"Appreciate Those Who Labor Among You"

“But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

We often talk about the responsibilities of men who serve as elders in the local church. But God also speaks about our responsibilities toward these men. In this text, He tells us to “appreciate” them and “esteem them very highly in love.” I’d like to suggest a few things we should keep in mind to help us do that.

1. Be mindful of their individuality. Any eldership is going to be made up of men with varying situations, talents, and strengths. I believe that shows God’s wisdom in having a plurality of shepherds leading each congregation. But it also requires our bearing in mind that no two elders are exactly alike.

For instance, not every elder has the same family and work obligations. One man is an “empty-nester,” another still has teens at home. One may have an ailing parent (or more than one) in need of extra care and help. One man’s job involves different hours than another’s. Some occupations require travel on occasion. And a man who is retired almost certainly will have a less demanding schedule than one who is working full-time. We need to understand that the pressures on each man’s time, energy, and emotions are different. Every shepherd cannot be at my beck and call 24 hours a day. These men are exemplary Christians, but they’re not superhuman.

Not every elder has the same personality. The Bible lists several character traits that overseers must possess (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). But all will not manifest those traits in exactly the same way; each will still have his own distinct identity. One man is very outgoing, another is more quiet and reserved. One has an easy-going manner, another is more somber. I mention this because, over the years, most of the complaints I have heard about individual elders turned out to be nothing more than overreactions to some quirk of personality. Let’s show these men the same consideration and forbearance that we expect for ourselves.

2. Be mindful of their challenges. Elders have an immense responsibility for which they will give account to God (Hebrews 13:17). Let’s not forget the challenges that go with their work.

For instance, the shepherds of a local church deal with a wide array of personalities among their sheep. Sister Grace feels ignored if she doesn’t get a hug when she walks in the building, while Sister Charity would feel threatened by such a welcome. Brother Faith wants to be visited in the hospital, while Brother Hope prefers to be left alone. The Peace family loves it when someone drops by unannounced just to say hello; the Mercy family thinks it’s rude. Every overseer has to learn and adapt to the needs (and the oddities!) of each person. Including you. Be patient.

Of course, the very nature of their role means that overseers will be called on to help people with serious needs and problems. That can put them in a position that’s unenviable, to say the least. Christians who are struggling may share with the elders private information about themselves—information which is no one else’s business, and which would be embarrassing, even disastrous, if made public. In confronting sin, elders may learn things about a brother or sister that are shocking and disappointing. Sometimes these men face unjust suspicion or resentment. Sometimes they will have people lie to them, yell at them, ignore them, slander them, and otherwise try to obstruct their best efforts to do what is right. Add it all up, and it means that a shepherd may be carrying a heavy burden of heart and mind that is unknown to others. Let’s be conscious of the weight on their shoulders and give them our encouragement and support.

3. Be mindful of your own perceptions. We need to be careful not to hold any shepherd to an unrealistic, unreasonable standard of our own making. God has laid down the qualifications and responsibilities of this role; you and I have no right to invent new ones.

For instance, some people seem to think that an extensive education or a career in some influential field makes a man a better overseer. And others seem to think just the opposite! Yet Scripture says nothing about that. A farmer is not any less fit to shepherd God’s flock than a CEO, and vice-versa. Among the good elders I have known were teachers, welders, factory managers, salesmen, postmen, small business owners, maintenance workers, and others. Some had PhDs, and some never finished high school. If such things don’t matter to God, then they shouldn’t matter to us.

Sometimes folks come to idolize a particular man who has served as an elder. Maybe he was a big influence when they were young, or he helped them through an especially tough time. They come to view that man as ideal, and then measure every other shepherd or potential shepherd by him (or rather, their perception of him). They decide that every elder ought to have just the same habits, speech, opinions, and personality as good old brother So-and-so. And so, naturally, pretty much every man falls short. Again, let’s be careful not to demand more of our overseers than God does.

Our elders shepherd the flock of God with a view toward approval from the Chief Shepherd, Jesus (1 Peter 5:1-4). Theirs is a serious charge. But the members of the flock can do a lot to help these men serve “with joy and not with grief” (Hebrews 13:17). Let’s give them our appreciation, our esteem, and our love.