Elders - What's In the Name?

by Liz Sykes | November 10, 2014

“Look, I love what you do and how you do it – just don’t call yourself an elder!”  This statement was in the context of a home group bible study when the topic of eldership came up. The person who spoke was a deacon and very supportive of us in ministry but he just couldn’t get his head around the thought of women being elders.

At another time, one of the elders said “If Liz becomes an elder, then I will resign” and at that time we assured him it wasn’t our intention to push the issue. Interestingly, I was already the associate pastor and we had a split income because we shared the ministry, but the concept of a woman elder was just too much to tolerate.

Just this week I was talking with a friend of over 40 years and she was saying she didn’t feel she had the support of her church in some of her outreach activities. She and her husband have a long history of being there for people in need, including prison visitation. As part of the conversation I said she had always been an elder in the life of whatever church they attended and her response was “Oh I’m not a leader, just would like some support for what I do.” I tried to encourage her that elders don’t have to be leaders in the way it is often practised, and that the word translated ‘elder’ means one who cares for the church – one who takes responsibility for the welfare of others and is a good example of godly living. I don’t think she was convinced – so ingrained is the idea of elders being the top of the pecking order in the churches.

Toward the end of our 35 year ministry we wanted to change the church constitution to allow more than one senior minister to formalise the idea that ‘senior’ meant the level of responsibility rather than ‘top of the pile’.

Some of the church members still wanted to have the notion of one main leader rather than team leadership which was how we had functioned for many years. Even though Trevor was the senior minister and I was the associate our practice was to work together, just as we did at home with no one person having a ‘casting vote’ when it came to decision making.

So…..in the end, we decided to both work as ‘elders’ so there was no-one seen to be above the other. Surprisingly, the vote for this was unanimous!

It’s all about the titles it would seem and it has been so disappointing over the years to observe this need for many people to have a hierarchy in place for them to feel secure. After some years since the statement in the first paragraph, I was voted in as an elder, but in the context that it was less than ‘senior minister’. Ah, the vagaries of church politics.

A little of our own journey just to illustrate that the term ‘elder’ means different things to different people at different times and in our experience, women are more often accepted now as pastors but the office of eldership remains a male domain because it mostly involves top level decision making and leadership of which women are not deemed to be capable. How far removed from the apostle Paul’s description and example of eldership where the people concerned were commissioned to care for the church and help them grow spiritually. Of course, eldership does involve decision making and leadership but in the context of care.

Interested in comments to illustrate how the term ‘elder’ has been used to denote those in charge rather than those who look after the people.