Why Installing Elders Too Quickly Can Kill Your Church

Below post is from the Resurgence...

I recently met a church planter who was excited about the team God was bringing together around him: a launch team of 15 people, including 3 elders. It never dawned on him that he was making a colossal mistake.

Paul left Titus in Crete with instructions to straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town (Titus 1:5). Notice the order: first, Paul and his companions planted a church, then appointed elders. The sequence is important.

American Christianity has been greatly influenced by the “parish” model of church-planting: send a group of people from church A somewhere new to establish church B. In this model, it may make sense to have elders from the beginning. The people already know each other, the culture of the church is defined, and the support of the mother church provides a fallback in case of leadership conflict.

Most of the church planters I know are not using a parish model. They are planting missional churches: starting from scratch, leading a small band of people as missionaries into new territory, and shaping the DNA of a church from ground zero. This model of church-planting mirrors Paul’s own ministry. Like Paul, you need to plant the church before you install elders. If you install elders too early in a missional church plant, you will most likely kill your church. Here’s why:

1. A missional church must start with an “apostolic band.”

You and your launch team are not Titus on Crete. You are Paul and his compadres landing on Crete in the first place. Every missional church plant starts as an apostolic band of missionary-gatherers, then coalesces into an established church.

Statistics show that 50-60% of your launch team won’t be around in two years. That most likely includes one or two men you have in mind for eldership! If you install elders in the apostolic band stage, you risk causing chaos in your fragile community when Barnabas and Paul decide to part ways.

2. Elders are a stabilizing structure.

When you install elders, you are implicitly telling your people, “We are established now.” People begin to see your church as a “real church” instead of a fledgling church plant. If you stabilize too fast, you lose momentum and kill the mission. It’s like launching a rocket: once you’re safely headed to orbit, you can jettison your rocket boosters. But if you jettison them during liftoff, you’re in big trouble. Installing elders inside of 18 months, or under 100 people, is a very bad idea. It will keep your church from ever getting into orbit.

3. Elders must be proven leaders in the eyes of the people you have.

“But I have good, biblically qualified men,” one church planter told me. “Shouldn’t they be elders?” Have they proven themselves by gaining the respect, trust, and confidence of the people you’re leading (especially new Christians and non-Christians) and by bearing fruit in ministry? Scripture requires that elders and deacons “be tested first” (1 Tim. 3:10). This testing must take place in the current context, not a previous one.

Some critics insist that any planter who doesn’t install elders immediately is vying for power and control. Every church planting agency I’m aware of follows this practice. A potential church planter is carefully tested and approved, then allowed to lead solo (with outside accountability) until additional qualified men are raised up from within the new church.

There’s a reason wise church planting agencies follow this strategy: Satan loves to wreck churches through leadership conflict. Church planting requires a man like Paul who has the character, gifting, and persistence to shape a church where it doesn’t exist; the discernment to feed the sheep and kill the wolves; and the humility, patience, and selflessness to raise up others to shepherd the flock alongside him.