Tuesday’s Column: Dale Mail
There was a problem with the shepherds of Ezekiel’s day. They tended to their own needs, but not the flock’s (34:2-3). There were tangible needs and problems, but these shepherds sinned by omission (34:4). The sheep were scattered and these shepherds did not work to get them back or save them from predators (34:5-6). Then, God through Ezekiel utters these harrowing words: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep” (34:10).
In the New Testament, Paul tells the elders of the church at Ephesus to “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” (Acts 20:28). Guard the flock, watch over the flock, and shepherd the flock. What a weighty work! To be on guard means “to be in a continuous state of readiness to learn of any future danger, need, or error, and to respond appropriately” (Louw-Nida 332). An overseer has the responsibility of seeing to the spiritual safety and proper conduct first of themselves but also of those they watch over (Arndt 379). The idea of shepherding indicates care, concern, love, provision, relationship and intimacy, knowledge, and familiarity (see Kittel et al 902ff). These lexicographers who define what Bible words mean give insight into what elders are to be like as they do this crucial work. Isn’t it incredible and encouraging to see spiritual, albeit inevitably imperfect, men who “aspire to the office of overseer” (1 Tim. 3:1)?
Yesterday is a day I’ll never forget. We tagged along with three elders and their wives as they went around to 26 houses of members of our congregation. Exercising due caution under the current medical crisis, they nonetheless drove to see members young, old, and in-between. They visited with, sang to, and prayed for so many face to face, delivering Dana’s delicious baked goods. Seeing their enthusiasm to do this and watching the genuine joy on their faces as they served and ministered was a blessing that will stoke my spiritual fire for a long time to come.
But, that’s just what I got to see. I’m not seeing the other times they’ve done this. I’m not there as they’re making so many phone calls to everyone. Over the weekend, they met together for several hours to strategize about a reopening and communication plan not just to get back to “normal” but to thrive and grow as we go into the future. Another of the elders has since spent hours piecing together that plan to provide clear communication to the church.
All of them work full-time jobs and are hard workers. All of them have families to love and care for. All of them have hobbies and interests. But, all of them have Christ in the center of their hearts and lives. That last fact is what drives them to know about, care about, and reach out to the sheep.
Thank God for the many churches who are being shepherded through unprecedented times like these by engaged, concerned, and involved shepherds. Church growth, doctrinal soundness, examples of Christ-centered living, and so much more depend on elders who shepherd. Will you take the names of your shepherds to the throne of God each day, imitate their faith, and assist them in their work? They are a vital part of God’s plan to touch and transform eternity!
In Luke 14, Jesus gives a couple of short parables about counting the cost of discipleship. He prefaces them by saying, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple” (26-27). If we drink deeply of this statement, we see exactly how challenging it is. The choice is always between Jesus and everything and everyone else. How badly do we want what only Jesus can give? Think hard, then decide!
Then come the parables. The first is a construction parable, of one building a tower. He first sits down and calculates the cost in order to be able to finish and avoid ridicule (28-30). The second is a military parable, of a king going into battle. He first sits down and considers whether or not he can win (31-32). The common denominator in both parables is to first sit down and deliberate. Ultimately, there is action which follows, but the planning precedes it.
In how many congregations do elderships or men in the absence of elders never get proactive and formulate a plan for the immediate, intermediate, and far off future? Leadership must cast the vision and deliberate about where that congregation is going and how it will get there. What will be done to grow? How can we get more members active? How can we best utilize the collective resources of the congregation? The Bible reveals all the answers, but it is essential for the church’s leaders to gather around the drawing board.
It was exciting to spend a few hours at the Lehman elders’ 2019 retreat to discuss the short-term plans of the congregation. These men are convicted about the stewardship of the work they eagerly consented to do as our shepherds. They want us to be more effective, but they are determined to set the tone and example for us. I’m amazed at how deeply they care about us and the growth they want us to collectively experience. Words like emphasis, accountability, and purpose continually came up. Building a biblical culture, which works against our contemporary culture of consumers rather than producers, is foremost in their minds. They desire for us to “grow together” as a church, drawing those outside of Christ to our spiritual family.
