Elderlink Atlanta 2011

March 27, 2011

As is our custom, this past Friday and Saturday my wife and I attended the Atlanta Elderlink program  for 2011 at the North Atlanta Church of Christ.  And as always, the program was rich with insights about shepherding God’s people more effectively.

How to Die Happy

Randy Harris started the program on Friday night, offering two principles for success in life at any level.

1) Define success.  In other words, choose the right goal (he used the Greek term “telos”).

2) Choose an appropriate strategy for reaching that goal.

Randy proposed that a possible goal for the church could be subversion, to train the members to implement subversion of the ways of the world in the community around us.  The idea is to go beyond simply living a counter-cultural life (which can be passive and isolationist) and instead to actively inject the Christian lifestyle into the world.  Preparing Christians to carry out this kind of subversion requires developing their critical thinking skills and to understand the ways in which Jesus subverted the world around him.  He suggested that, instead of measuring success through attendance and contribution, we should try measuring the subversion (perhaps by counting acts of subversion that have been carried out).

We may take following Jesus very seriously, but we haven’t been so good at living up to that.  We’re called to be the light of the world, the kind of people who model to the world what Christianity means.  We should just do that, and accept whatever results that brings.

Charles Siburt

A change to the original program was made to allow Charles Siburt to share about his very serious personal health struggles and the lessons he has learned from them.  I will not go into detail about the nature of his sickness.  But the ongoing, life-threatening issues he faces are teaching him lessons about

1) Clarity.  The doctor looked him in the eye and told him the truth.  Faith in God requires us to face the truth squarely, not to deny and pretend.

2) Courage.  Faith isn’t so much about experiencing a miracle. Instead faith is itself the miracle.

3) God Cares.  The song “Be still my soul” has been on his mind lately.

4) Community:  The encouragement of many people is powerful.  God comforted the downcast by sending Titus to Paul. And God has comforted Dr. Siburt through the encouraging words of many people.

The big-picture message of this session was the utter calmness with which Dr. Siburt described his health and his heart at this point in the ordeal.  His strength can be a source of inspiration to anyone striving to overcome a terrible obstacle.

I wish they had told me…

Chris Smith opened the Saturday morning session with some quotes from elders.  He asked them what are the things about the job of an elder that they wish someone had told them before they were appointed.  Here are a few that I caught:

  • “When people disagree they go for the jugular”
  • “People can be cruel”
  • “How far-reaching divorce can be”
  • “I went from being a nobody to a somebody, not ready for that”
  • “Those in crisis expect us to provide them the perfect spiritual lifeboat… if we don’t we’re failing them”
  • “Am I going to let the hardship in the church to dominate my life”
  • “When elders speak, people listen differently”
  • “Be careful, there’s an elder in the room”
  • “People treat you differently”
  • “I would have liked for the people to be different (more spiritual)”
  • “I was unprepared for going home and not being able to talk to wife about things.”
  • “I live in Corinth.”

He pointed out that elders can learn from other elders.  There’s no reason to have to learn every lesson through experience , especially in a crisis.  We can find someone who has dealt with that crisis before, and find out what was the best thing they did; what they wish they had not done;  etc.

He advised us to be prepared for handling a child molestation incident, not waiting until one occurs to figure out how to respond.

We can’t please everyone.  Sometimes we can’t please anyone.  Some people are impossible to please, and this can be divisive.  Identify those people and watch out for what they might do.

He shared that, as a minister, he had been unprepared for how “boring” things can get.  The challenge of delivering an impactful message every Sunday can wear a preacher out.

There is a saying “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”  Similarly, it could be said that 90% of leadership is showing up.  Who you are matters more than what you do.  In difficult times, people are desperate to see a calm, steady, non-anxious presence — someone who can de-escalate things and reassure everyone that things will be ok; someone who is not dysfunctional and will not fall “off the wagon;”  someone who knows a little more than they do.  They need a leader who demonstrates, “I know the way. Follow me.”

Panel discussion and breakout sessions

During the breakout sessions, the attending elders got a chance to interact with the speakers about what they had heard.  In particular, there was a lot of discussion about the “subversion” idea, and how to present that in a way that a congregation could accept it.

There was considerable discussion of the women’s role in the church, a topic that really wasn’t mentioned in the main messages but had been raised in the panel discussion.

Chris Smith advised that, if a congregation likes their minister and wants to keep him for a long time, then do something special, nice, and totally unexpected for them.  As an example he described a vacation that was given to him as a surprise over ten years ago, which he still remembers more than any salary increase along the way.

Leading for the long haul

To avoid burnout as a church leader, Chris Smith advised:

1) Manage yourself.   Take care of your own personal needs.  Don’t rely on someone else to make sure you don’t burn out.

2) Trust is everything.  Build and maintain trust between leaders in the church.  The way to build trust is to act in a trustworthy manner.   Visit at the hospital.  Show up at funerals.  Be there (literally) in a crisis.  Doing those things builds trust. People don’t forget those things.

