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an overseer is a shepherd

It is hard for me to imagine a scenario more disastrous than bringing a brother onto the oversight and then afterwards recognizing that he is not a shepherd and has no business being in the role. It is vital that we are extremely clear on differentiating between natural and spiritual leadership.

Problematic Strategies for Identifying Overseers

According to Benjamin Franklin, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I am so thankful to serve in my assembly at the Glen Ewen Gospel Hall with men who are qualified to serve as overseers. Not perfect, but qualified.

The recognition that one of your fellow overseers is unqualified is a most uncomfortable position to be in. Further, it is a profoundly delicate situation to attempt to rectify. In fact, my anecdotal observations indicate that most assemblies opt for a long wait until the end of that brother’s life rather than attempting to help him find his proper role in the assembly.

This reality means that bringing someone onto the oversight essentially becomes an irreversible decision and that is a very difficult place to be in if the decision is regrettable.

Now, let me be very clear that one thing I do not want is for this post to be used as a weapon of destruction against an overseer. I would hate to see this used by a disgruntled Christian in an attack on an overseer. Rather, my goal in this article is to focus on prevention. If you are considering bringing a brother onto the oversight, this article is for you.

I want to come to this first by talking about the problematic ways that we identify leaders and then secondly by looking for the robust, Biblical strategies that can prevent us from the unfortunate scenario of an unqualified overseer.

Leadership Makes Me Feel Better About Myself

It has been my observation that for many of God’s people, the assembly becomes the canvas on which we paint the picture of our search for significance. Leadership is especially attractive to this possibility. Inherent in the assumption of responsibility is the meaningfulness of the role. On its own, that is legitimate. But when meaning and significance become the object or idol rather than leading to contrite, heartfelt burden, selfishness ensues.

At the core of this issue are the intrapersonal deficiencies we all bring to the table. None of us begin (or end) our service as overseers as complete, fully-sanctified human beings. Positionally: yes. Practically: definitely not.

This incompleteness, as an example, is sometimes keenly felt by the sensitive brother who knows his own weakness and human frailty and looks beyond God to others in order complete himself. The same lack of completeness is equally present but unacknowledged in brothers who lack either self awareness or those who exhibit narcissistic personality traits. They fall prey to the same solution: looking horizontally to complete themselves (usually through the accolades of others).

Yet this is our reality! It is in our nature. What is to be done? Like the woman at the well, we are to bring our empty water pots to Christ for filling (John 4). There, we drink of the living waters and, to quote the words of Paul, we are “filled in Him” (Colossians 2:10, ESV). We are to pursue our completion, or filling, in Christ. Yet, while we live, we move with the awareness that this is a process not yet completed. Therefore, serving as overseers, we are not left on our own because we understand that God dwells “with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15, KJV).

This then is the correct balance: humble and contrite. The man who lives in this manner will not seek completion from the adulation or veneration of others. Do I manage to live this way all the time? Sadly, no. For me: when I see anxiety in my heart about shepherding that I need to do, be that a teaching message, or a visit with a believer or conversation that needs to be had, that anxiety is a signal that I am concerned about their approval. Recognizing this horizontal attempt to fill myself, I then have to confess and turn back to Christ for His help.

The absence of incompleteness is not what matters. Rather, it is what we do with this reality.

Let us look at two examples of failure in leadership: one due to narcissism, the other due to a sensitive man looking to others to complete himself.

Diotrephes: The Narcissist

The classic traits of a narcissist are delusions of grandeur, a disregard for the feelings of others, the inability to take criticism and an excessive need for admiration from others.

This is what we see in “Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence” (3 John 1:9, NKJV). He refused to receive those who would criticize him, he needed to be the top dog, and would not accept feedback from others.

Diotrephes probably carried intense feelings of shame and inadequacy inside himself. Unaware of them, he sought to appease these dark cravings by taking a preeminent position in the assembly. Suddenly, it becomes crystal clear how a person can seek to fill personal deficiencies by exploiting a position of power and seeking the praise and veneration of others in a gathering of the Lord’s people.

The praise that he never received as a child has turned into a quest to obtain the same from his parishioners. And yet, at what cost to the Lord’s people?

The real challenge with the narcissist is that he often appears as an upwardly mobile, successful businessman who knows how to sway popular opinion. Without careful scrutiny, he may appear to have the influence and support, along with trappings of success, that make for a good leader. At least, by worldly standards.

However, in service for God this man is a disaster. 3 John identifies that the assembly had become a toxic environment where only Diotrephes is seen as supreme: the preeminence of Christ, the authority of the apostles, and a biblical eldership had all ceased to function.

What had looked like a promising, up-and-coming brother had turned into a complete disaster for the assembly there. Likewise, we need to ask ourselves if the brother we see as a potential overseer is truly fitted by God, or if he is just attracted to the work in an attempt to soothe deep feelings of shame and inadequacy, or even to meet the vicarious dreams of his parents.

David: Unacknowledged Needs

Looking now at an Old Testament leader we come to David, the sweet psalmist of Israel. Likely a lonely and unacknowledged child in a family of impressive sons, David brought deep-seated insecurities and a sense of inadequacy with him as he was appointed to lead Israel.

