The call to the office of an elder is critical. In a pastoral visitation with one of the elders in a multichurch district I once led, I learned that non-members spoke so highly of him that they called him a pastor of the church. Elders are best positioned to promote stewardship and its initiatives because they have the privilege of accompanying the pastor during stewardship visitations. Additionally, they are trusted individuals who are listened to by people. And since they live among the people, they are able to speak their language. Considering the importance of these leaders’ role in stewardship, I developed an acronym from the word “elder”: “E” means an exemplary educator, “L” a listening leader, “D” a dynamic disciple, “E” an educable expert, and “R” a reliable rabbi.
One of the qualifications of an elder is the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24). Ellen G. White implores the church to “appoint pastors or elders who are devoted to the Lord Jesus, and let these men see that officers are chosen who will attend faithfully to the work of gathering in the tithe.”1 She further urges them not only to teach, but also to be diligent in delivering service.
Unlike other teachers who may lecture on issues that contradict their practice, the elder is obligated by Scripture to “hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Elders must be able to say, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Elders are encouraged to foster tithing through setting a good example by being a faithful steward.2 If these local church leaders love money (cf. 1 Tim 3:3), they can not teach principles of financial stewardship with remarkable candidness and conviction that will help the members of the church accept the message heartily.
As those who lead the flock entrusted by God, elders not only listen to the voice of the members, but also the voice of the God who sent them. The church members are “pulled in different directions by a cacophony of competing voices, all demanding allegiance to the same things that tempted Jesus: the desire to be special, successful, and secure,”3 thus compromising their faithfulness. The voice that comes from a listening leader will help them become committed stewards. An elder’s heart must be large enough to listen to the needs of the church so as to respond to them accordingly. All hindrances to active listening must be cleared. The church elder, in symphony with the pastor, must create a welcoming ambience that enables a feeling of belonging.
Members must find the church to be a safe haven for offloading all their burdens. Visitation can be a good starting point for building a good relationship with them. John R. Stott notes, “There is no quicker way of bridging the gulf between preacher and people than meeting them in their homes.”4 Thus, their participation in stewardship will be enhanced.
The goal of stewardship is disciple-making. While this is a spiritual exercise, the elder acts as a visible guardian of the members. The possible result is a church that has not only members, but disciples who are committed and faithful stewards. Such a church is inconceivable when the discipler is neither a disciple nor dynamic.
Since the church is relatively young, it needs an elder who will not only exude energy in making disciples, but also exhibit positivity and creativity. Group Magazine surveyed ten thousand young people about the kind of church they would choose. While seventy percent of the young people needed a church that accommodates teenagers, seventy-three percent of them said they preferred a welcoming church that allows them to be themselves.5 In a “culture of consent,” where individuals agree before they obey,6 dynamism, vision, and innovation should characterize the work of the elder if the young people in the church are to participate in stewardship. These growing parishioners should not feel that the church only needs them when it is time to give money to God, but that they belong to the body of Christ.
Another qualification for elders is that they must not be novices in faith (1 Tim 3:6); they must be such “experts” in their Christian walk that they can assist both new and old members in being faithful stewards. This quality does not negate the fact that they should be teachable. They must be willing to be taught by the Holy Spirit. No one who refuses to be led can successfully lead the flock of God. So this is the work of teaching members in the way of righteousness.
Elders not only need to learn the language of the people, but also how to speak it. They need to learn of their hurts, pain, frustrations, and setbacks so as to minister meaningfully. In accompanying the pastor during home visitation, elders learn how the cleric does the work of God. While elders may possess great people skills that are invaluable in creating a sense of belonging, a failure to quickly learn and adapt to changing environments may inhibit their attempts to raise a generation of faithful stewards.
The work of the elder may be loosely equated to that of the ancient rabbis. The word translated as “rabbi” is rhabbi, which means “my master.”7 It may sound antithetical to the teaching of Jesus (Matt 23:1–8) to call an elder a “rabbi.” In His rebuke of the Pharisees, addressed to the crowd and the disciples, He warned, “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt 23:8). My intent is not to ascribe the title to elders, but rather to draw important lessons on issues that elders should avoid, which would compromise their reliability. Also, the word suggests virtues that can be applied to the elders as they dispense with their duties. They may be summed up with three words: sobriety, sincerity, and humility.
- Sobriety. While the Pharisees were honored to be in Moses’ seat (Matt 23:2), they inappropriately used that position and demanded to be called “rabbi” (Matt 23:7). Instead of abusing the office of an elder, there is a call to be sober. Jesus implored the rabbis to avoid being under the influence of the power that comes with occupying a revered position.
- Sincerity. Pharisees did not practice what they preached (Matt 23:3). If elders are to be trusted, they should not emulate the leaders of the time of Christ. Being exemplary in tithing and faithfulness in all aspects of life is not optional. Unlike Pharisees, who would “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” they should teach the simple principles of stewardship as outlined in God’s Word.
- Humility. Pharisees loved to boastfully display all they did (Matt 23:5) and hungered for recognition (Matt 23:7). The mind of Christ is needed in order to avoid falling into this trap. Christ is the goal of ministry.
Elders are not only exemplary educators, but also listening leaders. While they incline their ears to the members, they listen to the voice of God as they lead the church. In an ever-changing world, these leaders inject dynamism, vision, and innovation into their work. As dynamic disciples, they do not forget that the church is relatively young and that God expects youths to be faithful stewards as well. They are not novices in issues of faith, but rather must be educable experts. Nothing will promote faithfulness in all aspects of stewardship than having a reliable rabbi. White writes, “Those in responsible places are to act in such a way that the people will have firm confidence in them.”8 This may raise the level of faithfulness among the members of the church.
1 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Stewardship (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1940), 106.
2 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 19th ed. (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2015), 75, 137.
3 Chuck DeGroat, Toughest People to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life—Including Yourself (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 20.
4 John R. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), 88.
5 Mark DeVries, Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 161.
6 C. Handy, The Age of Unreason (London: Arrow, 1990).
7 James Strong, The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, electronic ed., s.v. “rhabbi.”
8 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate), 13:198.
Sikhumbuzo Dube is the Stewardship and Church Development Director at West Zimbabwe Conference, Zimbabwe.