I cannot wait to see what God will do through such capable leaders in 2020 and beyond. We are blessed with such godly, conscientious elders. Please don’t miss a day praying for Russell, Riley, Kevin, John, Darrell, and Bobby and their families. Also, please never miss an opportunity to express your love, encouragement, and support of them as they strive to do their best to fulfill their God-given duty. Or, as Paul put it, “But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another” (1 Th. 5:11-12).
They are first sitting down this weekend, but then they will challenge us all to “rise up and build” (cf. Neh. 2:18).
Bloomberg Businessweek’s Ira Boudway wrote a fascinating article about the perennially successful head basketball coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He called the piece, “The Five Pillars of Popovich.” Gregg Popovich, who has led the Texas team to five NBA championships in a little over 20 years, is the epitome of steady in a league notorious for constant change. Boudway laments that Popovich wouldn’t actually cite his own pillars of success, but the thoroughly researched column definitely exposes the principles that have made this legendary coach tick with exquisite precision. Those five pillars, in order, are:
We would modify and adapt the wording of some of the pillars, but the principles are unmistakably sound. When it comes to spiritual leadership, whether in the home or the church, these qualities are powerfully attractive.
Great leaders work hard to give others the credit and, most of all, God the praise. The goal is more important than the glory (Eph. 3:20-21).
Great leaders will not ask others to do what they won’t do (Mat. 23:3-4). They exemplify what they expect (Heb. 13:7).
Great leaders get the difference between the “big stuff” and the “small stuff.” Spiritual wisdom helps them channel their passion nobly. They reserve emotion for the eternal and temperance for the temporary.
Great leaders are learners, growers, and improvers. They hate complacency and disdain settling. Nowhere do they demonstrate this more than their pursuit of sacred truth, as consummate Bible students (2 Pet. 3:18).
Great leaders truly know those whom they lead. Assumptions, perceptions, prejudices, and appearances hamstring and even sabotage leaders. There is no substitute for loving people, genuinely caring about and being intimately involved in the lives of those whom they lead (John 10:1ff).
People are looking for leaders like this. They will follow them to the ends of the earth and, consequently, to heaven! None of these qualities necessitates a Ph.D. or a million dollars. They simply require dedication and discipleship! May God raise up more men who have the will and want to be successful leaders for Him!
USA Today ran a story about New York Knicks’ owner James Dolan. He’s depicted as a heavy-handed micromanager who feels more allegiance to his shareholders than the fans of the iconic professional basketball team. He’s contrasted with successful franchises, which the Knicks certainly are not at present, whose leadership sees themselves as stewards of a public trust and who casts a vision of a team which belongs to the people more than it does to those writing the paychecks and making the profits (Zillgitt, Jeff. USA Today, 3/15/19, 6C).
While the article is prone to the subjective and fallible viewpoint of the author and his ability to properly research the subject, there’s a valid point to be made and applied much more broadly than just the world of sports. Leadership approach is pivotal to the way and degree to which “followship” responds and participates in the vision and direction provided. Leaders who micromanage, arbitrarily dictate, fail to facilitate opportunity to be involved, and lead from fear stifle and prevent those in their stewardship from investing and contributing to the overall success of the organization.
Think about how this applies in the context of church leadership. When the Bible describes an elder’s role, one of the terms it uses for him is an “overseer” (Acts 20:28). This word means “one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way” (Arndt, Gk.-Eng. Lex. Of the NT, Et al, 2000: 379). Neither the definition nor New Testament passages outlines, specifically, how that is to be done by means of method and judgment. It has to get done and it must be done correctly. Sometimes, elders hang on to “deacon duties” because it’s easier to do something than seeing to it that others do it correctly. Sometimes, it can be easier just to say “no” to some program idea or ministry than to endure the headaches of the trial and error in getting it off the ground.
Yet, there is wisdom in shepherding as stewards who help members invest and share in the success of fulfilling the purpose of the church as laid out in the New Testament. Such leadership encourages members to find ways to serve, to propose new ideas and methods to fulfill the New Testament mandates to evangelize, edify, and be benevolent. It facilitates their success–it announces, promotes, and advocates. It provides a watchful oversight that puts biblical rails around whatever the specific work is. Paul’s counsel helps elders know how to oversee: be on guard and shepherd. That means pay attention and take care rather than be aloof and detached. It also means to watch out for people and provide for and help them what it takes for them to spiritually survive.
