Review: “Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church” by Richard Swartley

This book is an extremely valuable addition to the study of pastoral leadership of the church. Where a book such as Strauch’s Biblical Eldership provides the necessary doctrinal foundation of church leadership, Swartley builds on that foundation and gives us incredibly helpful insights regarding the nuts and bolts of ‘eldering.’ We get to benefit from this author’s experience and wisdom.

He covers all of the topics one would expect in this kind of book, such as the processes for selecting and appointing elders, the make-up of the elder council, interaction with the rest of the congregation, the necessity of prayer, effective council meetings, church discipline, confidentiality, etc. Along the way, he also discusses some key issues that church elders will appreciate. For instance, he clarifies the relationship between the terms elder and pastor, reminding us that all elders are pastors, but not all pastors are elders. This is helpful because we can begin to equate the two. He also—more than once—gives strong warning concerning the danger of distinguishing one elder as ‘the pastor,’ showing how this undermines a truly biblical eldership, and has no scriptural basis.

I appreciated Swartley’s wisdom on the benefits of team teaching/preaching. This model perfectly fits the concept of the church being pastored by a team of elders, and I’m pleased to see significant attention paid to it. He criticizes the use of Robert’s Rules of Orders, and shows a much healthier way of elders interacting that fosters consensus rather than politicking. Swartley advocates a middle ground between the rule of the majority and absolute unanimity. He values consensus, but warns against the possibility of decisions being determined, in a sense, by the lone holdout. His thinking has merit, but is challenging to those of us trained to hold unanimous consensus as almost sacred in elder deliberations. He also cautions against potential groupthink, where harmonizing with one’s fellow elders can become more important than what is actually right (and wrong).

Swarley presents an intriguing proposal concerning a designated leadership team drawn from an eldership council that has grown too large to effectively lead as a whole. As with any book that includes practical insights and suggestions, readers may not agree with every idea but will benefit from thinking through and responding to them. He also includes a lot of helpful, practical thinking on the need for elder councils to be proactive rather than simply reactionary, to intentionally provide opportunities for fellowship among elders, how to delegate effectively, the process of making proposals, etc.

Leaders of larger churches with paid staffs (or churches who hope to grow to that point) will want to carefully read Swartley’s thoughts on the subtle danger of dividing the staff from both the elders and the church’s volunteers. The staff can too easily become the actual, active leadership of the church, with the elders serving merely as a type of trustee board. Elders must be actual pastors and leaders, and the author emphasizes this repeatedly.

This is an excellent resource. I think any church seeking to wisely implement a truly biblical eldership will find this book both challenging and edifying. I highly recommend it!

Review: “Christ in Church Leadership: A Handbook for Elders and Pastors” by Dorman Followwill and Paul Winslow

This work is a valuable addition to the growing list of books on eldership. The authors explain the basic scriptural teaching regarding churches being led by a team of elders, but the book doesn’t provide an in-depth examination of the biblical doctrine of church eldership. I don’t think this was the intention of the authors. (For such an examination, I recommend Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership.) Instead, this book gives us an overview of many of the issues involved in the real-life ministry of a church elder.

Along the way, they share a number of excellent illustrations and examples from their own experiences in church leadership. These accounts alone are worth the price of the book. It’s almost as if we become a fly on the wall, watching godly pastoral leaders strive to serve faithfully and wisely. There are many wonderful, memorable, insightful anecdotes, and also sobering cautionary tales of what can happen when we’re not committed to leading God’s people God’s way.

The authors cover most of the key areas related to the ministry of church elders: elder qualifications, selecting and appointing elders, the process for making sound decisions, delegating to other leaders, handling church finances, evaluating elders, interacting with the rest of the church body, disciplining church members, etc. There are many nuggets of wisdom on these pages from which elders (and potential elders) will benefit. One that particularly stands out for me is the balance of “hard minds and soft hearts” they explore in chapter three. A great principle, very well explained. Of course, when authors give their views on the intricacies of church leadership, there are bound to be details with which some will take exception (as did I). But even if we don’t completely agree with a certain application, the principles they are presenting can spur our own reflection and growth.

I am somewhat confused regarding the apparent distinction between elders and pastors. The subtitle of the book is A Handbook for Elders and Pastors, but they never seem to clearly define what they mean by pastor. In some places they stress a two-office New Testament church with elders and deacons, making it clear that the elders are responsible for shepherding or pastoring the whole church. But at other times they seem to assume a distinction between “the pastor” and the elders (or even “his elders”), and assume that ‘the pastor’ is the one primarily doing the preaching. It would have been helpful for the authors to have explained how they’re using the term. Is the pastor simply a vocational, financially-supported elder? Is a pastor anyone in the congregation with a shepherding ministry? Or does ‘the pastor’ constitute a specific church leadership function in distinction to that of the elders? I’m not necessarily disagreeing with their approach, but it needs to be clarified. If elder-led churches utilize this book for the purpose of training leaders, this is one significant area where they will need to add additional explanation for their people.

The authors seem to equate a unanimity among the elders—one that is properly arrived at—with the mind of Christ on any particular issue. While I am also a proponent of decision-making by unanimous consensus of the elders, I’m hesitant to state this principle as strongly as these authors do in this book. I was challenged by Howard Snyder’s foreword of Jerram Barr’s book Shepherds and Sheep, where he writes, “no way of grouping fallible leaders together ever makes them infallible!” Richard Swartley also questions this idea in his book Eldership in  Action. I think there is a lot of room for caution here.

Finally though, this is an incredibly helpful book for showing wise examples of experienced elders, bringing out the key issues concerning church leadership, and triggering deeper thought and discussion. I highly recommend it.