Elders, Shepherds, Overseers

I enjoy word games, particularly those which help build better vocabulary. Synonymns, antonymns, etc are always a challenge and a thesaurus becomes a handy guide for writing blogs, papers and other important documents.

Peter, who was a disciple (a Christ-follower) and who was called to be an “Apostle” – a foundation layer (Ephesians 2:20) of the church with unique authority (Acts 1), having been with Christ from the Baptism of John until the Resurrection of our Lord, was preparing for a transition in leadership.

In my role as a pastor/shepherd of God’s flock and now continued role in shepherding/pastoring through theological education and training, I have given some careful thought to leadership transitions. Some hand-offs are like the intense sports relay races where there is only a limited time to ‘pass the baton.’ Dropping the baton, passing it too early or too late can lead to disastrous consequences.  

In I Peter 5:1-4, Peter engages the group (plurality) of elders in the congregations of Christ-followers with some clear leadership instruction. Though an apostle, he speaks of himself as a ‘fellow elder’ one who shared the load of leading the flock of God.

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers–not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Some reflections on leadership within a local church

1) Leadership may include a variety of ‘appeals.’ One leader may well ‘appeal’ to another leader or to those under his care without resorting to authoritarianism. The collective ‘body of elders’ (1 Timothy 4:14) do carry authority, and provide leadership to the body of Christ.  Hebrews 13:17 speaks of “obeying” your leaders (note the plural) and “submitting” to their (again plural) authority as they function for Christ in providing direction.

2) Leaders may suffer and will also be rewarded. Suffering isn’t just for a ‘select’ few in fact ‘suffering’ shapes the leaders and the furnace of God’s affliction produces the finest ‘gold’ in character change.

3) A helpful distinction in the terms was shared with me many years ago where the term “elders” refers to the OFFICE, whereas “shepherd” and “oversee” refers to the FUNCTION of those who rightfully hold this sacred office.

4) Leadership has unique temptations.  Peter notes

i) a compulsion to serve rather than a WILLINGNESS;

ii) a greed for money rather than a SACRIFICIAL SELFLESSNESS;

iii) a dominating, authoritarian style of lording it over, rather that EXEMPLARY SERVANTHOOD.

5) The Chief (John 10 – “Good”; Hebrews 13 – “Great”) Shepherd will return to His flock and those who have shepherded well will receive a lasting reward.

Leadership is a privilege and an awesome responsibility.  Noone should take the task lightly or enter into such a role without counting the cost.  

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