3) Do not misplace your heart.  Beware of becoming cynical as you deal with the most serious spiritual issues in the church.   Sometimes you have to “bring the hammer.”  If you never have a hard talk, you are surely overlooking sin.  On the other hand, you need to be full of grace.  Instead of being “done with” the repeat violator, be the one who is always ready to offer a new start.

4) It is God’s church.  God loves his church more than I do, and will love it after I’m dead and gone.  Do I love the church?  If not, they will know. If I think I’m smarter than most of them, they know.  They have to know that you love them.  If you do that, then you can say hard things when you need to.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live together in Christian community.”

5) People can change.  Remember those times when a person’s life turned around.  Cherish those memories, and let them encourage you as you enter the next crisis situation.

Rules for Recovering Legalists

Randy Harris began the closing message with a couple of illustrations.

His first illustration involved a group of  kids he was teachign to play chess. He gave them three rules to improve their strategy:

1) fight for the center
2) develop your pieces
3) castle early
Those new chess players didn’t see these rules as legalistic.  Rather, they saw them as helpful to achieving their goal of being a good chess player.
His second illustration involved driving a car in “whiteout” snow conditions — such heavy snow that you cannot see the road at all.   In such conditions, the driver welcomes any indication of where the boundaries of the road are.  These indicators aren’t seen as confiining but as enabling.
The point of both illustrations is that we need rules and boundaries.  God provides law for our good.
Paul was not anti-law.  In Romans he says the law is holy, right, and good.  In Galatians Paul was not arguing that law is a bad thing, but that the Jews were clinging to the wrong identity markers.
Randy gave another illustration from sports.  Athletes put themselves through incredibly hard things that might in other settings get someone put in jail.  But they choose to do it in order to reach a goal.  There is a huge difference between legalism and discipline.
We need rules and boundaries and discipline.  It helps to apply them in community.
Randy then began to explain the subversion idea more fully.  He gathered from the breakout sessions that most people felt it would be hard to implement the idea.   Randy then laid out a strategy for achieving the subversion “telos”.
Start by developing a subversive lifestyle yourself.  Then form a small community of leaders who are willing to enter into a covenant with one another.  Agree on exactly what the group’s covenant should be — a rule of life that the group is willing to live under.   What do we need to do to live out the gospel we proclaim?   By identifying the rules of that life, and making a covenant to live by those rules, the leaders begin to lead the church by modeling the lifestyle — modeling the radical lifestyle of Jesus.  That kind of modeling is the only thing that makes a person a real leader in the church.
A suggested rule is that we need to be indifferent to some things:  to what people think of us; to material things; to power, politics, pop culture and the media.  We need to be indifferent to those things, not influenced by them and not giving our time to them.  Randy described the effect of some students fasting from those things for six weeks.  The biggest problem: boredom. They didn’t know what to do with all the free time they suddenly had in their schedules.  Imagine if that time in our schedules could be spent on things that advance the Kingdom of God!
Randy gave another illustration from one of his classes.  He had mentioned in class that it has been statistically proven that there is no such thing as a streak shooter in basketball.  One of his students, a member of the women’s basketball team, took issue with his statement.  She chose as her project to interview the members of the basketball team to see whether they agreed.  The result was that they strongly disagreed, and were even angry that Randy would challenge that.  Their response was based entirely on their interpretation of their personal experience, despite the factually sound proof that they were wrong.   Randy showed through this illustration that we tend to reject truth because it doesn’t fit with what we believe from our experience.  We are unwilling to be radically generous with our material possessions because our experience tells us we will need material things and we aren’t so sure God will deliver on his promises to provide what we need.   Can we commit ourselves to “downward mobility?”   The thought is scary to us because we rely on ourselves instead of on God.  We rely on our experience of taking care of our own material needs, rather than the truth that God will keep his promises.
The bottom line is that leaders must first model what we will call the church to do.  “What’s wrong with my preaching?  There are not enough passages that I can preach with authenticity.”  There are too many passages that I have not embodied in any meaningful way.


I have a lot more meditation and personal work to do before I can adequately sum up this year’s Elderlink.  I heard things that challenged my socks off.   Things that could change my life, if I will let them.

If you are a church leader and you have the opportunity to attend an Elderlink program, do yourself and your church a favor.  Go.  And bring your fellow leaders with you.



  1. […] Rouse has done his usual expert job at summarizing the 2011 Atlanta ElderLink. Check out his post. Related Posts:ElderLink: Atlanta, March 24, 2007Atlanta ElderLinkElderLink AtlantaElderLink […]

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  3. Alan, thanks for going and for sharing these insights to bless the rest of us.

    Great to see you posting!

  4. I am surprised at the comments in the “I wish they had told me…”

    If a person has worked ten or twenty years in almost any job, they would have seen and heard all these things. Do Elders expect the people in a church to behave completely differently than people everywhere else?

    • Dwayne, I think what they were saying was that things turned out to be worse than they expected. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Christians to behave differently from non-Christians.

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