Since God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, He could do far more with David than with Saul and successful conquests ensued. God used David; of this I am certain. Yet, I wonder how many of his bold exploits and ambitious projects were an attempt to compensate for the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy? Can you see how striving to fill those needs made David appear to be a compelling leader?

Nevertheless, as the loneliness pursued him he pursued the things he thought might help: multiple wives and even an extra-marital affair. He never felt complete because he never took those inadequacies to God for completion.

Again we see a promising, even spiritual, leader whose own inadequacy was marked out in a dysfunctional family and significant moral failure. Yes, God used him. But this deep personal inadequacy had deadly consequences (the death of his child and the death of Uriah) as well as profound national consequences through Absalom’s rebellion and Solomon’s eventual succumbing to his own womanizing tendencies as well.

The bottom line is that disaster follows when we bring men onto the oversight who see leadership as a means to complete themselves. This is a particular trait that we must be aware of and extremely cautious around. Based on 3 John, it would seem to me that narcissism is a total red flag. As far as the other brother who feels inadequate, it is not the absence of this which is required in a leader. Rather, what is necessary is to see the brother taking that need to Christ for resolution.

So these are two examples of men who whose personal sense of incompleteness, taken to the wrong place, resulted in spiritual disasters. Yet, it is not always the potential overseer who is at fault. Often, those of use who are already serving employ faulty thinking in our selection of a potential candidate.

We Need a Good Fit

One common thread of logic is to seek out a brother who is a “good fit” with the existing members of the oversight.

This could take a few forms. It is perfectly natural to look for compatibility in personality. None of us would naturally seek out someone with a difficult personality or very different set of views. However, it is all too easy to rationalize choosing someone on the basis of compatibility rather than qualification by God! We might argue that the brother sees things the way we do and remind ourselves how valuable it is to have unity on the oversight. Surely this is sufficient reasoning?

I think not.

Or, we may turn to a family member because we are comfortable with a son or brother or even a cousin that we have known a long while and enjoy spending time with. That is an amenable arrangement, is it not?

No: neither of these are viable, Biblical reasons for bringing someone onto the oversight.

Having said that, as observers of overseers in our assembly or other assemblies, let us not be too quick to judge when a family member is brought on the oversight. It is all too easy to make the flippant remark that “blood runs thicker than water”. And yet, we may actually be criticizing the work of the Holy Spirit in fitting a brother for that work and raising him up to do it. So I do not mention family connection in order to discourage this possibility but just as a note of caution.

Seniority

Seniority can be another matter of faulty logic. In some circumstances, a brother may feel that he is next in line for assuming the role of an overseer simply due to his age, and he may even be blind to the fact that he is not qualified for this work. Indeed, the assumption present in this kind of thinking probably disqualifies him in itself!

Or, existing overseers may look to an older brother just because he is in a certain age category and make that the primary qualification they consider.

This issue may be more prevalent in areas where labor unions are prominent or in some cultures where age trumps other leadership qualities.

I feel that assemblies can do more to discourage seniority from becoming a leading criteria for oversight. For example, encouraging and appreciating a diversity of spiritual gifts in the assembly means that an older brother, not an overseer, will serve in other capacities and be considered equally valuable to the functioning of that assembly. Additionally, we do well, as overseers, to be vulnerable and open about our own struggles and failures so that the saints do not romanticize the nature of the position or idealize the attributes of those who hold it.

When we are real and open about the struggles of serving as an overseer, others will be less attracted to the work. On the other hand, if we lord it over the people, then those who seek power and significance will be naturally (not spiritually) drawn to the work. Authenticity is key to dispelling the mythical glory associated with being a leader in God’s assembly.

In concluding this part, I have identified five problematic strategies to avoid when qualifying a brother for oversight work. But what do the Scriptures teach about how to accurately assess a brother’s fitness for this role?

Biblical Strategies for Identifying Overseers

There are two areas I would like to look at: is he fitted? And is he fit?

Is He Fitted?

By fitted, I mean equipped and called. Allow me to explain.

The most obvious requirement for any brother to be considered for the role of an overseer is that he be gifted to do the work and also be in the work. The gift and the work I refer to is shepherding.

The Case for Shepherding

When Peter addresses the elders in his first epistle, his first instruction to them is “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers…” (1 Peter 5:2, NKJV). He is very clear that the primary function of the overseer is to shepherd.

Likewise, when Paul spoke to the elders of the assembly at Ephesus in Acts 20, he gives them a similar instruction: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28, NKJV). Paul also sees a very clear connection from the role (overseers) to the function (shepherding).

I remember when I first connected these thoughts as a young believer: I was deeply impressed with the truth that an overseer is first and foremost someone who shepherds the flock of God.

In an established assembly, a brother may wish to be an overseer, but if shepherding is not already his exercise and area of service then under normal circumstances he has no business assuming the role of an overseer.

