The Problem of the “Problem Elder”
With some people, in some situations, sometimes the only thing is an honest face to face meeting to set out the problem and the need to deal with it. Scripture has a range of examples and directives on such an approach. Armed with humility, Scripture, prayer, dependence on the Holy Spirit and courage, such a face-to-face can be faced. And of course, here, even if it is not clear-cut sin, the counsel of Matthew 18 is ever important.
We might not want to say it too loudly, but we often hear of ‘that one elder’ who causes so many difficulties for his fellow pastor/elders. Such individuals have singlehandedly brought ministries to a painful end and shaken churches. What are we to do about it?
What are we talking about?
Let us be specific for a moment.
There are leaders in churches whose influence is based more on the force of their personality than their character. Or they have been so successful in their business or career they are confident they are always right and want their own way (Prov 28:11). Sometimes a wealthy elder finances much of the church, so that people feel so much in his debt they would never challenge him on a matter.
There are elders who are older in years and have difficulty accepting and working with a pastor younger than themselves. This can lead to being unhelpfully vocal at member’s meetings, subtly undermining and even outrightly opposing a pastor and other elders. Or there are ex-pastors who complain that things are not run as they were in their time.
Some are classic ‘heel diggers’ who seem impossible to dislodge and create a blockage in progress and sour elders meetings. Sadly, even an Absalom syndrome can emerge where one elder talks to members in such a way as to promote his own view and short circuit elders meetings and plans. Or a further kind of manipulator who does deals outside and ahead of elders’ meetings.
There are secretive elders who, when challenged about an issue responds, ‘ah but you don’t know the full story’ and this is their frequent mode of operation (why don’t other elders know the full story?) Awkward though it is, there is the elder whose voice is not his own but his wife or another forceful member.
One of the great difficulties here is that whilst any of the above areas can lead to sin this is not automatically or necessarily the case, which can make it more difficult to deal with. Scripture speaks directly to an elder who sins but what if we feel it stops short of that yet remains a big problem?
Remembering What an Elder is and is Called to
‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’ (Acts 20:28)
Elders are appointed as men who have a grasp of and commitment to Scripture. Elders are examined as men whose character commends them. Elders are called to a ministry of care—they must care about caring. Elders are Christians who have a calling to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Elders are men, with lives that may be difficult but unknown to their fellow elders or indeed anyone else in their church.
There are multiple reasons why particular men are appointed in churches at particular times and under particular circumstances. But the calling to the task and its prerequisites and responsibilities surely provide the bases for all conduct that needs to be addressed, not merely the overtly sinful. Indeed, the situation of the problem elder may urgently demand it.
The elders’ task is to promote and exemplify a sense of love and care. But some elders create a culture of fear, where people can feel stifled and unable to speak on anything. This is a tragedy for those who learn from Scripture that perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn 4:18). When the custodians of care become the creators of fear a church is in serious trouble.