Identifying, training and installing church officers (i.e. elders and deacons) is one of the most important and difficult tasks with which God has tasked those pastors He has placed in full time Gospel ministry. The health of the church is dependent on the spiritual health and giftedness of the men who hold office in a given local church. If men who are biblically qualified, trained and mobilized are set apart to enter the office of elder and/or deacon, then the church will most certainly benefit from God’s rich blessing through their labors. If, however, the wrong men enter the office of elder or deacon, the church will most certainly suffer on account of it. When pragmatic considerations drive the rationale for why such or such a man holds office, the church has abandoned its submission to God’s word and will, accordingly, reap the consequences. The qualifications which the Holy Spirit laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are not optional. They are essential. While no one man can claim to meet these qualification in an absolute sense, it must be evident that every man who God calls to the office of elder or deacon is generally characterized by them. This is the most vital aspect to remember when a church is calling elders or deacons. However, there are other considerations to which we must turn our attention when seeking to identify men to hold office.
The pastor(s)/elders must first survey and assess the men in the congregation. While it is the right and responsibility of the church members to nominate and elect officers, the pastor(s) and elders are responsible for ensuring that a man who has been nominated by a congregant is biblically qualified and properly trained to hold office. This process involves testing the men in the church by tasking them with certain responsibilities to see whether or not they are being called by God. This process usually occurs by spending time with the men in the church one on one and in group settings. It is not something that happens overnight. It takes time to get to know others. This is one reason why, I believe, the Apostle Paul told Timothy, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others” (1 Tim. 5:22). It is also why he gave Timothy the charge, concerning potential deacons, “Let them first be tested; then let them serve as deacons” (1 Tim. 3:10). This step may take longer than you and many in the congregation desire, but it is imperative if the church is to get men who God has qualified to hold office.
As a pastor surveys the congregation, four groups of individuals will likely surface. 1) The first group consists of those men who already hold office but do so in “title only.” They may not be diligent in the labors for which they have been set apart. In some cases, a man may wish to hold office for social reputation. Or, perhaps his wife wanted him to do so. This is one of the worst possible dynamics for the health of the church. Many churches have been torn apart on account of such individuals. The session (i.e. elder board) or diaconate suffer on account of those who only want the title and the power–but who do not want to pour themselves out in service for the good of the people of God. 2) Then, there are those who have what we might call “raw potential.” These are men who may or may not be called to hold office. They may be newer to a fellowship or they may be less assuming in their public presence. Such men should be encouraged to serve in a variety of tasks in order to see whether they are being called to hold one of the two special offices in the church. 3) The third group are those men who are tirelessly serving others–either in shepherding or diaconal ways. These are men who may or may not be desirous, but who are not currently holding office. There is little doubt in the mind of the pastor(s) and elders as to whether they should or not. They meet the biblical qualifications and are superlatively active in the life of the church. 4) The final group of men in the church are those who have been serving, identified for their evident gifts and godliness and who now hold either the office of elder or deacon. These men not only have the title; they are also committed to giving their time, prayer and labors for the building up of the body of believers.
The goal in this process of assessment is to determine how to prevent the first group from existing or from becoming prevalent in the life of a local church, while encouraging those in the second group to move into the third, and those in the third to enter joyfully into the calling of holding office among those in the fourth group. The following chart below might help us to better visualize this dynamic and process:
Having taught the congregation what the church ought to be looking for in light of biblical qualification, there will, nevertheless, be those in the congregation who will nominate men who are not gifted or qualified to hold office. Some will nominate a man because of the close friendship they have with him or with his spouse. A woman in the congregation may nominate her husband on account of her desire for him to have social status. A portion of the congregation will nominate men in whom there is potential but about who they are not entirely certain. The elders need to vet nominees prior to encouraging them to come through the training process.
There is a warning about which we must be aware. The pastor(s)/elders can be insensitive when meeting with a man who wants to hold office, but who they do not believe is qualified at that time. Such a man may be spiritually deficient in his personal or family life, he may lack the requisite gifts, or he may not have the time to hold office. Whatever the case, the elders must proceed cautiously and gently. Much harm is done when the pastor or elders of a church crush someone’s spirit in this process. Instead, the pastor(s)/elders should meet with the man and ask him to do a self-evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses. This should come after he has filled out an initial nomination interview form. This step should encourage a man to deal honestly with himself before the elders. In many cases, a man who has been nominated but who may not be qualified at that time (for whatever reason) might acknowledge that he should not come through the training process.
Sometimes men who are qualified–and who should hold office–insist that they do not believe that they are qualified. Some do this out of a true sense of their sinfulness or on account of a personal assessment about whether or not they have the time to hold office. When the elders believe that such a man is qualified, he should be encouraged to come through the training despite his reservations. If he cannot be persuaded, the elders should rest content with his own self-assessment.
Once the pastor(s)/elders have meet with the men who have been nominated, and have a suitable number of potential nominees who they have approved, the training period should commence. How much training is necessary should be determined by the session based on a consideration of the candidate’s and the church’s need. I personally recommend no less than 40-60 hours of training over 3 to 6 months. The more equipped men are when they enter the office, the less work will have to be done in correcting views and approaches once they hold office. After a suitable training period, the men should be tested. It may be beneficial to do a written and an oral examination of men who have come through the training. Here is an example of the exam that we give the men who come to be examined to become an elder at New Covenant.