A brother may be sound in doctrine, faithful in attendance, gifted to preach the Gospel, an effective business leader, and a godly Christian. But if shepherding is missing, God has other plans for him. Shepherding is the most essential gift and work of an overseer: without it, no amount of other credibility can qualify a man. He must be a shepherd: the Scriptures do not ever conceive of a non-shepherding elder.

Having said that, the other qualities may be very helpful or even required in some cases (for example, sound in doctrine) but the core function of an overseer, as taught in the apostle’s doctrine, is that of shepherding.

To this end, Ephesians 4:11 informs us that shepherding is a spiritual gift. It accompanies teaching: not necessarily as a platform gift, but certainly an aptness to teach (1 Timothy 3:2).

This is what it means to be equipped to do the work: he has the core spiritual gift necessary to perform the spiritual work that God requires of him. Of course, it is highly likely that the brother will be gifted in other ways as well so as to expand his sphere of service. But the gift of shepherding is always present in an overseer raised up by God.

What About Calling?

I want to be careful with this one. We can overplay the concept of “being called” and take it too far.

As quoted above, Paul said told the Ephesian elders that “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28, NKJV). Thus, it was evident to Paul that the Holy Spirit had acted upon the lives of each of these men to bring them into this role. We are not told the details of what that looked like but it seems reasonable to conclude that each of them were aware that the Spirit had assigned them to this work.

Peter adds in his epistle the idea that this service is to be entered “…not by compulsion but willingly…” (1 Peter 5:2, NKJV). When the need arises, the fitted brother responds to the call to service because he knows that this is God’s will. To resist would be to disobey his Lord.

Thus, a calling could be as simple as seeing a need and meeting that need. Eventually, others recognize this and the brother is invited to join the oversight. In other cases, a brother may have a more direct “thus saith the Lord” experience that guides him towards accepting the invitation.

Regardless of the specifics, he is fitted to do the work through the spiritual gift given to him and the working of the Spirit to compel him into that work.

When these features are recognized the next question is, is he fit to do the work?

Is He Fit?

Sadly, it is conceivable that a brother would be fitted to do the work but lack fitness (i.e., the necessary qualifications) to do the work.

These qualifications are detailed out primarily in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. I do not intend to go into a study of those qualifications other than to make a few broad observations.

First, the qualifications put forward require that the other overseers know this brother well. Not only in the context of the assembly but also in his home life and in his community. If you examine the criteria listed in these passages it is apparent that the full scope of the overseer’s testimony is under examination. Private and public, home and assembly, intrapersonal and interpersonal.

This requirement for scrutiny is underscored in Paul’s instruction to “lay hands suddenly on no man” (1 Timothy 5:22, KJV) and the further explanation that “Some men’s sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later. Likewise, the good works of some are clearly evident, and those that are otherwise cannot be hidden” (1 Timothy 5:24-25, NKJV).

Second, the qualifications could be summarized under the words authenticity and congruency. With regards to authenticity, the overseer must be genuine: there can be no pretence or masquerading. This is particularly evident in the word “blameless” (1 Timothy 3:2). This cannot possibly mean the overseer has never done anything worthy of blame: that would be an impossible standard for any human. Rather, it means that this brother is up to date on owning, acknowledging and making amends for the wrong he has done. There are no outstanding issues that can be brought up against him. In that sense, he is blameless.

Further, he must be living congruently: the values he professes and the values he practices must align. The care that he shows for the flock and his ability to guide them is only as effective as the care he shows to his own spiritual, relational, physical and emotional life. This is seen in criteria such as “temperate, sober-minded…gentle…one who rules his own house well” (from 1 Timothy’s list) and “holding fast the faithful word” (from Titus’ list).

This qualification is necessary in order for the potential overseer to competently shepherd a wandering saint. For example, a potential overseer with a food addiction would not be qualified to shepherd a saint with a pornography addiction or tobacco addiction. Could this brother legitimately teach that we should take all our needs to Christ, while he takes his to the fridge? Could another overseer rebuke a sister for adorning herself with jewelry while he adorns himself with a luxury vehicle? (In fairness: not every luxury vehicle and not all jewelry is purchased with the motive to adorn one’s self). No, there must be congruency between belief and behaviour.

Finally, the potential overseer must have the right attitude towards the work. Peter is particularly helpful here, especially his exhortation, “Nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3, NKJV). Does the brother you are considering already demonstrate servant leadership?

From these passages we see that fitness is as necessary as being fitted. Additionally, we need to be well acquainted with the potential overseer in order to accurately evaluate his fitness.

Summary

Inviting an unqualified brother to join the oversight is disastrous. As overseers, let us be particularly careful to evaluate potential overseers by divine standards, not human standards.

We need to do this because natural leadership qualities do not translate to spiritual shepherding qualities. It is all too easy to see a man who is an effective organizational leader in his secular employment and assume he would be good overseer material. He may, but these are not the criteria the Scriptures point us to.

We must go back to the Word of God to ensure we have spiritual criteria. Additionally, we need to discern the mind of God through prayer and fellowship with one another as overseers. At the end of the day a careful process, dependent on God for direction and guidance, will strengthen the assembly for generations to come.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.