In the less hectic consistory meetings of summer, elders who do not include a regular discussion of preaching on their agenda ought to consider adding it.
For it is rare that a young preacher becomes a good preacher without help and advice from his elders. Rarer that an old preacher becomes a better preacher without their assistance.
The church needs good preachers. Every preacher wants to be a better preacher.
By “good preacher” is merely meant a preacher whose labors God is pleased to make a rich means of grace. He may serve without fanfare. He may not have outstanding gifts. His ministry may not be noticed by many outside his congregation. But his preaching edifies. And the faithful flock is happy with it because they observe that they and their families are edified. At a steady pace they are built up in faith in Jesus Christ, love for the Lord and the neighbor, and hope for the coming Savior.
Once more: it is rare that a man becomes a good preacher without the assistance of faithful elders who are called to supervise the preaching.
Here and there a man becomes a good preacher by dint of hard work, heartfelt pleas to the Supervisor of preachers to bless his work, and probably some well-placed advice from his helpmeet. But this—growth apart from the elders—is not as it should be. And he could be a better preacher, perhaps even a great preacher (God forbid we mean this in any other way than in God’s eyes, certainly not for the praise of men), if he also has sage and regular counsel from the elders’ seat—the men who know the sheep.
This is the way it should be. Regular counsel from the elders. To the pastor. Regarding the preaching.
The elders’ calling to supervise the minister and the ministry is broad. It embraces the minister’s walk—is it an example of godliness? It includes his doctrine—is it truth? It also includes whether his preaching is as edifying as it ought to be.
The Church Order of the PRC (Article 23) calls the elders to “take heed that the ministers…faithfully discharge their office….” The Form for Ordination of Ministers of God’s Word details what that discharge is. And the Questions for Church Visitation ask whether the minister works “faithfully” in the preaching, whether his preaching is such that the congregation is “built up through his preaching,” and whether the minister is “devoted as much as possible to the exercise of his office.”
The late Professor Homer Hoeksema once said that, in addition to elders guarding against false doctrine, “there is obviously another aspect of the preaching which … falls in the province of the elders’ supervision.” He was referring to the “area in which the elders and their minister may labor together in a spirit of brotherly love toward the improvement of the preaching of the Word.” Passionately, he concluded: “Elders who fail to do this are not faithful to their calling.”
In the glad consciousness that the calling of my ownsupervisors is strikingly similar, I urge upon all elders (with that “spirit of brotherly love”): be zealous in this great work of supervising the preaching, for the greater edification of the congregations.
Although there are different ways in which the supervision could take place, one suggestion may be that:
1) At the meeting after that at which the last family visitation reports are received, the elders include an agenda item: “discussion of the preaching.” Probably the clerk gathers up and organizes any comments about the preaching from the elders’ written reports of family visitation.
2) A half hour or so is reserved for a calm, brotherly discussion of the preaching, both with regard to its strengths and areas that could be improved. The minister may be encouraged, especially the younger man, even though there may be room for much improvement. The elders analyze the comments. Are the judgments of the members misguided? Do they have merit?
3) In this process, it is important that the elders be more than funnels for the comments of the members. Their calling is to analyze the comments and make their own judgments. It is not helpful for the minister simply to hear what the members think. He needs to hear what the elders think. For this reason, it may be helpful at times for the elders to have discussions in the absence of the minister, so that they can come to a consensus before they express their judgments to the minister. Usually, though, this is not necessary, and a cordial discussion of the elders’ advice is sufficient.
4) If there are few or no reports on the preaching from the family visits, the elders themselves should now give the minister their own evaluation. Let each of the men speak. In love for the minister and greater love for the congregation, they should give careful thought about what will best help the minister to build up the saints and honor Jesus Christ in his preaching.
5) These discussions could take place twice per year. (Most congregations conduct family visitation at two times during the year.) This would give time for the minister to embrace the advice of the elders, and for the elders to judge the improvements that are made.
