So you’re an elder! Your high calling to leadership invites some words of advice. Whether your eldership is shiny-new or well-worn, your God-ordained role carries certain dangers. In many ways, the pitfalls you face are common to cowboys and stockmen. The commonality lies in the responsibility taken for and care given to herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.
The magnificent horsemen and women of the high country and plains know that if their horse throws a shoe, they are in trouble. They understand the need for regular food and water and the dangers to both rider and beast if either is in short supply. They are wellaware of the paths to avoid when leading their flocks and herds to safe pasture. So whether you’re saddling up for the first time or easing back into the saddle for another year of leading your congregation, avoid these dangers:
DON’T PRETEND YOU’RE THE “MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER.”1
Be yourself and ride in your own saddle. Don’t imagine you’re someone you’re not. A common pitfall of leadership is to compare oneself to others. The danger lies in imagining that you possess someone else’s special talents and skills. You can easily fall off your horse if you pretend to be someone else. Stick with your own skill set! The preferred trail is the one on which your God-given gifts and passions guide your way. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all . . . for to one is given . . . to another . . . to another” (1 Cor. 12:7-11). Paul is describing the principle of unity in diversity. God created you as a unique being, and the church needs your uniqueness! If you ride in your own saddle, the church will be blessed.
AVOID RIDING FROM THE REAR OR WAY OUT FRONT.
Balance! Stockmen understand that this is not just gravitational poise but also a sensitive balance between task completion and stock care. Good cowboys know the critical equilibrium between driving the stock forward and gently leading them to the next pasture.
Congregational leaders are often trapped when they attempt to drive their church from the rear, shouting and barking orders to get the job done. Equally dangerous are pastoral efforts to lead the congregation from way out front, urging members to follow while leaving them further and further behind.
Sometimes Jesus led the way and encouraged others to follow Him (Matt. 4:19, 20), and sometimes He instructed others to go before Him and promised to follow (Luke 10:1). Jesus accomplished these leadership tasks because He took time to connect with those whom He sought to lead and shepherd. Don’t be detached from your congregation. Maintain your balance and stay connected. People will follow as you lead and go before you as you direct.
DON’T BE A “LONE RANGER.”
There’s something quite poignant about a lone horseman set against a remote landscape. Many identify with the emotion of such an image. Yet traveling alone in vast, untouched terrain can also be dangerous.
The reality and responsibility of decision-making make “lone rangers” taboo when it comes to congregational leadership. Whether your pastor has only one congregation or cares for multiple communities, you as an elder should communicate with him regularly. After all, the wilderness is a dangerous place. You don’t want to be out there all alone, bitten by a snake, with no one to help you.
Connect regularly with your pastor every week if possible. You both need to spend quality time together seeking God’s counsel. You need his support just as much as he needs yours. Schedule times for sharing, study, praying, and planning. If a weekly face-to-face meeting is not possible, connect via e-mail or phone. The important thing is to stay in touch.
After his incredible transformation, Saul (Paul) tried to connect with the disciples, but we are told in Acts 9:26- 30 that they were afraid of him. Saul understood that it was important to be connected to those the Lord had called before him. Eventually, Barnabas convinced the disciples to accept Saul, and, fortunately for Saul, they did, because they later saved his life. So don’t be a lone ranger. Stay in touch with your superiors and maintain open lines of communication. It might just be a lifesaver!
DON’T BE SWAYED TO ACCEPT THE SHERIFF’S BADGE.
Disputes are common. Historically speaking, pioneers and first settlers often resolved disputes with bullets or nooses. In many pioneer communities, one person wore the official badge of authority and sometimes became a target by virtue of the badge. In truth, church life is not much different. Disputes arise. People take sides, appeal to authority, and call for justice. As a congregational leader, you are responsible for maintaining a neutral position during congregational disputes. Don’t accept the sheriff’s badge! You will be appealed to for decisive action. You will be called upon to deliver the bullet or administer the noose. Don’t do it! Stay neutral. If action is required, incorporate others in the decision-making process. Above all, don’t take sides. The moment you do, your ability to shepherd is lost. Jesus understood and practiced this principle of leadership. In response to someone calling for arbitration, the Lord replied, “Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?”
Listen, stay connected, and offer support. Seek counsel. Take the advice of Paul to Timothy: “Avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife” (2 Tim. 2:23). Practice the counsel of Paul to the Galatians: “If a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
NEVER LOVE YOUR HORSE MORE THAN YOUR HOME.
