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).