Shepherding the Flock of God Through Continuing Education

In my short time as a pastor, I have heard a common theme expressed among elders and deacons in various churches: “I don’t feel equipped for the task of serving God’s people.” Whether they know it or not, they are expressing a frustration with the prevalent approach to office-bearer preparation: there is none. Not unlike throwing a child into the deep end of a swimming pool without his swimmies, we have grown accustom to throwing men into the deep waters of church office with very little to keep them above the waters. We give them a slap on the back and send them on their way with a “Welcome to the pool!” kind of comment said in a misery-loves-company kind of way. Unfortunately, we’ve grown used to bobbing men and gurgling sounds in the counsel room. Our assumption is that new elders or deacons will eventually figure out how to float. It’s positive thinking, but not always realistic or good for the flock as men pick up bad habits to keep their heads above that threatening waterline.

Therefore, the subject of shepherding the flock of God through continuing education is a very serious one that needs to be addressed. Perhaps this sounds odd to the ear because we are not used to hearing it, but also because it doesn’t seem to make sense. How do you shepherd through education? You can pastor by providing an education. Catechism is an example of this kind of pastoring. But that is not what I am suggesting. I am suggesting shepherding our people by receiving an education. I am suggesting that spending time in a classroom and studying various subjects is how we will be able to pastor our people and, hence, it is in itself part of our pastoral responsibility.

In this article, I want to add some flesh to my skeletal suggestion that we need continuing education for men who hold office. It is time to see education for elders and deacons as not merely optional but necessary. Before we will be able to agree to this with gusto, we need to first of all see the need for continuing education. To do this, let me start by defining what I mean by “continuing education.”

Working Towards A Definition

In my contacts with other churches, I have learned that many churches have some kind of educational classes for their elders and deacons. For many years at the church that I pastor, we dedicated an hour a month to education. We went through doctrinal books like Berkhof’s “Summary of Christian Doctrine,” as well as practical material like Sittema’s excellent book on having “A Shepherds Heart.” I don’t want to detract from the benefit of this time. It is time well spent in many councils. But this is not what I am suggesting when I speak of “continuing education.” By continuing education I mean, in definition form: “A set of standardized education courses with the appropriate curriculum that will provide prospective elders and deacons with the requisite tools for shepherding the flock of the Lord.”
At the risk of oversimplifying my definition and scaring men into not reading another word of this article, I’m suggesting a seminary-like education to provide prospective elders and deacons with a custom crafted education for their respective offices. Now before you go to the church directory to find out where I live, allow me to rehearse how office-bearer nomination normally takes place. Then we will better see the need for shepherding the flock through this kind of continuing education.

Establishing the Need

In most churches, men bring lists of people that they think are qualified to serve in office. As a body of officers, we throw the names of these men into one pot and form an aggregate list of qualified men. We pick; we narrow; we choose; we achieve the needed number, and we send out the letters. With a seriousness and solemnity that is appropriate for the sacredness of the offices, we ask our brothers if they are willing to allow their names to stand. Now I understand that there are varying forms of this procedure, but I think this represents the typical formula that councils follow.

If you will allow me to characterize this for a moment, not to needlessly make fun, but to make a larger point, our formula goes something like this: “Mr. Doe, what are you doing for the next three years? Are you going to be free to serve?” Mr. Doe looks at his day-planner and sees that he’ll be able to and we say “Great!” If he can’t, then the council has more work to do in getting someone who “won’t mind serving.” It is precisely here that we get into trouble. In one form or another we have allowed a dangerous mentality to slip into our idea of office. The problem is summed up in the question “Would you mind being an elder/deacon?” Instead of office being something positively and passionately sought after, it tends to be something which is negatively viewed. “Are you going to be doing anything else that would prevent you from being an elder or a deacon?” Some men say yes; some men say no.

With this pervasive attitude, we have lost something that is essential to making men true shepherds – desire. It would be a fun exercise to ask how many office bearers actually have a desire to be in office. How many men wanted to be in office before they were ever asked to hold office. You see, this idea of desire is far too often a foreign concept. How many elders actually say that it burns in their guts to be a shepherd in the church?

When we turn to I Timothy 3 we often pass right over Paul’s first word: “If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.” Our first task is not to administer a mental breathalyzer. It is to look for men who desire to serve! In other words, we are not to say, “Well, he doesn’t do this, and he doesn’t do that.” We are to ask in the counsel room, “Has this man set his heart on being an overseer?” Why? Because before anything else, I Timothy says we need to discern desire! But that’s a tricky thing to discern. How do you do that? Allow me to begin to answer this question by further justifying my original thesis that we need continuing education for prospective elders and deacons.

