The Problem of the ‘Problem Elder’

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.

A time, a place, a way

As with so many things in church life and relationships the when, the where, and the how are often key. Pastors and elders who have been serving for any reasonable length of time know that there are situations where members, or even regular attenders, must be spoken to about some area of conduct or personality that is causing a problem. Sometimes situations call for a straight confrontation, speaking the truth in love. At other times care and gentleness must direct our steps to a more sensitive approach. A variety of things come into play here—the culture that exists in a given eldership, the kind of relationships shared, the ages and number of elders matters, the general state of the church at a particular time.

If you are facing a difficult situation a quick fix is very unlikely. So, what can be done? 

Here are four things to consider which, whilst they can be preventative, may also provide a way to get at the problem of the problem elder.

1. Elders meetings—business or fellowship?

That elders could neglect genuine spiritual fellowship as they meet to pray, discuss and direct the affairs of the church as a whole and consider individual members’ needs, sadly is a reality. Time pressure, urgent matters in the church, personal problems—all these can dictate the pace and priorities of elders meetings. Surely it is right and good that elders enjoy and encourage among themselves a fellowship of love, serving, and learning together. A quality thirty minutes given to reading, praying, talking—before hitting the agenda—would not only set the tone of the meeting, it could also enable the team to learn from each other and about each other. Such times could also indeed lead to healthy and helpful discussions on areas of difficulty in a most natural yet spiritual way. 

I know it was an emergency meeting, but Acts 20 has things to help us on this. At the end of the chapter, the tears of affection are quite literally overflowing. Such affection is never automatic, rather it comes as a result of life and service lived out together, real, observed, consistent and earned.

2. Table Talk is so often valuable

We all know how enjoyable and productive sharing a meal together can be. Quite separate from the ‘elders meetings’, a time for the elders and their wives to eat together, whether going out or in one another’s homes, would surely promote the kind of friendship that can help in or head off problems. How often the Lord himself instructed people over a meal.

3. A little bit of shoe swapping

It is easy to be what we could call familiar strangers—people we know very well in one context but with whom we spend little time otherwise and know little about. Such a scenario is more likely in a larger church or eldership. It is surely constructive and productive to show an interest in a fellow-elder’s interests. What do my fellow elders like to do to relax? Am I willing to ask them about it and even have a go at something I would not normally do? We all know that in reaching men in evangelism that ‘doing’ often leads to ‘talking’. Could we not apply it to friendship with our fellow elders? It does not need to be excessive but neither does it have to be non-existent. If it is a good way to love our neighbour then it is surely a good way to love our brother.

4. Facing a face-to-face

‘But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.’ (Gal 2:11)

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. So, taking someone with you, another elder or for whatever reason someone else, is essential. 

The following words from Alexander Strauch are worth pondering:

When it functions properly, shared leadership requires a greater exercise of humble servanthood than does unitary leadership. In order for an eldership to operate effectively, the elders must show mutual regard for one another, submit themselves one to another, patiently wait upon one another, genuinely consider one another’s interests and perspectives, and defer to one another. Eldership, then, enhances brotherly love, humility, mutuality, patience, and loving interdependence—qualities that are to mark the servant church. Furthermore, shared leadership is often more trying than unitary leadership. It exposes our impatience with one another, our stubborn pride, our bullheadedness, our selfish immaturity, our domineering disposition, our lack of love and understanding of one another, and our prayerlessness. It also shows how underdeveloped and immature we really are in humility, brotherly love, and the true servant spirit. Like the saints at Corinth, we are quick to develop our knowledge and public gifts, but slow to mature in love and humility.[1]

Where an elder is a genuine problem, ask these questions. Is it time to change the format of the elder’s meeting? Is it time for table fellowship? Is it time for sharing in mutual interests? Is it time to face that needed face-to-face?

What about where there is open sin? Well, that is another matter for another time.

[1] Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Kindle edition; Lewis & Roth), 118.