Elders on a Mission From God: a book review

I am near the beginning of my first pastorate, discovering and pressing into what it means for me to lead faithfully. One of my tasks as pastor, is to help give shape to our elder team. So I have been on the look out for materials on leading elder boards, elder selection, and resources which help elders fulfill their calling as godly church leaders.

Eldership and the Mission of God is a resource which does all of the above and more. Authors J.R. Briggs (pastor of the Renew Community in great Philadelphia and author of Fail) and Bob Hyatt (founding pastor of the Evergreen Community in Portland, Oregon) are both leaders in the Ecclesia Network–a network of missional church communities. They are committed to raising up leaders and sustainable leadership that is rooted in God’s mission. They see the role of elders as integral to a sustained Christian witness:

So why did we write a book about eldership–or more specifically, about eldership oriented around God’s mission? Because it carries significant implications for becoming and remaining faithful witnesses in the world. If Paul spilled significant amounts of ink writing about mission-aligned leadership structures in the early formation of churches, why do we need more information about the role of elders today? Because few talk much about it, and it needs to be addressed (14, chapter one).

And so Briggs and Hyatt examine the role of elders from the perspective of mission, rooting their understanding of elders (and Christian leadership) in the biblical account. They also provide practical advice for shaping an elder team and elder meetings.  In the pages that follow they discuss:

  • the Characteristics of ‘mission-alignment’ (chapter two)
  • the roles and functions of an elder (chapter three)
  • the biblical qualifications of an elder (chapter four)
  • cultivating an ethos rooted in mission (chapter five)
  • selecting elders (chapter six)
  • the spiritual formation of an elder (chapter seven)
  • leading as a team (chapter eight)
  • decision-making (chapter nine)
  • difficult tasks (chapter ten)
  • the question of women elders (chapter eleven)
  • and other practical questions (chapter twelve)

Briggs and Hyatt’s churches and leadership structures are not identical in every respect but they speak with one voice on what they feel are the essential elements of Church leadership which is ‘on mission.’  If they are dogmatic on any one point, it is that a church leadership team should not be called an ‘elder board.’  They write:

We discourage the use of “elder board.” Further, we don’t believe that the primary role of elders is making decisions for the church. Certainly, that is a part of the role, but not the most essential part. Elders are individuals called out from within the community for the good of and equipping of the commuity. To do this, they must first be invested in the position of elder, not seeing it as a once-or twice-a-month meeting, but as a role they are called to fulfill within the community. (114-15).

And so they advocate not meeting in anything that resembles a boardroom but in one-another’s-homes (188). Their concept of Christian leadership is more relational and organic than Robert’s Rule and a business meeting.

Briggs and Hyatt  give thoughtful consideration to elder selection (especially in reference to 1 Timothy, Titus and 1 Peter). They do not advocate choosing elders through a free-for-all vote (82). Instead they advise that the elder team sees their role as the guiding the process and recognizing that who by gifts and character is already functioning as an elder for the community (83,87), and inviting the congregation in to confirm that call. The attention to the biblical qualifications of elders allows for a more robust model of Christian leadership than just a board of decision makers.

Another aspect I really appreciated was their insights in spiritual formation of elders. Hyatt and Briggs advise elders to see our role as being responsible ‘to the community’ rather than ‘for the community,’ seeing the crucial role of personal disciplines in enabling us to lead others spiritually,  and the importance of us as leaders modeling belief in the good news of salvation in Christ (rather than frenetic attempts at self-salvation) (102-108). This ongoing attention to spiritual health of elders enables us to fulfill our calling in the church.

Hyatt & Briggs do a good job of highlighting some of the practical considerations but where they are best is on calling us back to leadership structures that reflect our mission as a church, or better God’s mission for our church.  If the church exists to ‘image God’ and to ‘reflect the sending/sent heartbeat of the missioning God’ (26) than elders are not their to choose the color of the carpet or to champion their theological hobbyhorses. They exist to enable us as a church to be a faithful presence to the community and to share their gifts to guide and give shape to communal life.

Reading a book like this was helpful to me as a young pastor. I see both ways that I need to sharpen my leadership of the elders and ways that I need to release them to share in leading the church. I also see how great a group God has called to the place I pastor.  I have a gifted, loving group of elders in my charge who care about God’s mission to our city and world. I will be purchasing multiple copies of this book to share with my fellow elders. As with any book, I don’t agree full sail with all their points, or think that their every suggestion is mappable on the polity of my church; nevertheless they are fruitful dialogue partners, practical and theologically astute. This book is tremendously helpful!  I give this book five stars!

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP in exchange for my honest review.

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