This leadership style is what makes such works as Bible camps, Lads to Leaders, Monday Night for the Master, lectureships, Bible classes, in-home Bible studies, fellowship groups, workshops, and the like thrive and grow. The more of us that feel invested in the work and success of the church, the more effort will be put toward growing and improving how it all gets done. Let’s show our appreciation (1 Th. 5:12), loving esteem (1 Th. 5:13), and cooperative submission (Heb. 13:17) to our overseers as they continue to try and lead us in this way.
I am not sure how long our congregation has conducted what we call “Young Lions And God’s Precious Daughters,” but I would guess it has been at least 15 years and probably longer. All three of my sons participated in Young Lions and feel it was helpful in getting them over nervousness when leading in worship. Yesterday afternoon, 16 girls between the ages of 6 and 12 hosted a tea for the Bear Valley ladies. Their theme was daring to be different by serving, and they served high tea while conducting a devotional with songs, Scripture reading, prayers, and short talks.
Last night, 10 boys in the same age group stood before the congregation, leading songs, reading Scripture, praying, and preaching short lessons. Some of them were nervous, but all of them were eager and enthusiastic. Hearts all over a full auditorium, even on a wintry, snowy evening, were melting as we got a preview of tomorrow’s leaders.
Several adults met with these two groups, week after week, for two months, talking to them about how to dare to be different in a world that demands conformity. There were interactive, hands on lessons. There was weekly training and instruction helping them practically implement what they were learning. What is interesting is that though the names and faces of the adults who lead this have changed through the years, we continue to see the fruit of the church’s work in the lives of an age group that can easily be overlooked. “Leadership” is the thread that has run through this program over the years. Alumni of “Young Lions” include many Christian college graduates, many gospel preachers, and a countless number of young men who are leading in worship not only in Denver but across the country. For most, their first effort was standing on a stool (or stools) behind the podium at Bear Valley. Alumni of “God’s Precious Daughters” are found faithfully serving the Lord’s church locally and elsewhere (the elders through Facebook Live charged one of these young ladies, Jordan Balbin, in advance of her mission trip to Nicaragua this week), filling Bible classrooms, and serving the Lord in a variety of capacities.
These precious resources God gives us as parents–our children–are to be molded, encouraged, challenged, and inspired to put faith into practice, to use their abilities and minds to glorify God and serve His Son. Thank God for the wisdom of elders who encourage such works, for parents and other adult volunteers who sacrifice time and energy to teaching them, and “young lions” and “God’s precious daughters” who participate with zeal and joy. What will eternity reveal to be the good that works like this produced? I can’t wait to find out!
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).
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)!
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:
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!
He said it in his prayer, this young man in his thirties who did not say it as a lamentation but as a petition that Christian men would be the spiritual leaders of their families that God wants us to be. No doubt, in the background of his prayer, he thought about the agenda of feminization that has targeted the males of society for several decades. But, predominant in his thoughts was the idea that men have too often abdicated their God-given role and responsibility. Whether or not they are good wage-earners, do”manly” things, and look and dress like the classic, rugged male, have they aimed to be the protector, leader, and example in the home, church, and society that God expects? Truly, it was a challenging, exacting phrase.
In discussing the sins of Israel, God said to Ezekiel, “I searched for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one” (22:30). God did a roll call of the prophets, priests, princes, and people of the land, and one by one He cites their dereliction and disobedience. It was not in their clothing style, hobbies, facial hair or hairstyle, or similar, superficial measurement. It was a matter of how they responded to God and fulfilled the responsibilities He had given them.
The world has a concept of what it thinks to be manly. The Philistines said, “Take courage and be men, O Philistines, or you will become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; therefore, be men and fight” (1 Sam. 4:9). For them, it was a fleshly matter devoid of God. By contrast, Paul tells the church, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). True manliness is connected to faith, spiritual strength, and readiness. God needs a tribe of such men to stand up and be counted in this wicked generation. He needs us to instill this spiritual leadership in our sons and other young men and new Christians who need spiritual leadership. May we accept that challenge and prevent men, as God defines it, from becoming a dying breed.