If these are the responsibilities of the eldership as a whole, what are the responsibilities of each elder individually?
To discern people within the body who need more care from a shepherd.
To discern subgroups with whom they can build relationships of trust, becoming available as a shepherd throughout life.
Responding as an individual to crises.
Being attentive to the church’s mission, teaching, resources, staff, and potential sources of conflict. Oversight as an individual means primarily attention, and then collaboration with the other elders to intervene and correct when necessary.
Developing relationships with other elders and staff members, to be cooperative in oversight and pastoral care.
Empowering others to help steward and care for the disciples who make up Central.
At Central, elders fulfill their pastoral care and oversight responsibilities in cooperation with the ministry staff. The elders all have their own areas where they serve as volunteers, and different subsets of our community in which they try to be intentionally engaged, employing their own gifts and investing energy as they are called. As a whole, the eldership also supervises the church’s ministry staff and makes decisions about personnel matters.
Elders and ministers communicate regularly about the needs of people in the church often—indeed, one of the questions we often ask when people reach out with needs for prayer is “is it okay if we share this with the other elders and ministers?” That helps respond to people with encouragement and also pray for people in the church regularly.
Once a month, the elders and ministers meet for prayer and to discuss challenges facing the church and to make plans for the community, with other ministry leaders coming occasionally to share information or seek counsel about their work. While the elders delegate a lot of the day-to-day responsibility of leading ministries to the staff and other ministry leaders in the church, when questions and concerns arise that affect the community of the church or involve significant allocation of the community’s resources, they weigh in and make decisions together as needed.
There are a handful of Greek words in the New Testament used for the position that we call “Shepherds” and “Elders”.
Presbuteros (πρεσβύτερος, 66x) is often translated “elder”. It’s a common word, particularly in the Jewish culture in which Jesus lived, usually referring to the different councils holding authority in communities. About half of the occurrences in the N.T. refer to those groups of Jewish elders, and about half refer to leaders in the churches specifically.
Episkopos (ἐπισκοπός, 5x) is often translated as “overseer” or “bishop”. The word probably comes more from Greek culture, and means something like a guardian. All of the N.T. uses refer to church leaders.
Poimen (ποιμήν, 18x —verb form another 11x) is the Greek word for “shepherd” (translated “pastor” in Eph 4:11). Shepherd is a common ancient metaphor for leadership, and was applied both to the leaders of ancient Israel (see Ezekiel 34) and to the leaders of the church as well.
All of these words are generally used interchangeably. For instance, in Acts 20, Paul sends for the “elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). But later on, he says to these elders, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). Titus 1 also uses the language of both elders and overseers.
Scripture provides some guidance for the kind of person that should be sought as elders in the Church. The most familiar guidance comes from a couple of passages in letters written by Paul to young ministers he charged with appointing Elders in young churches he had founded—Timothy and Titus. The passages read as following:
“Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.”
(1 Timothy 3:1–7)
“An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”
In general, we should recognize that most of what Paul commends for elders is not just for them! After all, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness and the like are things that all disciples are compelled to pursue. Thus, the lists create a general impression of what it means to be a mature disciple of Jesus. Elders are called to be exemplary, worthy models of the sort of life God is calling us toward. That does not mean that they have to be perfect, never making mistakes. Rather, it means that they have gained a level of maturity that allows them to serve as good examples for the community, even as they continue to grow in the way of Jesus.
More specifically, the passages direct Timothy and Titus to appoint elders who have leadership qualities. Specifically, they should lead their families well and respectably, and have a good reputation with outsiders. They should have had some time to mature in their faith, and not be personally given to vices that cause them to lose control and hurt others. Further, they should have a grasp of the church’s teachings and be able to teach others.
There isn’t a required number for people serving on the eldership. When the current group comes to a point that they feel like they need more support to handle the responsibilities of the work, they will initiate a process for recognizing new elders. Typically, they will look for those who are already actively doing elder-like work among the membership, both providing the kind of personal support that we call pastoral care and also sharing in some leadership responsibilities in a given ministry. After selecting possible candidates and meeting with them, the elders will solicit input from the congregation before finalizing official appointments.
Elders are appointed indefinitely, and it is up to each elder to recognize the changing scope of their service. Some may serve for many years, and some may serve for a shorter season of life.
If an elder feels like they may have a temporary season where other demands will make it difficult to serve, they may take a sabbatical period where they step away from the ongoing responsibilities, rejoining when they feel more able to serve.
Furthermore, there may be times when individual shepherds who are faced with changing seasons of life need to shift their role in some ways. For example, some may need to step away from the oversight/responsibilities while continuing to serve as a shepherd dedicated to pastoral care. Such changes are made by consulting with the other elders as the need arises.