Bob Andrews defined the art of leadership in three ways: (1) knowing when to step up; (2) knowing when to step back; (3) knowing when to step aside. There is a time for leaders to step up to the task before them and pave the way for others. In the work of leadership there is a time to step back and let others accomplish the work. This does not detract from leadership but enhances it. Finally there is a time when leaders need to step aside. These attributes of leadership have a great impact upon the leadership of a local congregation and the work of the Lord.
The twelve apostles were tasked of taking the message of Jesus Christ to the world (Matthew 28:18-20). Under their leadership guided by the Holy Spirit the apostle Paul would later declare the gospel had been “preached to every creature under heaven” (Colossians 1:23). The pattern of organization was propagated through the direction of the apostles. “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (Acts 14:23). These men who would wear the mantle of leadership were called “elders” (Acts 20:17); “overseers” and “shepherds” (Acts 20:28); and “bishops” (Philippians 1:1). Each name described the work they would engage in as leaders of the church of God.
Paul describes the work of leadership in Acts 20:28-31 as those who must take heed to themselves and the flock as diligent shepherds tending the family of God. Serving as overseers these men bear the responsibility of the souls of those in their care (Hebrews 13:17). Shepherding illustrates the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep by knowing his sheep and leading them forth. Jesus explained the role of leadership when He said, “To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5).
The relationship of the elder to the members of the local congregation is built upon a relationship of trust and provision. These men do not reside in quiet meetings behind closed doors with little or no interaction with the members but one on a personal level where the members are willing to follow the guidance and wisdom of its leaders.
Overseeing the church is being watchful of the souls of the members. Love for souls is a vital part of the elder’s role in the local congregation and time must be spent in developing that love. To be an overseer is to be aware of the needs on a personal level. This will only enhance the willingness of the members to respond to the loving hand of the elders as they lead the flock.
Leadership in the church can be found in the three actions spoken of by Bob Andrews. There is a need in the church for men to (1) step up to the wonderful life of serving the Lord as a leader of men’s souls. The elders in the first century were not perfect men but they loved souls to give their lives for them. The Holy Spirit instructed Paul in the qualities of men who take on the leadership role of shepherding (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1) and many men possess those qualities today. So often, brethren have imposed greater restrictions on who can serve as elders than the Holy Spirit instructed Paul and the result is the church fails to grow. Men of courage need to step up to the work of serving as bishops of God’s church and exercise the role of shepherding the flock with the love and care for God’s people.
Stepping up the work of overseeing the church is no small task. Often in the work of leadership elders must step up and make difficult decisions. Having the courage to make these decisions will require boldness and a willingness to be criticized. Paul warned the Ephesians elders to “watch” (Acts 20:31). Guiding the hearts of minds of a congregation is a daily task of vigilance.
Within an eldership there is also a need for leadership to be exemplified when they (2) step back and let others do a work. Elders who micro-manage the deacons or others in the church are not leading but driving cattle. “Leadership is influence” according to John Maxwell and serving as an elder is influencing others to accomplish the work of the Lord in their own lives. Deacons are men who also have qualities given by the Holy Spirit (1 Timothy 3) and elders should let these men accomplish their work in their specific role. When assigned a task deacons should be expected to carry out the assignment without the prodding of the elders. This would include other functions within the church. Leadership is helping others realize their potential in serving.
Good leadership qualities are also found when elders realize that others are better suited to accomplish a task than they may be. Stepping back may simply mean to allow another person to facilitate a need to help uplift and build up the congregation. Great leaders are those men who allow others to develop their potential within themselves.
Finally (3) there may be a time for elders to step aside. A prevalent view is often held that once a man becomes an elder he must serve that capacity for life. But there are many things that may hinder a man from doing his work of shepherding the flock. Age can diminish the clarity of mind to deal with sometimes overwhelming challenges of shepherding. The work of an elder is exhausting at times: visiting the sick, encouraging the downtrodden, guiding the hearts of new converts, massaging the marital strife within families, helping parents train their children in spiritual paths, planning the work of the church, admonishing the unruly and a hosts of other things that take time and energy. When a man becomes unable to carry out these functions it may be time to step aside and let those who can fulfill the role.
The work of shepherding is a daily work. Shepherds do not sit around once a month and make decisions for the flock without being among the flock. As Lynn Anderson explains, “Shepherds need to smell like the sheep.” When a man no longer “smells like the sheep” he must have the courage to step aside or step down as a shepherd. How can a man who does not know the flock and their needs serve as a knowledgeable leader? Family conditions may prohibit the man from doing the work of shepherding. Sometimes congregations grow beyond the understanding a man who has served faithfully for many years and he no longer understands the needs of the church.
It takes great courage to realize the need to step aside from the eldership. Death should not be the only reason a man no longer serves as an elder. The work of shepherding includes the training of other men to STEP UP to the role so that one day a man can STEP ASIDE and let the church be guided by men who are leading, guiding, admonishing and encouraging the flock. Serving as an elder is not about accolades from men. Humility is the armor of any man serving. Elders will receive a greater judgment (Hebrews 13:17; James 3:1) but they do not get a larger crown for serving. As servants (John 13) they lead by serving the Lord Jesus Christ. Great leaders are those men who step up, step back and step aside.