Cowboys love riding. Stockmen live for the thrill of the cattle drive. Horsemen dream of sitting astride a galloping steed, the wind in their hair, chasing, capturing, and branding. The adrenalin rush during these moments is intoxicating, addictive, and entrapping. It is no secret that some horsemen love their horses more than they love their homes.
Elders are faced with a similar situation. Pastoral care can be a rush. Nothing compares to the thrill of gathering souls, sharing the gospel, and being used by God to win another soul for heaven. Jesus warned that doing God’s work can become so all-consuming that our families are neglected (Mark 7:9-13).
Make time for your family. Remember that God expects you to shepherd your family just as surely as He wants you to care for others. Neglecting your family for the work of God is sin in its most subtle form.
TRAIN OTHER COWBOYS.
The best stockmen share their skills and knowledge with young, inexperienced cowboys. They know the value of skilled fellow riders. Cowboys have to rely on each other, trust one other, and work together. Failure to do this may result in long days chasing beasts that slipped the line unnecessarily.
When you serve as an elder, you are responsible for sharing what you know. Give freely of the wisdom of your experience. Help your fellow elders become stronger in their own roles. Jesus was master at this, and we should also practice this task of leadership. Calling the 12 disciples together, Jesus gave them “power” and “authority” (Luke 9:1). Never be afraid to empower others; it is what Jesus did.
Take time to mentor younger members into leadership roles. When you invest yourself in those around you, you build leaders for the future. You never know—the next time you face a tight situation, when you need some skill, expertise, and assistance, those in whom you invested may come to your aid. Begin now to teach others how to ride in leadership.
DON’T BE CONSUMED BY THE PONY EXPRESS.
The Pony Express was established to provide the fastest mail delivery between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. It was a relay of mail by horses and riders and ran day and night, summer and winter.2 Riders traveled at breakneck speed, changing horses every 10- 15 miles at one of the 165 stations. An average ride for a single rider was between 75-100 miles. Depending on the territory, a day’s ride could last 10 hours. There was no stopping. “The mail had to get through,” even at the risk of total exhaustion.
Church leadership is like that. Our message must get through. Sometimes we are so consumed by the daily and weekly demands to “get the message through” that we fail to maintain our connection with God. Rushing from one day to the next, week after week is not healthy. Stop regularly and spend time alone with God. Your eldership demands a living connection with Jesus. To get through, our message needs healthy messengers who take time to build a personal relationship with God.
Jesus carried the greatest and most treasured message in history. It had to get through! His days were full. Constant interactions, never-ending demands, and an ongoing list of needs did not stop Jesus from developing His own living connection with the heavenly Father (Matt. 14:13, 23; Mark 1:35; 6:46; Luke 6:12; 9:18).
DON’T BE A HIGH-PLAINS DRIFTER.
Cowboys are tough hombres, often loners. Their independence is weathered as they drift from one camp to the next, battling the elements and dangers of the trail. Their hard, crusty exteriors and impenetrable demeanors belie an inner need for companionship, friendship, and support.
Ministry can be lonely if you ride alone. Sharing the journey and the experiences with someone who understands makes the ride more enjoyable. Treasure those individuals with whom you can share your spiritual journey—your spouse, close friends, and others who may know your heart. These relationships involve loyalty, vulnerability, trust, and truthfulness. Paul experienced this kind of relationship with Barnabas (Acts 15:12) and with Silas (Acts 16:25). Don’t travel another day without seeking to develop and cultivate individuals who will ride along with you.
So you’re an elder! Congratulations! Yours is a high calling to leadership that may be brand-new or wellworn. Beware of the pitfalls, stay close to Jesus, and as you administer your responsibilities and care for your congregation, may His Spirit lead your journey to pastures green.
1 “The Man from Snowy River” is the title of a poem by revered Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson. The poem tells the story of a horseback pursuit to recapture the colt of a prizewinning racehorse that escaped from its paddock to live with the brumbies (wild horses) of the mountain ranges. Eventually the brumbies descend a seemingly impassable steep slope. The riders give up the pursuit. But the man from Snowy River, whose horsemanship is unrivalled, spurs his pony down the “terrible descent” to catch the mob.
2 http://www.americanwest.com/trails/pages/ponyexp1.htm This site provided the source for the information about the Pony Express.
Colin Renfrew is Personal Ministries and Sabbath School Director, South Queensland Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church, Australia.