Providing Justification

We never come up to young men and say, “Would you mind being a minister?” We might look at a man’s gifts, passions, and desires and encourage him to pursue the pastorate, but we do not approach men with a “would you mind” approach to office. The pulpit is too serious a thing to play around with. We don’t want the wrong men preaching. It is because we want the right men as our ministers that we insist that men have an aspiration for the ministry. We want men who are dedicated to studying God’s Word. We want men who are ready to count the cost. Men who have the courage and right convictions, who express that in a pursuit of the ministry. Which means what exactly? It means four years of college. It means three years of seminary. It means financial uncertainty. It means being willing to live in places far away from where you grew up. But when there is a desire to serve the Lord, these “costs” are hardly a second thought. If a man has a desire to be an overseer, he desires a noble task. Whatever hardships there may be, they are quenched in the joy of pastoral service.

In pointing this out, though, it must be noticed that we have unconsciously adopted a view that separates elders and deacons from the ministers of the Word. The minister is to desire his office and seek it out. That aspiration shows itself in a dedication to studying and training in the hopes of someday being called to that office. But we have never said the same for elders or deacons. What is more, we codified our expectations for the ministerial office by insisting that before a man can serve as a minister of the Word and Sacraments, he needs to first be properly trained. Only then, after his training, and after an examination, can he even be eligible for a call. But, again, this is not so for elders and deacons. With this, a kind of deadly professionalism has crept into some consistory and council rooms. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to hear every now and again, “Let the minister do it. He went to school after all, we didn’t.”

The question is, is education a nice bonus, or is it a necessity for the proper shepherding of God’s flock? For our ministers we have insisted on the later. If they are going to be shepherds in United Reformed Churches, for example, Article 3 of the Church Order says that they must be trained. We say in this article that men must be taught to be preachers. To be sure, they must have the raw gifts and talents. But those raw materials need to be honed and shaped. So, with our ministers we marry a passionate desire with a commitment to education. Our Church Order says, in effect, part of shepherding the flock of God is knowing how to shepherd God’s flock. If there is any parity in the offices, then there needs to be parity in the area of desire and learning as well as respect and responsibility. If this seems too scholastic for the elders, then it must be too scholastic for the ministers. If it is necessary for ministers then we must also see the necessity of it for the elders.

To further justify my suggestion, I want to dig a bit deeper in the Church Order. The Church Order says that all the training of the minister is for the express purpose of performing five specific tasks. Namely: praying, preaching, teaching, administering, and assisting.

All those years of education come down to five basic functions. If all this education is for these tasks, then look at how the elders have, what could be argued, a greater “educational” burden from the ChurchOrder Article 14 states that the elders are to:

1) Rule the church according to the principles taught in Scripture.

2) They are to ensure the purity of
doctrine and holiness of life is
practiced in the congregation.

3) They are to maintain the purity of the Word and Sacraments.

4) They are to assist in the teaching of catechism.

5) They are to promote God-centered schooling.

6) They are to exercise discipline.

7) Promote evangelism.

8) Make sure everything is done in good order.

Now if I, as a minister of the Word, need training to fulfill my work in the congregation, how can we be content without some form of continuing education for the eldership? I, as a minister, don’t have rule over my elders, they have rule over me. Doesn’t it follow then, that they should have the know-how to do this as I hopefully have some know-how to fulfill my office? I believe we need to pay more attention to those perplexing gurgling sounds in our council rooms coming from men who, through no fault of their own, have never learned how to swim and now find themselves in very deep waters.

Practical Implementation

But how would this take shape? Nice idea perhaps, but can this Spruce Goose really get off the ground? Let me try to explain how this idea for continuing education could be practically implemented.

First, as churches we need to be committed to training men first and ordaining them second. We would never dream of sending men into operating rooms and then say, “Oh yeah, that must be the scalpel. It’s sharp.” But we put sick people in front of new elders and deacons with barely an ounce of training. This should be lamented. Training classes during a man’s term can often be too little too late. We must be committed to training first and then ordaining. With that commitment, we can effectively continue to implement this approach to education.

Second, since pastoral service must stem from a personal desire, we need personal desire to be our beginning point for any practical training situation. Above, I asked how we would ever be able to ascertain whether or not a man has a real desire to serve. How do we know if a man has a heart to be an overseer? To practically solve this dilemma, I would propose that consistories annually call for all male members in good standing who have a desire to serve in office to enroll in training classes. This puts the onus on men to step forward to express their desire and say by their actions “I have always wanted to serve in the church.” The elders would look for men who express their desire to learn in much the same way that churches look for ministers out of the flock of men who have expressed their personal desire to serve in office by going to school.

