Probably the simplest advice for identifying elders comes from Thabiti Anyabwile in his book, Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons: “Notice men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church even though they don’t have the title ‘elder’ or ‘pastor.’” That’s a great place to start thinking.
Beyond that, it may be helpful to keep in mind a few categories that we use in assessing a potential elder:
We’ve already drawn attention to this in a previous post. But the majority of the New Testament’s prerequisites for ministry relate to a man’s character. So it is worth reiterating some of the qualification categories for candidates from 1 Tim. 3:1-7:
- Is he “sober-minded, self-controlled, and respectable”?
- Is he “hospitable”—not primarily in the sense of knowing how to decorate a dinner table, but in the sense of demonstrating a welcoming attitude toward others?
- Does he have a track record as a gentle and peacemaking leader; in other words would we say that he is “not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome”?
- Does he “manage his own household well,” in a dignified way—and, assuming he is married, would his wife and/or children agree?
- Is he “well thought of by outsiders” such as neighbors and coworkers and others in our community?
While other leadership competencies matter, the main evaluation point here is skillfulness in teaching sound doctrine. “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” Paul explains (Titus 1:9). This doesn’t mean that every elder must be equally skillful large group preaching. But there must be an aptitude for grasping God’s Word in such a way that it can be applied to specific scenarios. We want leaders who will provide Scritprue saturated and theologically rooted leadership.
The New Testament pictures churches led not by a single senior pastor, but by a team of elders. One of the benefits of a team is teamwork. The analogy I use is a basketball team. In building a team of 5 basketball players, you want to see some strengths in everyone: each player must be able to dribble, shoot, defend, etc. But you also want to think about how well those players will work together and how their different strengths (perimeter shooting, rebounding, etc.) can complement each other. In basketball, great teams require great “team players” who will lay down their egos and work together for the common good. The same is true in a team of elders: while some requirements are common to all, we also want humble leaders who work well together with unique strengths.
This leads to an issue that we can easily overlook: if a guy is godly and gifted, it doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to serve in this ministry role right now. A curious example is found in Acts chapter 1. From the outset, we need to admit that something unique is happening: the church is looking for a leader to replace Judas. The apostles “put forward” two leaders, Justus and Matthias—both of whom presumably appear to be qualified for the role. Then they pray and ask for guidance. How do they make a decision? They simply cast lots (Acts 1:23-26), and Matthias is selected rather than Justus. I don’t think the takeaway is that casting lots (or rolling dice or flipping coins) is the wisest way to choose elders. (There is a difference between things the Bible merely describes, and things the Bible prescribes.) But the point I want to make is that a man who appeared qualified to everybody’s eyes…just didn’t fit at that time. And only the Lord knows what other important ministries he had prepared for Justus in that season while Matthias was devoting time to prayer and the ministry of the Word.
What’s the point of all of this? There are some categories we should prayerfully consider. But above all, we need to seek the Lord for his guidance (in prayer and through a reasonable process) for who he is calling to join the team and giving to the church to shepherd for the next season.