contact with church members is at least twice the job that coming together and making decisions about those members is?  How can anyone best decide about sheep with whom they have not spent quality time?  Certainly, lengthy meetings are draining and frustrating to elders.  Often, overseers are in danger of burn out from marathon sessions.
  • They should not be “over workers.”  God has not placed the entire workload of the church on elders’ shoulders.  Almost always, men are appointed elders because they have proven themselves diligent workers in various areas of church life.  Yet, as it was in Moses’ day, when elders are overloaded with the church work “alone” (Ex. 18:14) what they are doing “is not good” (Ex. 18:17), it is “too heavy” for them (Ex. 18:18), and they “are not able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:18).  That means elders should not be doing deacons’ work and deacons, by definition, should.

David E. Smith, an elder with the Birdville congregation in Heltom City, Texas, said, “Let me confess up front that I’m guilty.  Guilty of not letting deacons do their jobs so I’ll have more time to do mine.  I think most elders fall in this category from time to time.  There is an urgent need for us to change our “modus operandi”! …Sometimes I get overly involved with our deacons’ work which distracts my attention from spiritual matters.  And there is never a lack of spiritual matters needing attention” (“Questions Of Eternal Consequences,” Ft. Worth Lectures 1999, pp. 267-268).  With regard to church work, let overseers be delegators of work rather than devourers of it all.

  • They should not be “overreactors.”  Faith is vital to effective pastoring.  Financial contribution is vital to church work.  Disgruntled members are an unpleasant reality from time to time, and some can never be placated short of letting them always have their way.  People are growing older.  Most every church should be more evangelistic and all churches could be growing more.  These are some of the burdens God’s shepherds must bear.

Elders no doubt regularly lose sleep and generate stress over such matters.  Yet, as God makes elders overseers (Acts 20:28), He will supply their needs (Phil. 4:19).  It is God’s work, and He blesses all Christians who step out in faith in service to Him.  That certainly applies to the valiant work and oversight of His shepherds.

We cannot “over praise” elders.  They are definitely not over-rated.  They work over time. It is amazing that they are not overcome by the heavy task they execute.  Let us all be reminded of what these special men known as overseers are truly called to do.  It takes extraordinary men to do this heavenly task. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17b).