by John Ellis
As the book of Hebrews concludes, the sobering claim rings loudly that elders, “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give account” (Hebrews 13:17). Sadly, I think many of us think of that verse only in terms of the parts I left out – “Obey your leaders and submit to them” and, underlining that opening command, the verse’s ending declaration to, “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” As news report after news report bearing the shameful details of pastors abusing their authority splashes across the screens of our devices, elders, by God’s grace, need to make sure that they’re orienting themselves around the middle of Hebrews 13:17.
Many edifying books, articles, and blog posts have been written encouraging pastors to do just that – to seek to watch over the souls the Holy Spirit has entrusted them in a manner that will allow them to deliver a good report when they stand before King Jesus. Relying on the wisdom I have gleaned from many others, my aim with this post is to encourage elders to embrace a role of a servant in the life of their church family.
By “role of a servant” I mean things like serving in the nursery, passing out church bulletins at the door prior to the service, and being willing to help with refreshments before and after services. And none of those things, including similar acts of service I didn’t mention, take away from the role of eldering by necessity. In fact, serving the church family in a variety of ways is an aid to eldering, and encourages those whom the elders are keeping watch over to joyfully “obey your leaders and submit to them.”
Let’s be honest, though. Few of us enjoy serving in the nursery. Few of us enjoy cleaning out the coffee pots and restocking cookies while others are mingling, talking, and enjoying fellowship. Few of us enjoy throwing ourselves into the “mundane” avenues of service opportunities that present themselves in the life of the church family. Because all of us still struggle with sin, it can be easy for elders to self-justify their lack of engagement with the “mundane” acts of service.
The most substantial pushback on serving in “mundane” ways may come from an appeal to Acts 6:1-6.
The well-known passage in Acts 6 describes the selection of the Church’s first deacons. After fielding complaints about how the Hebrew widows were being better cared for than the gentile widows, the Apostles gathered with all the disciples and announced, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). Coming out of that meeting, seven deacons were chosen and commissioned to serve the first local church. Wrapped up in the Apostle’s decision was the promise that with their time freed up from practical service, “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
Of course, pastors should guard their time in the Word and prayer with a faithful jealously. But, let’s be honest; unless an elder is tasked with preaching, service leading, or teaching Sunday school, serving in the nursery during the worship service will not subtract time from study and prayer. And that’s the thing, the church context for most elders doesn’t preclude “mundane” (and important) areas of service.
The deacons are the ones tasked with the heavy lifting for the various service areas. They’re the ones who do the planning, scheduling, and other logistics. In most church’s context today, those who serve in the nursery, as greeters, on the hospitality team, etc. simply have to show up and serve. Doing so will most likely not take away from the time needed by elders to study, pray, counsel, and faithfully watch over the sheep pastorally. The fact is that many elders could serve their church family in a variety of ways on Sundays without it negatively affecting their pastoral duties. More importantly, unwillingness to serve in “non-elder” ways is tantamount to a refusal to follow our greatest example, Jesus Christ.
Even though he is the head of his Church, Jesus is the ultimate example of self-sacrificial service. To the world, that’s counterintuitive. As a general rule, those in charge do not humble themselves to the point of washing the feet of their inferiors. Not to mention that Christ humbled himself to the point of an agonizing death for the sake of his followers. Jesus’ self-sacrificial service for the sake of his Church is further modeled by the Apostle Paul.
One of the unifying themes throughout Paul’s epistles is the call to surrender our rights for the sake of the gospel. And Paul didn’t just preach it; he modeled it. Under the constant threat of imprisonment, torture, and deprivation, Paul served the growing Church as an itinerant preacher. And instead of demanding monetary remuneration for his apostle duties, Paul willingly set himself to the task of making tents. His humility is an example for all of us, and that includes elders.
Activities like preaching, teaching, and service leading are great privileges, to be sure. And those tasks demand humility and self-sacrifice. If allowed, though, those things can create an unhealthy divide between the elders and those whom they have been tasked with shepherding. Being in front of people as a mouthpiece brings with it the temptations to feel superior and the growing desire to be the center of attention. If unguarded, the work of pastoring can unfortunately cast the elders in an almost unconnected category from the broader church membership. Serving in the nursery, for example, is not only a great way to lead by example but is also an excellent and tangible reminder that the elders exist to serve the body, not the other way around.
One day, elders will stand before their King and give account of the souls entrusted to their care. Changing dirty diapers alongside of others from their church family aids elders in their pastoral labors and encourages the membership to respond joyfully to pastoral leadership.
Soli Deo Gloria