The first use of a pace car in automobile racing took place in 1911 at the inaugural Indy 500.
A pace car is designed to do just what it says—it sets the pace for other drivers, especially during seasons of chaos after a collision. Pace cars provide stability and direction for others to follow so that debris on the track may be safely removed before the race continues.
God has designed elders to be pace cars the church.
Elders are pace setters.
They don’t set the pace for how fast to drive but for what it looks like to come alive to the wonder of the gospel, having the transforming power of God’s grace manifested in their lives as examples for others to follow.
What we will see in this post is that elders, as pacesetters, show us how to care, how to serve, and how to lead.
1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Shepherd God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
1 Peter 5:1-6
When driving down to Atlanta to teach my Tuesday evening seminary class, I took exit 13. As I pulled up to the red light and prepared to turn left on 141, I noticed a disheveled, older man, apparently homeless, with a sign and a bucket. I am not sure exactly what the sign said because I looked away, pretending that I didn’t see him.
Eventually, the light turned green and I was able to move on, leaving him on the corner to beg for someone else to care.
It is so easy to turn our eyes away from need. Away from problems. Away from what is broken, expecting someone else to fix it. Expecting someone else to care.
It is the concept of care to which Peter exhorts the elders in verses 1-2.5:1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Shepherd God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them.”
According to Peter, the vital requirement of caring is watching—looking on a flock with the eyes of Jesus.
In verse 2, shepherd is not used as a noun but as a verb—an imperative verb, which is a command. A call to action. Shepherd God’s flock—sheep being a metaphor for the people for whom Jesus laid down his life.
This call to care requires elders to continaully watch for where is there health among the sheep… and where is there disease. Disease in spiritual sheep is the result of a disconnect between a sheep and the Savior, where a sheep begins to show symptoms of the flesh such as gossip, bitterness, a prideful, critical spirit, jealousy, and insecurity, just to name a few.
The cure is to press the gospel into the lives of the sheep on Sundays, in community groups and discipleship cohorts as well as informal one-on-one friendships as we make it our aim to help one another come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of God’s grace.
An elder’s influence as pacesetter begins with showing us how to care.
In my opinion, some of the most honored folks in a community are fire-fighters. Some communities have 100% paid fire departments, and they are worthy of their pay. But there are many communities that would be without fire protection if not for volunteer fire fighters who are willing to serve their community without pay. As the word volunteer implies, it is serving without obligation. Not because they have to, but because they want to.
It is the same with the ruling elders of a local church. In verses 2b Peter speaks to the motives of those serving as elders or overseers, imploring them to serve “not because you must [not because you feel like you have to], but because you are willing [because you want to], as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve.”
While vocational, teaching elders like myself receive our livelihood from preaching the gospel, non-vocational, ruling elders are like volunteer fire fighters who receive their income elsewhere but still commit to serve alongside those who are paid for their work.
These men—ruling elders—are my ministry heroes, showing us what it looks like to serve—not begrudgingly, but willingly and eagerly. They are pacesetters for all who serve in ministry, whether in the nursery or on the greeter team or hosting a home group, or any way anyone would serve. Ruling elders show us what it looks like to serve not because you have to, but because you want to.
When I’m tempted to complain about the challenges involved in my role, I think of these guys, who have taken up this glorious but difficult and demanding calling with eagerness.
This eagerness is important because it will be tested.
We have to admit that picking an animal to represent Christians that is known for being dirty, lacking intelligence, and having a tendency to bite should give anyone pause when being called to shepherd the flock.
It has always been this way.
Even in the early, glory days of the church, there was gossip, financial corruption, jealousy, and materialism. There were divisive factions, sexual indiscretions among believers, and pastoral character assassinations. These are all to be expected… in the church… even today… because of remaining sin.
But these are the sheep Jesus loves—the sheep for whom he willingly gave his life.
It is his sacrificial love of sinners that inspires and motivates elders as shepherds to love God’s sheep as sinners. To patiently love through teaching, through personal counsel, with patience and sometimes through discipline.
Then there are the elder team meetings, where no one sees these men prayerfully grappling with weighty decisions late at night or earnestly and faithfully praying for people in the church by name. Most people will not see the hospital visits or the phone calls or early morning breakfasts to disciple and counsel.
But elders, be encouraged that Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, does see. And as verse 4 says, he promises a crown of glory as a reward for your commitment and eagerness to endure the challenges associated with serving as a shepherd for his flock of sinful but beloved sheep.
So elders influence us as pacesetters by showing us how to care and how to serve.
American Figure skater Scott Hamilton won the National and World Championships in 1981 before winning a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. In a New York Times interview, Hamilton revealed that over the course of his career, he estimates that he has fallen at least 41,600 times.
Peter knew that we all fall down like that, far more than we would think or expect, including elders. In verses 5-6 he writes, “5b All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, [why] because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
In commending humility Peter is simply asking us to be honest.
It is this kind of honesty that is at the root of how an elder shows us how to lead, knowing that he has the capacity to fall down as much as anyone else.
This is why at Creekstone we charge our elders to be pace-setters in repentance—showing the flock what it looks like to confess fault and seek restoration.
One of the quintessential attributes of leadership in general is that leaders go first. We give first. We serve first. And we repent first. After all, elders may be shepherds but they are also sheep, with the same sheep tendencies as the rest of the flock.
Some sheep understand this and give their shepherds the same grace they as sheep have received from Jesus. Other sheep bite. Some sheep just leave. Some sheep actually are wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.
All of this makes being an undershepherd both a glorious calling, where we see the transforming power of the Gospel in the lives of the sheep, but also a challenging and often painful calling when we are bitten by the sheep or have to fend off wolves.
But then we remember that the only reason elders wouldn’t bite back or be wolves ourselves is because we, as elders, are the first to confess our need of God’s grace that has been displayed in the cross of Christ. When it comes to believing the gospel and being transformed by the gospel into men who lead with humility, we will go first!
In his book, Written in Blood, Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy named John whose sister, Mary, needed a blood transfusion. The doctor explained that she had the same disease the boy had recovered from two years earlier. Her only chance for survival was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease.
The doctor asked Johnny, “Will you give your blood to Mary?"
He hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then, having made his decision, he smiled and said with confidence, “Yes, for my sister. Yes."
When the two children were wheeled into the hospital room, although they didn’t speak, Johnny saw her and grinned. As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny's smile faded as he watched the blood flow through the tube.
With the ordeal almost over, the little boy broke the silence. "Doctor, when do I die?" He didn’t realize that he was only giving blood for a transfusion. He wasn’t having to give his life. But he was willing to give his life for his sister.
Because he cared for her and was willing to serve her by laying down his life for her.
What an example of the kind of caring, serving and leading that a man takes on when fulfilling the office of elder in the church!
But Johnny ultimately is much more than an example of an elder. He reflects the care of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus. As the apostle Peter says, “24 Jesus himself bore our sins in his body on the cross… 25 For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Jesus doesn’t merely provide a blood transfusion. He provides a life transfusion.
That really is the issue. This is what the elders among us want most for each of us—to be restored to the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul, living in union with Jesus so that you may receive the life transfusion of his righteousness and live by God’s grace to the praise of his glory.
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4 Factors that Contribute to Healthy Church Growth
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