As I woke up this morning, I was immediately aware of my “therelessness”. Friday morning is our weekly Theology Breakfast and I was not there. Theology Breakfast is our informal weekly gathering at Pimentos on Bearden Hill. The Godward conversation among friends is a consistent encouragement, something I hate missing. But today, I’m forced to miss. We are enjoying a few days on beautiful Lake Jackson in North Georgia. Each year, our extended family gathers for a weeklong vacation — a tradition we enjoy very much, but my thoughts are never far from home. Being here means I’m not there.
Paul understood therelessness.
When he was in Corinth, he wanted to be in Rome. When he was in Caesarea, the Philippian believers were on his mind and in his heart. When in Greece, he longed for Jerusalem. When he was on the Mediterranean coast, he wanted to be with friends in Macedonia. That frustration followed Paul throughout his missionary work. It’s inescapable: ministry here precludes ministry there.
In fact, Paul’s concern for his friends’ joy and progress in the faith drove him to choose here over there. (Philippians 1:23-25) Delaying the joys of heaven, Paul sacrificed his personally preferable there for his friends’ spiritually advantageous here. (But that’s neither here nor there.) His hereness or thereness was driven by a protective love for those under his care. Which raises a question: how do you care for people there when you’re here?
The way Paul answers therelessness is brilliant. His answer? Elders. Plural.
On Paul’s first missionary journey, visiting Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, he saw the importance of local, onsite leadership and “appointed elders for them in every church [and] with prayer and fasting committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23) This Pauline method insured that the fledgling churches across Asia Minor would be well cared for as the apostle moved from here to there. The church’s need for responsible, called leadership is one reason young Titus was not released from his difficult assignment in Crete. “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you”. (Titus 1:5)
Last Sunday, our church affirmed the appointment of three elders to join the two already in place. Each man exhibits a humble readiness to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)
God has assembled a team of overseers under whose shepherding eye, our fellowship will grow and thrive. So while I’m here, they’re there. And their thereness encourages me in my hereness. The steady presence of four called, qualified, accountable leaders gives me a confidence that our church is being well cared for. Our elders are present to comfort, encourage and exhort the family there. It’s happened already this week. Elders shepherding. This Lord’s Day, the Scriptures will be reverently, cautiously and authoratatively preached. Should a crisis arise within our assembly, men are ready to lead those they love through hardship. Were sickness to strike, one or more of these men would be there to pray. If counsel is needed, wise advisers are present. Basswood is being shepherded.
Contrast this with what is so often seen in churches, where the task of direction-setting, vision-casting and pastoral care is vested in one man. Pastors under that system might be tempted toward an inflated assessment of their own importance. I once heard a pastor tell his congregation, “My job is to lead and to feed. Your job is to follow and to swallow.” That’s not innocent swagger — it’s self-serving and shameful. As they say, “One monkey doesn’t stop the show.”
A more pressing concern (one I contend is scripturally-warranted) is that when one man carries the full shepherding load, the church is left in a vulnerable place. In recent days, I have heard of several tragic stories of churches that were decimated by the moral default of their Senior Pastor. In some cases, those churches will likely never recover. The short-sighted structure of long-held tradition sabotaged the church’s health.
Churches need leaders. Plural.
So content that our friends in Knoxville are being capably shepherded, our family will worship this Sunday with strangers. We will sing and fellowship. We will pray and worship. We will hear the Bible preached. I pray that Christ will be magnified. Still . . .
Here is not home. When 10:30 on Sunday comes and our brothers and sisters at Basswood are gathered, there’s only one place we want to be.