James A. Cress, who serves as Ministerial Association Secretary for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, considers himself a pastor on loan to the General Conference. Along with his wife, Sharon M. Cress, who serves as Associate Ministerial Secretary for pastoral spouses and families, Jim has served the Adventist church as pastor, evangelist, departmental director, and instructor in evangelistic methods and preaching. He graduated from Southern Missionary College with a B.A. in Theology and received a M.Div. degree from the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, and a D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has authored three books: Common Sense Ministry; You Can Keep Them If You Care; and More Common Sense Ministry, and is currently completing the manuscript for The Essentials. His most satisfying work, however, is pastoring a local congregation, along with encouraging and motivating other pastors to excellence in ministry.
James A. Cress responded to questions posed by Jonas Arrais, editor of Elder’s Digest magazine.
Elder’s Digest: How do you see and evaluate the work and influence of the church elders around the world?
James Cress: Local church elders provide first-line pastoral care to most Seventh-day Adventist members around the globe. When pastors have multiple church responsibilities, the first contact of spiritual care in many instances is the elder, who provides essential care and nurture on behalf of the pastor.
ED: In your opinion, what do pastors expect of/from elders?
JC: Every pastor should be able to depend upon elders for the following: A deep love for God and for God’s people; deep loyalty to the church organization and its doctrinal teachings; willingness to serve as an extension of pastoral leadership in service to the members; eagerness to reach out to the lost to bring them into a saving relationship with Jesus; and support to the membership for the decisions of the pastoral leadership and church board. It is appropriate to discuss, and even to disagree, when items are being considered. But when decisions are made, the elder is expected to act in accordance with the decision and not to continue dissent that would divide the church family.
ED: What do church members expect from elders?
JC: Every member should be able to depend upon elders for “example leadership,” especially in challenging, difficult situations. Anyone can be a leader in easy times. True leadership is exhibited when things are difficult. Other qualities include: Spiritual maturity in belief, behavior, business, and burden for souls; loyalty to the church organization and its doctrinal teachings and support of pastoral and conference leadership, and a message from God when it is time for preaching.
ED: Church elders also expect things from their pastors. Could you mention some of them?
JC: Elders should expect the following from their pastors: Long-range planning and coordination for the entire district to see that the needs of the church are cared for by the elders; pulpit planning for schedules and sermon topic coordination for consistent feeding of balanced spiritual food; support for decisions which must be implemented in the pastor’s absence; and an example of pastoral care in nurturing the members, evangelizing the lost, and administering God’s work.
ED: In what ways can lay leaders be most helpful to pastors?
JC: Visiting the members; coordinating outreach in the community; administering the church program; promoting and coordinating conference/union programs; and resolving conflicts among the membership.
ED: How can pastors and elders build a strong working relationship?
JC: By spending time together in prayer, planning, dialogue, evaluation, and “two-by-two” team activities.
ED: What should elders do if they simply cannot support the pastor who has been assigned to their church by the conference?
JC: Resign. It is a gospel mandate that followers must follow if they ever intend to be leaders who lead. Of course, elders should speak to conference leadership if they have real concerns. But ultimately, elders are responsible for supporting the appointed leadership or quietly removing themselves from a conflict situation.
ED: Since we have so many young members in our denomination, when should they be considered for the elected office of elder?
JC: As quickly as possible. Never forget that God’s work has always moved forward at the initiative and spiritual leadership of young people. Most of the disciples were very young when Jesus called them. In fact, His total earthly ministry was completed by the time He was 33 years of age. Giants of faith through the years have been young people—Samuel, David, Rhoda, Mark, Ellen White, etc.
ED: What can an individual do who hopes to serve as an elder?
JC: Prepare. Love and serve God’s people. Work diligently to reach the lost for Christ. Learn everything possible about the doctrines, organizational structure, and business of the church. Study the Elder's Handbook and utilize the Elder’s Certification resources. Pray for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and ask God to impress the other church members with the same sense of your calling that you have. A call to leadership is only valid when there are three distinct components: (1) The deep personal sense of God’s calling; (2) the capabilities sufficient to do the task; and (3) the recognition of these spiritual and capability factors by fellow church members. If one of the three components is missing, there is no valid call.
ED: In your opinion, what are the symptoms of an unmotivated elder, and how can a pastor change this condition?
JC: An unmotivated elder may struggle to hold onto a “church office” rather than trying to fulfill a specific mission of service. The pastor can either “bury them” in as nice a funeral service as possible or train and equip them for gospel-fulfilling leadership!
ED: In many places, women are doing wonderful work as elders, but in some countries, there is resistance to the idea of a woman performing this ecclesiastical function. Could you elaborate a bit on this?
JC: First, the church must relax about this matter. In those areas where it is culturally offensive for a woman to be elected as an elder, the matter should not be agitated. In those places where it is not culturally offensive, women should be utilized to the greatest extent possible. And that “culturally offensive” criteria must be based on the entire culture of the community, not on the isolated opinions of a few bigoted individuals. The church must always be different from the world. Galatians 3:27 states that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, we are all one!” This clearly informs the church that when Jesus is best honored, there are no prejudicial distinctions made on the basis of race, social status, or gender. Jesus demonstrated these same three principles when He invited the Samaritan woman with a bad reputation to be the first public evangelist He commissioned. Jesus crossed all three cultural barriers—race, social status, and gender—in that one invitation, and the results were remarkably successful for the gospel.
ED: Preaching is an important function for church elders. What advice would you give to an elder who does not have enough time and material to prepare a sermon?
JC: Elder’s Guide for worship planning. Better to say something which is wellplanned and balanced from a reliable resource than to merely fill time with something that is not worthy or competently prepared. Also, practice. Preach the message aloud to your mirror, or to your pet dog, or to the trees. Your presentation in the public pulpit will improve with every practice session.
ED: The evangelistic church program for this quinquenium is named “Tell the World.” How can local leaders be involved in this program with their church members?
JC: Give unstinting support to the purpose of the Great Commission—to reach the lost for Jesus. Conduct an evangelistic activity of some kind every quarter of the year. Present gospel invitation calls at the conclusion of every sermon and every church service. Take another member along “two-by-two” on every spiritual contact—fellowship, protection, and training!
ED: Unfortunately, about 35 percent of newly-baptized members leave the church. What can church elders do to minimize this problem?
JC: This is an unfortunate misperception based on the manner in which we publish statistics. When we calculate apostasies as a percent of accessions, it appears very large—35 percent. When we calculate apostasies as a percent of total membership, it appears very small. Of course we need to be concerned about apostasy and do everything possible to minimize loss, but we defeat our purpose by reporting apostasies as a percentage of accessions.
ED: Could you leave us with a final message for our church elders?
JC: Never forget that you are part of Jesus’ team. He is our leader. His Holy Spirit is our equipper. His Heavenly Father is our Heavenly Father, and we are all working together for the soon return of His kingdom. He has promised to be with each of us individually and all of us collectively until He returns to usher us into His glorious eternal home.