Monday’s Column: Neal at the Cross
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 Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, the writer quotes the prophet Micah. This prophet, whose ministry was to both the northern and southern kingdoms (1:1), writes much to warn these divided kingdoms united in sin and rebellion against God. But, he also extends hope for the future. He speaks of One to come, who would come from the same little village the great king David called home (1 Sam. 16:4ff). This coming king would be characterized in several ways, which Micah writes about in Micah 5:
- From an unlikely place (2)–This coming one would defy men’s expectations.
- From the Lord (2)–This coming one would be given from God.
- From the days of eternity (2)–This coming one would be God Himself
- For the purpose of ruling (2)–This coming one would come with authority.
- For the shepherding of His flock (4)–This coming one would come to lead men.
- For our peace (5)–This coming one would come for our good.
- For deliverance (5-6)–This coming one would come for our salvation.
As Jesus conducted His earthly ministry, His works and teaching fulfilled over 300 prophesies written down in every major division of the Old Testament books. But there are prophesies, like Micah 5:1-6, which He fulfilled simply by being born and pursuing His ministry. These aspects of His work had to be hopeful and comforting to those with hearts of faith who lived during that time. But, as we look back over two millennia, it still has relevance to us today. He still defies our expectations, exceeding them. He still is God’s gift for us. He still bears the same nature. He still must be Lord of our lives. He still must be the leader of our lives. He still gives peace. He still delivers.
As you count your blessings today, look beyond the earthly and material. If there are things going poorly for you right now, be reminded of the greatest blessing of all. Because God loves and cares for us, He sent One forth for us. He accomplished His work and now has returned to the Father’s right hand. At His appointed time, God will send Him forth to judge. Those who have embraced and followed Him will enjoy eternal deliverance. For that, be thankful!
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 met him 20 years ago, the man with the twinkling eyes
He and his wife opened their home to me, and I could recognize
Their love for Christ and Christians, and how well they’d harmonize
Those loves in all their actions, it was there in those twinkling eyes
He shepherded me for several years, the man with twinkling eyes
He had a tenderness so deep, he’d often maximize,
His laugh infectious, his insight savvy, so tough to criticize,
He loved Bear Valley with all of himself, this man with twinkling eyes
I visited many members here with the man with twinkling eyes
Spent hours in meetings and planning, trying God’s will to realize
He was youthful and spry for his age, his resources he’d optimize
A steward of stewards in every way, the man with twinkling eyes
A servant’s heart with savvy hands, the man with the twinkling eyes
Involved and willing, helpful and hopeful, we couldn’t help but idolize
When hearing and memory faded, you still could characterize
This man of God, through ups and downs, by those twinkling eyes
I saw him last week, he greeted me with joyful, twinkling eyes
So hard to believe this morning he gained his heavenly prize
While his long life is fresh in my memory, I’ll try hard to memorize
As kind a face and heart as I’ve seen, the man with the twinkling eyes
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
By: A blessed fish
Let me tell you about the greatest fisherman I have ever known.
He has always found success at his favorite fishing hole. A special place where the inlet was fruitful, and many fish loved to be caught. His technique is simple. A welcoming lure. A handshake, a hug and a smile. Just to let you know you’re wanted.
He will always catch-n-release and the fish always feel better for the experience. Many wide eyed and spiritually young fish will enter the inlet, hoping that someone would catch them and show them the kind of love this great fisherman offers. He never judges a fish – their size, beauty, wealth or position. He only lets them know how glad he is to see them at the inlet.
His success is solely based on persistence, perseverance and patience. Three times a week you can always count on him being right there at the inlet. Waiting for the opportunity to hook’em and hold’em. He always makes every fish feel welcome and wanted.
He knows every fish by name. If he thinks a fish has drifted off down steam, he will go in search, armed with a tackle box full of Christian love and do his best to bring them back to the inlet. Not for him, but for their sake and for God’s sake.
He hooked this fish over 11 years ago. My wife led me to the inlet. But, he hooked me and let me know that I was welcome here. He helped save this soul for eternity.
I think he is getting tired now, but few may notice. So many years of fishing, but he is still there almost every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. I think he wants to share his favorite inlet with others who share his passion. Man, woman, or child, he wants us to join him. We don’t have to wait. We don’t have to be assigned the duty. We just need to step into the water and follow his lead. There is plenty of room at the inlet. Let’s all join this fisherman at the Bear Valley inlet and make sure every fish that enters knows they are wanted and welcome.
The great fisherman’s name is Clint and this fish will always love him.
And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.
NEAL’S NOTE: This was submitted to me by someone who wants to remain anonymous. Truer, more fitting words could not be spoken about one of the most special people any of us have ever known. We’re very blessed to have Clint Stephens as a member at Bear Valley, one of the men who was at the time a shepherd when I was hired. Enjoy!
- 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.”
“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!