A welcome byproduct of this method, not to be overlooked, is that a certain amount of criticism is extinguished. It is not uncommon for disgruntled people to say in churches, “He always gets nominated. It is all because of his last name ya’ know.” Meaning, only people with the right job, income level, or family history get into office. Here is an opportunity for someone to step up or shut-up. Harsh words? Perhaps, but we need men in office because of commitment, not because it was their turn. We need men with a heart for the ministry. Here is one way for men to show that heart. Here is one way for a council to ensure, as much as they can, that they sit among men who truly desire to be there.

Third, training curriculum in which key areas of ministerial concern and need could be developed into seminars that various churches could benefit from. In a given area or region, churches could work together to develop a system of more thorough training. Using the resources of ministers and more experienced elders, a training program could be put together and offered to men who seek to be elders and deacons. The classes could be offered to the churches in a particular area in the form of sessions, that is, concentrated classes which are spaced out over the course of a year or two. Some important areas to cover would be the Doctrine of the Church, Worship, Sermon Listening, Pastoral Care and Counseling, Church Government, Catechesis, and Communication Skills to name a few. This list isn’t exhaustive, but should be the starting point for council training.

There is no doubt that this would be a large undertaking but most men who have never been trained look at the eldership and the deaconate as an even larger undertaking. Once developed, this could also be a blessing to the churches abroad in the form of summer weekend workshops. The possibilities are exciting to think about. Even more exciting is the prospect of nominating elders from a pool of a different sort. A pool of men who have stepped forward with desire, have trained with commitment, and are nominated in confidence. The nominees would have previously been grounded in the fundamentals of shepherding Christ’s flock and hence are themselves able to take up their work with greater confidence. What a blessing for both the shepherds and the flock. Criticisms Given the nature of what I’m suggesting, I understand that there will be a fair amount of criticism. I want to briefly deal with some of the chief concerns that might be lodged against my suggestion.

First, some might say that this will eliminate men who would ordinarily be willing to serve but are not willing to undergo this kind of intensive study. We might call this the intimidation factor. This is very real, but here is where the elders especially would need to show that this is not meant to exclude anyone. The program, as suggested, is not meant to eliminate, it is meant to cultivate. It is to cultivate a crop of men who are suitable candidates for office in the church. Intelligence is not the primary or exclusive quality which is to be measured by these courses. It is one of many qualities such as love, servitude, a sacrificing spirit, perseverance, patience, self-control, and the like. But these are not either to exclude a proper knowledge, which we need to be committed to promoting in our office-bearers.

Second, this suggestion exalts education. The first suggestion deals with the intimidation of education. This criticism deals with the possible unhealthy elevation of education. To address this, it needs to be said that aspiration needs to be matched by competence. For example, a man can desire to fly a plane. He can dream about it day and night. But, his aspiration needs to be matched by competence. We would never say that the folks at the FAA are a bunch of sticks in the mud because they require men to actually learn how to fly. We would not accuse them of exalting education. We would praise them for placing virtue in education. There is virtue in knowing the things that I have suggested above. Virtue not just for our ministers, but virtue for our elders and deacons. Virtue that our people need us to have.

Third, burn out. With all this work, the men would be burned out long before they ever got into office. Recently, smoke started coming from my washing machine. It was “burning out.” Come to find out, it wasn’t burning because it was doing what it was supposed to be doing. It was burning up because it couldn’t do what it was supposed to do. A sock got in the water pump, and in the face of the obstacle, it started to burn and smoke. My point is simple. Men often burn out because they don’t know how to do what they are supposed to do. Ignorance is their obstacle. They get tired of banging a locked door. Continuing education would go a long way to opening up many of the doors that we spend a lot of time beating on. Thus, far from burning men out, I would hope that this would bring a deeper joy to the hard work that doesn’t need to be made more difficult through ignorance.

Conclusion

In this article, I have attempted to show you what I see as the benefits of looking into a new way of going about electing and nominating elders and deacons. What is more, it provides a new way of shepherding the flock. My suggestion is education. I am not trying to sell my special elixir to fix the problem. I am addressing this subject because I feel it is time to start seeing how things could be done more effectively to the honor of the name of our God and the edification of His great church. It is time for us to reverse the trends that have left men feeling helpless. That have left men saying, “I’ll never do that again.” It is time to ask, “Is there a better way?.” If nothing else, let us at least begin a new dialogue that has as it’s theme a desire to better shepherd the flock of our great God!

Rev. Wm. Jason Tuinstra is the pastor of the Community Reformed Bible Church in Highland, Indiana.

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