Rev. Gritters is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hudsonville, Michigan.
In other words, the ruling elders should encourage, advise, and give constructive criticism to the pastor in his role as chief teaching elder for the congregation. The pulpit can be a lonely place. The pastor who stands there from week to week without such support from his fellow elders is called to bear a burden too heavy for one pair of shoulders.
(Lawrence Eyres, in The Elders of the Church)One great encouragement in my ministry is that there always has been at least one elder in the consistory who makes an effort to stop by my study to see how I am doing. A quick phone call for lunch together, or a short visit over coffee sometime during the week, is appreciated more than any non-pastor will ever know.
Rather than finding this intrusive, nosy, or time-consuming, I have considered this an important aspect of the work of the elder. But more important than the encouragement of the minister is the welfare of the office of the ministry. Elders are called to take heed to the minister of the Word.
Called to this work by Christ Himself, elders oversee the minister for the sake of Christ, out of love for Christ. Because the minister’s welfare is inseparable from the welfare of the congregation, elders’ care for the minister is a reflection of their love for the church.
Elders are to take heed to the doctrine and walk of the minister.
For the sake of the doctrine, elders take heed to the minister’s walk. Out of love for the truth as it is in Christ, the elder watches over the minister’s life.
The conduct of the minister will either make or break his ministry.
I note, just in passing, that my search of this magazine over the years has produced no articles on this subject, except for the briefest mention of the calling to oversee the minister’s life. Little attention has been given to the vital importance of it, the biblical grounds for it, or the perils of failure. Because we ministers write most of the articles, I understand why. Let this be a beginning, and pray that it be profitable for all our ministries and flocks of Jesus Christ.
In the Form for Installation of Elders and Deacons, under the section “the office of elder,” the brethren are given this solemn charge: “Thirdly, it is also the duty particularly to have regard to the doctrine and conversation of the minister of the word….” First is mentioned his doctrine. For the sake of the doctrine, they have regard to his conversation.
The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, Article 23, enjoins the elders “to take heed that the ministers…faithfully discharge their office.” In Article 81, in connection with censura morum, the officebearers are called to “exercise Christian censure among themselves, and in a friendly spirit admonish one another with regard to the discharge of their office.” Referring to an activity at the council meeting, the article certainly lays out the calling of officebearers to oversee the life and labors of their peers.
The mandate appears also in the questions for Church Visitation where, in the absence of the minister, questions are put to the elders regarding the minister’s work and life. Plainly implied is that the elders are observant of the minister in more than a casual and passive manner.
This supervision is one important way in which the elders are “assistant with their good counsel and advice to the minister of the Word…” (see under “secondly” in the “Form for Installation”).
In addition to Reformed practice, this is the rule in many Presbyterian denominations. In one of their “Directories for Worship,” elders are told that they “should have particular regard to the doctrine and conduct of the minister of the Word, in order that the church may be edified, and may manifest itself as the pillar and ground of the truth.”
These instructions in the Reformed Formulas and Church Order are based on the sound, biblical principle of mutual supervision found inActs 20:28, where the apostle calls the elders to “take heed to yourselves….” In order for the elders (which includes pastors) to take heed to the flock, they must first look to themselves.
There is a walk that adorns the doctrine (Titus 2:10). On the other hand, there is a walk that makes doctrine unattractive. There is even a walk that makes the doctrine utterly repulsive.
Titus 2 records Paul’s instructions to a pastor for faithful labors in the congregations. Aged men, aged women, young women, and young men, are all shown “things which become sound doctrine.” How they live in the congregation and before the world must correspond to the truth they confess. Before Paul proceeds to teach servants (employees), he says to the preacher, Titus, “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works….” Titus’ own pastoral life is to be a pattern for the congregation. Then, in a striking phrase, Paul explains that the believer’s conduct “adorns the doctrine.”
From the word adorns we get our word cosmetics. However beautiful a young woman may be without cosmetics, doctrine is ugly without the adornment of a godly life. If that is true for servants (Paul’s specific point in verse 10), how much more true for the ministers of the gospel, the bearers of the message of grace!
Why? For the sake of the gospel, the precious gospel of grace, the gospel of the beauty and holiness of God, whose children and image-bearers we are.
