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Encouraging by Understanding

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Samuel shares how his interactions with our elders during the internship have given him a better glimpse into the lives of our elders and how we can encourage them.

The books that we have read during this internship have, no doubt, been really helpful (as Ryan shared last week). But I had one issue with all of them – they couldn’t hold a conversation (for the sake of this article, I tried).

But people can! And that has been another big part of the internship that has been such a blessing and help – meeting various people of the church to get to know them and to hear them share about their lives and how God has been working in and through them. It has been most encouraging, and I would love to share about all the meetings we’ve had with the different people but allow me just to focus on one group of people whom we have been meeting – our church elders.

To meet all of the elders was an explicitly expressed goal of the ministry internship, and through these meetings, we got to hear about each of their lives, their work as elders, and the different ministries they have been involved in. But our interactions with them also extended past these intentionally arranged meetings. Not only did we spend time with each of them individually, but we also had the opportunity to sit into the church staff meetings and elder meetings, to observe as they worked out their not-so-visible responsibilities.

So then, you might ask: “What is one thing you’ve learnt through all these interactions with the elders?” Well, I think one of the first answers that would come to my mind is: “Man, it’s really hard to be an elder.”

One of my favourite reads from the internship was Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome by Kent and Barbara Hughes. It was a really enjoyable read, full of anecdotes, but very biblical, practical, and challenging. As its name suggests, the book is primarily about the way we evaluate the success of a ministry. It warns us against a worldly definition of success (generally, the size of a ministry), and is very real (through its various anecdotes) about the detrimental effects that arise from a wrong view of ministry success. Instead, it suggests that success in ministry should be defined by faithfulness, serving like Jesus did, loving God, really believing what we believe, being committed to prayer, keeping holiness, and having a positive mindset and an encouraging attitude.

While I imagine the primary target group for this book would be church elders, or someone pursuing ministry, I found the last chapter of the book particularly helpful. It is titled: "How the Congregation Can Help". Essentially, it exhorts us that we can encourage our elders simply by understanding them. It invites us to consider the dangers elders face in their ministry, the difficulties of their calling, and the vulnerabilities of our elders. This chapter was particularly striking because as I read through these points, all the interactions and experiences that I had with our church elders came flooding into my mind. And as I considered the things that they had shared about their ministries and the work that I had seen them do as elders, it occurred to me that indeed, it really is a difficult calling, in which they face many dangers and increase their vulnerability.

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Take preaching as an example. Hughes listed four points on the difficulty of preaching but his first was impactful enough – the huge responsibility one bears in preaching. Charles Spurgeon himself said,

It may be light work to you men of genius and learning; but to me it is life and death work. Often have I thought that I would rather take a whipping with a cat-o’-nine-tails than preach again. How can I answer for it at the last great day unless I am faithful? “Who is sufficient for these things?” When I have felt the dread responsibility of souls that may be lost or saved by the word they hear…[it] made me wish that I had never ventured on so bold a life-work. How shall I give an honorable account of my commission at last?

I read this point and I thought about our elders whom I have seen innately express this great burden each time they have to preach – whether in the pulpit or in other situations such as weddings or funerals – in their constantly asking various people to keep them in prayer as they prepare for it. They do feel their insufficiency.

Take counselling as another example. Hughes writes, “Counselling is a major element in making the pastorate difficult.” The emotional stress involved in counselling means that some psychologists will not take more than 15 hours of counselling per week. Yet as I talked to the elders, I realise some of them have quite a significant number of hours doing counselling every week! There were times, as I listened in to the elders’ meetings and hearing them share about the issues that they were walking alongside members with, when I thought: “How are they bearing all these burdens?” And as they shared about their counselling work, it also became apparent to me that two things make their work of counselling that much more difficult and stressful. Firstly, that sins often affect other members of the congregation, and secondly, unlike psychologists, elders have to be personally involved in their lives of the flock, which leads me to…

The vulnerabilities I have seen that elders are exposed to.

Hughes writes that one of these vulnerabilities simply come from an elder’s charge to be in “an official love relationship with his congregation”. And as CS Lewis writes “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” The greater the love, the greater the vulnerability. And it struck me, in my interactions with the elders, as I heard about and saw them give themselves to people in their ministries and involve themselves deeply in their lives, that they really were multiplying their vulnerabilities, and in doing so, opening their hearts to “a sea of sorrows from which an unloving heart is safe”. As Hughes writes, “When one of his flock hurts, he hurts; when one is bereaved, he is bereaved when one backslides, he agonizes.”

I’ve only listed a few points, but Hughes writes all this to finally exhort congregations, saying: “We have given lengthy consideration to understanding your pastor because that in itself will ultimately encourage him. A congregation that understands the ministry will support it intelligently and practically.” I’ve found that through the interactions with our elders during this internship, I’ve had a better glimpse into both the shared dangers, difficulties, and vulnerabilities that they all face by nature of their calling as elders, as well as those they face uniquely as different individuals with different lives and personalities. And that has led to me understanding them better as I hear about their work and get to know each of them personally. But we really don’t need to be a church intern to do this. We can understand our elders, and ultimately encourage them, in simple ways such as having a right, biblical view of their role and just spending time to get to know them personally.

There are many other specific ways that we can encourage our elders. But…

  • We would encourage them by praying for them if we understood the nature of their work.
  • We would encourage them by striving to live godly lives if we understood the joy that that brings them.
  • We would encourage them by honouring them, whatever their ministry, if we understood the dangers, difficulties, and vulnerabilities that they face.

Ultimately, we can encourage our elders simply by understanding them.