Scripture gives us many images for the church. It’s a body with a head and lesser parts, a building made of living stones, a vine and branches. It’s a temple, a city, a bride. These may be strange pictures, but that only seems right. Jesus’ church is, afterall, a mystery.
When we consider the place of elders in the church, another image is helpful—the sheepfold. And this too may be strange, as elders are both shepherds and sheep. Elders guide, teach, and disciple, and at the same time need guiding, teaching, and discipling. In this unique image, the shepherds need shepherding.
This is not hard to see, and a healthy session will devote at least some of its time to caring for its own. What can be hard to see are the caring distinctions between ruling elder (RE) and teaching elder (TE). Do we treat the two differently? Should a session’s caring for their teaching elder(s) look different than its caring for the ruling elders? And are these even the right questions?
The apostles are helpful here. Paul charges the Ephesian elders to pay careful attention to all the flock (Acts 20:28), and Peter tells us to shepherd the flock of God that is among us (1 Pet. 5:2). The men in the pulpit Sunday after Sunday are certainly part of the “all” and they live “among” us as church family. So clearly, TEs are to be shepherded too. But does Scripture differentiate in such a way as to direct a different level of care for the TE? I would argue yes.
We see in Scripture distinctions between elders. Paul directs the Thessalonians “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord” and “to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12–13). Paul makes a distinction between the types of work when he reminds Timothy that those who rule well are “worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). And while every elder must be, as the KJV puts it, “apt to teach,” here Paul seems to be identifying a subset of elders—those whose primary work is preaching and teaching—and assigns to them a double portion of honor. We see also that with greater honor comes greater responsibility; James warns his readers that the Lord will judge those who teach “with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
Because our TE brothers are part of the flock, worthy of double honor, and under a heavier ministry burden as full-time teachers/preachers, REs need to be doing the good work of caring for these men. And because TEs occupy a unique place in the flock, their care should also be unique.
Caring for Our Teaching Elders
In some ways, such care will look like shepherding any member of the flock. We want to check in on his spiritual disciplines and personal piety. We want to ask the probing questions that get at the state of his marriage, thought life, and business dealings. But in another way our pastor’s life should be open to us in a way that those of the ruling elders and other members of the flock are not. Because our TEs are feeding the flock that the elders are responsible for, their work as a minister of Word and Sacrament falls under our purview unlike the work of the doctor, lawyer, mechanic, or housewife that we shepherd. Yes, we are to be a fence between the congregation and false teaching, but we should also be the blessing to our pastor that frees him to do his teaching ministry well. REs need to be to their pastors what Aaron and Hur were to Moses—those who would hold up his hands for battle.
1. Such work begins with prayer. Praying for our pastors should be deliberate, regular, and fervent. Some years ago, our church designated the first Sunday evening meeting of each month as a time of prayer, and our church leadership is often the subject of these prayer times. More recently we’ve begun a time of prayer during the morning service, when a group prays through the order of worship. Our TEs have found this to be a real and effectual work as God has answered these prayers in very specific ways again and again. We’ve also paired each TE husband and wife with a RE husband and wife for regular times of sharing and prayer. This provides both encouragement for the TE and help to the session in caring for him and his family.
2. Such work may include re-defining the job descriptions of both REs and TEs. REs can clear the way for sermon-prep time by handling pastoral meetings during the week, by reshuffling admin responsibilities, and (if needed) by exercising oversight of the pastor’s calendar. If the pastor’s job means “doing it all” then the REs aren’t doing enough.
3. Finally, such work will require our own close walk with the Lord. “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness,” said Robert Murray M’Cheyne. We could put a twist on it for our own pastor: his greatest need from us, the ruling elders, is our own personal holiness. By submitting ourselves to God’s Word and to one another we will lead in unity and in demonstration of love. By keeping watch over our own lives and doctrine, we will be the right kind of burden to our pastor as he keeps watch over us. By being good Bereans and bringing the light of God’s Word to bear on every decision, the session will be living out God’s intended design for the leadership of the church. A pastor is well cared for when his fellow elders walk humbly with God, guard their way closely, and test everything by God’s Word.
Man can receive no higher calling from God than to preach His Word, and the ruling elder is in a unique position to help steward that calling in his own pastor. What a privilege! If you love the Word of God, if you have been given the blessing of serving with men who faithfully preach it, then acknowledge that privilege. Pray for your pastor. Free him wherever possible to pursue that high calling. And be holy for Christ’s sake and for his.
Ruling Elder, your shepherd needs shepherding. He needs you to hold his arms up.