There is talk around our town of a local congregation which has an inordinate number of unhappy people “asking for their papers.” They are unhappy with the minister. Why? Not his preaching, but his life. His bad conduct (in their estimation) makes so much noise that the people cannot hear his sermons.
Elders must take heed to … the minister. Elders can help immensely to guard from his life becoming an offense to the flock.
One great obstacle to this work is the fear that an elder would naturally have to interfere in the life of the dominee. In addition to the proper sense of respect for the office that an elder has, any man hesitates to involve himself in another man’s life.
Two things help an elder overcome such fear. First, the right attitude will carry him along. He loves the minister as a brother in Christ, recognizing that the minister’s calling is heavy; he has confidence in his calling as overseer, which requires him to oversee the minister; he seeks the glory of Christ through a healthy flock, cared for by an honorable man of God.
Second, he may overcome his hesitation and fear by the right preparation: get to know the minister in casual, informal ways. When he does this, the natural hesitations will evaporate quickly.
Indeed, we ministers must be approachable, open, with the genuinely humble opinion of ourselves that oversight is necessary. May God deliver the churches from ministers who will not learn from anyone else. May God give the ministers hearts that are receptive to the rule of Christ in their elders.
Elders do not want to think about the consequences of missing a fatal flaw in the minister. For the sake of the gospel, they must.
On a Monday morning, when the minister is recovering from a hard week and a long Sunday, a phone call to meet for lunch is a great help for a pastor. No agenda needs to be determined beforehand. Simply a casual visit to see how the man is doing, and talk about the work generally, indicates a care for the man and an interest in the ministry. If that is all the fellowship becomes, it will be profitable for the gospel. At the same time, the elder becomes familiar in a good way with the minister’s strengths and weaknesses, his struggles and joys, his burdens and difficulties. Knowing them, he can help with his “good counsel and advice” in many ways.
A minister (in most cases) has a wife, too. The confession of most ministers I know is that their wife is a mainstay of their ministry. How important that the elders see to this, too. An elder and his wife, visiting over dinner or after church some Sunday evening, will see how the man interacts with his wife, will get a feel for the strength of his marriage, and will be able then to give help where that’s needed. Who will pastor the pastor? Who needs this oversight more than the most visible member of the congregation?
If an elder hesitates to pastor the pastor, he feels this hesitation never more strongly than at family visitation. Thankfully, there are elders who, with great grace, conduct the family visitation at the minister’s home as they would in any other home. They understand that the minister’s marriage is like any other. They see his children are in need of counsel like all the others. A good pastor welcomes this as much as anything. He’ll try to remember to tell the elders this, too.
“For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” is a question that applies to the teaching elders as much as to the ruling elders. At family visitation, a faithful minister welcomes a question about his own prayer life. He is willing to speak of his prayers with his wife. He is not afraid of questions put to his children about their entertainment, their devotions. He graciously invites the elders’ inquiry about family worship, television and music in the home, and whether the children submit to the parents. When he does this in patience and kindness, every elder may be bold in Christ to prepare for visits with the pastor’s family in such a way. The members of the pastor’s family will grow in respect for the kingly office of Jesus Christ in their life.
In all these ways, elders can see what needs may be addressed in the pastor’s life. Encouragements can be given. Corrections applied. Warnings wisely administered.
Then, when God grants such grace, the minister will come to him for advice, because he has seen the elder to be a man with wisdom to give counsel in need.
“How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”
How wise the man who watches over the gospel preachers.
Thomas Boston (Scottish Presbyterian minister, 1676-1732) spoke fondly of an old elder who had accompanied him on a trip, but who took ill and died at his side during the work:
Among his last words were, “Farewell, sun, moon, and stars! Farewell, dear minister! And farewell the Bible!” He blessed God that ever he had seen my face. Thus the Lord pulled from me a good man, a comfortable fellow-laborer, and a supporter, or rather the supporter, of me in my troubles in this place. He was always a friend to ministers. Though he was a poor man, yet he had always a brow for a good cause, and was a faithful, useful elder; and as he was very ready to reprove sin, so he had a singular dexterity, in the matter of admonition and reproof, to speak a word with a certain sweetness, that it was hard to take his reproofs ill. He was a most kindly, pious, good man. May the blessing of God, whose I am and whom I serve, rest on that family from generation to generation!
Thank God for faithful elders! For the sake of God’s beautiful gospel of grace!
(Next time: Oversight of the minister’s doctrine.)