On Avoiding Scylla and Charybdis

In reflecting on my life as an elder, I’ve decided that there are two kinds of mistakes that I wander into on occasion. Curiously, the two are almost opposites.

On one hand, I tend to want to make everyone happy. On the other, I’m tempted to make decisions that reflect my own preferences, rather than the needs of the people under my care.

Trying to keep everyone happy

Although this an error toward which I easily gravitate, it took a long time for me to recognize it as an error. It’s natural for an elder to want everyone in his church to be content, just as it’s natural for a father to want a happy family. No father would want to sit at dinner surrounded by sour faces. So if someone in the church isn’t happy, there is something in me that instinctively says, “what can I do to fix this?”

Yet this instinct can be misleading.

My point is not that an elder ought to be indifferent to whether the people under his care are happy. On the contrary, he should know and be concerned if people are unhappy. But he needs to understand the unhappiness and its source. Is someone unhappy because the elder has been negligent or overbearing? Has he done a poor job of communicating? If unhappiness is the result of my failure, I have a responsibility to apologize and try to sort things out.

But what if someone’s unhappiness turns out not to be my responsibilty? In that case, trying to “fix things” may not be the right response for at least three reasons:

It’s sometimes impossible to make everyone happy simultaneously

Imagine that you’re part of a family that has gone on vacation at a large amusement park. It’s 5 PM now and the park closes at 7. Billy wants to ride the giant roller coaster, but Sally (who gets sick on roller coasters) wants to ride the elaborate merry-go-round. Andy wants to take the water slide, but Susie doesn’t want to get her clothes wet and has her heart set on riding in a bumper car. Dad, who forgot his hat, is getting a sunburn on his scalp and would really like nothing better than to go back to the hotel room and lie down. Mom’s only desire is to be able to have dinner at a place where she can actually sit down and eat real food. Did I mention that all the rides and restaurants have long lines, and that each child needs to be accompanied by an adult? If each family member can only be happy if he gets his way, someone is headed for disappointment.

There can be quite a breadth of needs, desires, and opinions in a church. At times, the breadth will be such that it may be impossible to avoid disappointing someone. Huge churches have the resources to create worship services and ministries to satisfy a multitude of needs and preferences – but even megachurches have a steady trickle of people who leave because they’re not happy about something. If an enormous church can’t satisfy every appetite, what chance does a smaller one have of doing so?

To make matters worse, sometimes people don’t really know what will make them happy. On a few occasions, I’ve seen situations in which someone expressed a strong desire for something – something they really believed would make them happy. Then, when the desire was granted – they were still unhappy! Obviously, giving such a person what he wants in the hope of producing happiness will not work.

As much as I’d like to believe that there is a Solomonic answer to every problem, sometimes there isn’t. If an elder sets keeping everyone happy as his chief goal, he will live a frustrated life. Often, the best solution that a session can provide will make no one completely happy, but will allow everyone to be moderately comfortable. I’m thankful that the people under my care have been willing to live, when necessary, with such “imperfect” solutions.

Trying to keep everyone happy can subtly encourage spiritual immaturity

Imagine a church in which the elders ignore every request and concern that is brought before them. Superficially, that would make their jobs easy, but it would also be unspeakably irresponsible. Now imagine the opposite – a church in which every desire and preference expressed is acted on by the leaders in a frantic effort to ensure that everyone is kept happy. What do you think such a church would be like after a year?

Have you ever seen a family in which the parents think their purpose in life is to keep their children happy? At best, such children grow up aimless and dependent, assuming that every problem in life will be fixed for them with no effort on their part. At worst, they grow up spoiled and insufferable.

If my labors as an elder were concentrated on trying to keep everyone happy, the people under my care would likely become self-centered and grow oblivious to the needs of others, rather than looking for opportunities to practice humility and Christlike self-sacrifice. Surely this is not the intended outcome of the under-shepherds’ labors.

The job is not to keep the sheep happy; rather, it’s to make the Chief Shepherd happy

This, by far, is the most important reason that an elder’s chief goal cannot be keeping everyone happy.

When I’m called to give an account for how I did my work as an elder (Hebrews 13:17), I have no reason to expect that the Lord will ask, “did you keep everybody happy?” But I do have reason to believe that he will want to know that his sheep were faithfully fed (John 21), encouraged to grow in their love for Christ, gently admonished, and even chastened when absolutely necessary.

Personally, I don’t like not being able to keep everyone happy. But if the job of an undershepherd is to keep the flock’s eyes on Christ, surely he must do the same thing himself, trusting that everything else will fall into place.

Making Self-Serving Decisions

Ruling in the household of faith presents another temptation for me. It’s easy to become careless and to make decisions that are desirable or attractive for me personally but that may not be beneficial for others.

I began to recognize this first when I was still single. Times and circumstances of worship that were convenient for me were not always convenient for households with small children or others in situations different from my own. Having a plurality of elders is helpful in this regard – while I might overlook something, the presence of other elders means that one of them will probably recognize a concern that I might miss.

Because so many decisions involve questions of judgment (rather than questions of right vs. wrong), my personal preferences can easily dictate the direction of decisions made that affect the whole church. The tendency can crop up almost anywhere. For example, I’ve always enjoyed church history. It would be attractive for me to teach an interminable number of Sabbath School classes on various aspects of church history. But while some exposure to church history might be helpful, people have other needs for instruction that would be neglected if I simply indulged my own interests.

More generally, sometimes I might be asked to give approval to a church activity or program that might not fit my own personal preferences. If the idea in view is generally beneficial and no principle is violated by doing it, it would be rather selfish for me to veto it merely on the basis of my own likes or dislikes. Yet it’s easy to do without thinking.

Ultimately, the model for my work as an overseer is Christ himself. Caring for the Lord’s people must involve discernment as well as sacrifice.

Recently I read an extremely helpful book on the ministry of church leaders: The Shepherd Leader, by Timothy Z. Witmer. In a thoughtful review of the book, Nathan Pitchford has observed,

“Christ himself is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10); and in the Old Testament prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, God had promised to send, not just this Chief Shepherd, but other shepherds as well, after his own heart, to feed his sheep with knowledge and understanding. If, then, the shepherds who neglect their task receive the fierce condemnation expressed, for instance, in Ezekiel 34; and if the standard for fulfilling the task is to be after God’s own heart; then how earnestly ought all elders to seek the heart of God in the scriptures for the shepherding of his flock, and labor intensely, ardently, and practically to follow his example!”

It’s easier for me to drift toward extremes than to maintain a balanced approach to my work as an elder. Steering clear of these pitfalls doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make other mistakes, but it does make it a little easier for me to stay focused on seeking to follow the Good Shepherd.

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