The minister should encourage the process. And the elders should adopt his suggestion without hesitation.
The elders might have reservations. They may see risks. But the elders may have all confidence that they are able to help the minister, for the blessing of the sheep.
The elders may hesitate because the minister has been trained in theology, in preaching, in interpreting Scripture. What do elders have to offer? Much, in every way. They are men of God who know the needs of the flock and have a sense of what a good Reformed sermon is. They have heard more than a couple. If the minister is wise, he will help them articulate what concerns they may have. They might not say, “your sermons are not art homilies.” But when they say, “you need to develop the one, main idea of the text,” that is what they mean. Nor does it take training in hermeneutics to see that a minister must not make a spiritual point out of every word in a historical narrative. Elders may have confidence.
Greater reluctance may arise from the anticipated reaction of the minister. He balks. He knows best. He is seminary-trained. He bristles when sermon discussion is proposed. But the elders must go forward as the God-appointed supervisors of the preaching. For the good of the minister, they may not allow his resistance to prevail.
There is the possibility that an over-zealous elder does not reckon with ministers’ varying gifts, personalities, styles, or with the reality that growth is gradual. But the other elders can help the whole keep balance. “In the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
We ministers want the elders’ advice about the preaching.
The more the elders advise the minister, the less he will be inclined to get into bad habits. Their regular supervision is preventative. Nipping in the bud little weaknesses or faults will keep them from becoming big weaknesses. To change the figure: little tumors come out easily. Removing large ones creates risks. Pretty soon they are inoperable.
But we ministers want supervision because this leads to positive growth and development in the service of the Lord. There are ministers who can look back on their ministry with thankfulness to the elder or elders who spurred them on to better work, more careful exegesis, clearer applications to the specific needs of the congregation, and more. Because the elders were willing to speak, and were encouraged to speak, the gospel ministry was blessed to the greater benefit of the congregation.
There are other ministers who, when they look back, wish this had taken place.
There is one other benefit of regular discussion of the preaching. Those members who have criticisms of the sermons (are they pejoratively called “critics”?) are helped. These members must not be let loose on the minister. The instruction of Matthew 18 does not apply here. This is the public preaching of the gospel. Instead, the elders deal with this sometimes unpleasant matter by taking strong leadership and giving good instruction.
First, these members are assured that the elders are very interested in the members’ judgments. Elders want to listen closely to the opinions of God’s people. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, all the believers are prophets, with the ability to speak as well as make judgments about the church’s teaching elder.
Second, the members are assured that the elders discuss the preaching regularly. This will be a help to the members who have concerns: the elders are alert to their responsibility. They take supervision of preaching seriously. They do not merely respond to problems.
Third, the members are reminded that opinions vary among members in the congregation. One member may believe the preaching needs more application; another less. One supposes there is not sufficient comfort; another insufficient warning. The concerned member must know that the elders are called to make the judgment, and so inform the minister.
Fourth, the members may be confident that the elders will follow up on their concern. If necessary, the elders may appoint a committee to visit them. Wisdom will move the elders to let the member know their conclusions.
Supervise preaching. Edify the congregations.
Growth. Development. Of the young. Of the old. There is room for growth in young and old. Those of us tempted to forget that would do well to heed Luther’s striking advice:
Therefore, I again implore all Christians, especially pastors and preachers, not to be doctors too quickly and to imagine they know everything . . . But let ministers daily pursue their studies with diligence and constantly busy themselves with them. Moreover, let them with all care and diligence beware of the infectious poison of this imagined security and conceited overestimation: rather let them steadily keep on reading, teaching, studying, pondering, and meditating. Nor let them cease until they have discovered and are sure that they have taught the devil to death and have become more learned than God Himself and all His saints.
(To be continued. It remains to ask what the elders should watch for in the sermons. And whether a minister might be well-served by an older minister-mentor who would listen to his sermons and give some direction to him in the first years of his ministry.)