Before our wedding my wife-to-be, Ruth, and I decided that after our marriage we would select a new church as our congregational home. In New York we had many options, but we agreed (a good thing for newlyweds!) to join the Manhattan Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Soon we were immersed in a congregation made up of young and old, new members and members of many years, and individuals from various parts of the world—that was the congregation. To my great surprise, I was soon asked to be an elder and a primary Sabbath school teacher. An elder at 21? In my mind, elders were older individuals with many years of experience, and I did not have the years or the experience!
During our rather short stay at the Manhattan church I was supported by the other leaders, and I have many good memories of my first “eldership.” More than that, after I became a pastor I often recalled that experience, and it has since guided me in my relationship with elders.
It took the Seventh-day Adventist Church several decades to formally elect individuals to serve as church elders. It was not until the mid-1880s that the position of elder became a regular church office. Today elders are key leaders in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and pastors have a great opportunity of helping the elders serve the congregation and at the same time experience personal spiritual growth. I am sharing specific things that a pastor can do so that elders will more effectively serve the congregation and therefore be effective partners with the pastor.
Listen to the elders: Elders usually have valuable information about the congregation, and they can provide helpful insights to the pastor. If you are new to the church (or district), elders can help you understand the strengths, needs, and challenges of the church. I have made it a practice of asking the elders these questions: 1. What has happened in the church during the past five years? 2. What do you think the church will be like five years from now? The response from the elders has given me invaluable insights. Also, the elders have told me that these questions helped them assess the strengths and needs of the congregation.
Talk to the elders: You are busy—very busy. Perhaps you have a district with two, three, or four churches and the distance between them is great. Or you may have a large congregation that places many demands on your time. You may have one elder in your church or perhaps you have a large number of elders. I have had a church with one elder and another with nearly 20 elders. It’s a challenge to find time to communicate with the elders. I did not invent a system, but I copied it from another pastor, and it has worked well throughout my ministry. Early in my ministry I saw a pastor hold a three-minute meeting with the elders just before worship started. It worked for him, and it has worked for me. During those three minutes I heard from them and they heard from me. Without this scheduled meeting, the pastor and the elders may worship in the same congregation with minimal personal contact with each other. On the other hand, the meeting reminded us each Sabbath that we were a team.
Seek input: All too often complex issues are brought to a church board without adequate input from elders. I have made it a practice to have a brief elders’ meeting just before church board, at which time the agenda is reviewed. In some churches the elders met the week before the board meeting for the same purpose. Whichever method you use, either approach will shorten the length of the board meetings and lessen the potential for conflict. There are other complex issues that are best discussed by a smaller group, and often that group is the elders. Give the elders an opportunity to deal with them. They may bring a resolution or recommendation addressing the issue more effectively.
Provide resources and training: In a recent survey about 50 percent of the elders throughout North America (more than 1,100 responses) responded that they want resources and training. In the same survey more than 85 percent of ministers (nearly 400 responses) responded that elders need information about their responsibilities. Thus, ministers and elders agree that resources and training are needed for elders. It is interesting to note that a much larger proportion of ministers thought that elders needed resources and training. What is available and how do ministers and elders rate their effectiveness?
Elder’s Digest: More than 80 percent of the elders in North America receive Elder’s Digest, a quarterly magazine published by the General Conference. The North American Division makes it available without cost to all the conferences in its territory. About 60 percent of the ministers and elders who responded to the survey rated the magazine excellent or good. Is your church making certain that each elder receives it? As the survey shows, some elders are not getting it. Are the elders in your church receiving it?
Elder’s Handbook: We asked elders about the Elder’s Handbook. Forty percent told us that they have it, and a little more than half of them rated it as excellent or good. That means that 60 percent of the elders do not have this valuable resource. Until now the handbook, though not expensive, had to be purchased either by the elder or the church. The printed copy may still be purchased (check with the local Adventist Book Center or visit www.adventistbookcenter.com/), but elders and pastors in North America may download a PDF copy without cost. (The free PDF version is available at www.nadministerial.com/resources-for-elders.)
Retreats and seminars: Less than 40 percent of elders participate in retreats or seminars, and just 32 percent rate them as excellent or good. Retreats and seminars are usually held in a location that may require travel, so we are not surprised that less than 40 percent of the elders participate in them. We are surprised that only 32 percent rate these events as excellent or good. We realize that throughout the division a variety of events are offered, though our survey does not reveal the reasons for the low rating or low participation. Local conferences usually sponsor such events, and the evaluations they do may be more helpful.
Two of the resources—Elder’s Digest, Elder’s Handbook—are available to all elders. Retreats and seminars are available to many elders throughout North America. The pastor does not have to make a significant investment in time to make these resources available. It is primarily a matter of sharing the information about these resources or events. Elders who participate will be more effective leaders in their churches and ease the pastor’s workload.
Build relationships: After my first year of internship, the conference president informed me that I would be given my own church. I was excited because I would be the pastor. Of course, it did not take long to figure out that I had to deal with all the leaders—on my own. There was no longer a senior pastor to provide guidance and at times be the intermediary between church leaders and me. I had to deal directly with the leaders, and that of course also meant the head elder. The elder in my church was an older gentleman, retired from an executive position of a large corporation in the New York City area. Furthermore, he was one of the founding members of the church. Once I processed all that information about the elder, I was nervous and frankly a little scared of the man. In fact, he was supportive, and we liked working together. He was a blessing to the church and to me; and he no doubt helped me develop a positive attitude toward elders. I have pastored about a half dozen churches—small and large—and I have fond memories of the elders with whom I have worked. In all instances we built a positive and supportive relationship. My attitude as a pastor has had a significant impact on the relationship that will exist between me—the pastor—and the elder. The outcomes have been a blessing, and we have functioned as a team.
One of the reasons the first elder and I developed a wonderful working relationship, I believe, was that we kept each other informed. Elders need to keep the pastor informed, and the pastor needs to keep the elders informed. I have always kept a list of what I need to do, and one of the items was a list of what I needed to share with the elder. Once an elder told me, “I don’t hear anything from the pastor.” No doubt some pastors could say the same about the elder. An absence of contact creates problems. If you keep each other informed, you will build a positive relationship, and the church will benefit from it.
Elders are volunteers: Pastors know that, but it is easy to forget. Elders are not rewarded monetarily, and yet all of us like to know that our work is appreciated. We can acknowledge their ministry by personally and publicly expressing appreciation. The pastor is a public figure in the church and has many opportunities to make public statements. I make it a practice to express public appreciation to worship participants—musicians, scripture readers, and others. If the elder was involved in providing the participants (and often that is the case), let us remember them also. Church board meetings are also occasions when we can remember the work of the elder and others. Volunteers, and that includes elders, are the lifeblood of a thriving congregation.
There is another effective way to remember the elders—in our personal prayer life. I thank God that we have a system of elders, and I remember them in my prayers, thanking God for them and asking God to bless them in their ministry. If elders are effective in their ministry, our pastoral ministry will also be more effective, and our burden will be lighter. You, the elders, and the church will be blessed.
Nikolaus Satelmajer, , D.Min., S.T.M, serves as a consultant for elder resources for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.