Maintaining Harmony Between Elders and Ministerial Servants
SHORTLY after Pentecost 33 C.E., an emergency arose in the newly formed Christian congregation. An arrangement had been established to care for needy widows. But after a while “a murmuring arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the Hebrew-speaking Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution.”—Acts 6:1.
These complaints reached the ears of the apostles. “So the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them and said: ‘It is not pleasing for us to leave the word of God to distribute food to tables. So, brothers, search out for yourselves seven certified men from among you, full of spirit and wisdom, that we may appoint them over this necessary business.’”—Acts 6:2, 3.
This illustrates an important principle of organization within the Christian congregation. Some responsible men are used to care for routine matters, while others care for weightier spiritual concerns. This is not without precedent. In ancient Israel, Aaron and his descendants were appointed to serve as priests to make sacrifices to God. However, Jehovah directed that the Levites assist them by ‘taking care of all the utensils of the tent of meeting.’ (Numbers 3:5-10) Similarly, overseers today are assisted by ministerial servants.
The Role of Elders and Ministerial Servants
The Scriptures outline high qualifications for both elders and ministerial servants. (1 Timothy 3:1-10, 12, 13; Titus 1:6-9) They are not competitors but work for the same goal—the building up of the congregation. (Compare Ephesians 4:11-13.) Nevertheless, there are some differences in the work they perform in the congregation. At 1 Peter 5:2, overseers are told: “Shepherd the flock of God in your care, not under compulsion, but willingly; neither for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly.” They render an account to God for how they carry out this sacred trust.—Hebrews 13:17.
What about ministerial servants? The Scriptures do not require that they be as qualified in their ability to teach. Their duties are somewhat different from those of elders. In the first century C.E., there were doubtless many things of a material, routine, or mechanical nature that required attention, perhaps including the purchase of material for copying the Scriptures or even doing the copying itself.
Today, ministerial servants continue to fulfill a variety of important tasks within the congregation, such as caring for congregation accounts and territories, distributing magazines and books, and maintaining the Kingdom Hall. Some ministerial servants who have the ability may even be used in teaching, sometimes conducting Congregation Book Studies, handling parts on Service Meetings, and delivering public talks.
When elders and ministerial servants work together harmoniously, the congregation’s needs—both spiritual and organizational—are cared for in a balanced way. Congregation members are then joyful, strong, and spiritually productive. Recall what Paul wrote to anointed ones in Ephesus: “By being harmoniously joined together and being made to cooperate through every joint that gives what is needed, according to the functioning of each respective member in due measure, makes for the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”—Ephesians 4:16.
Elders and ministerial servants must strive to develop a similar harmony, that is, agreement, accord, cooperation, and unity. However, such harmony does not come about automatically. It must be cultivated and carefully guarded.
What Elders Can Do
An important step is to recognize that the relationship of an elder to a ministerial servant is not that of a master to a slave or of an employer to an employee. Where there is true harmony, elders view ministerial servants as fellow ministers of God. (Compare 1 Corinthians 3:6-9.) “In showing honor to one another take the lead,” says Romans 12:10. Elders therefore avoid treating ministerial servants in ways that might appear to be condescending or demeaning. They encourage, rather than crush, wholesome initiative. Treating ministerial servants with respect tends to bring out the best in them and helps them to enjoy their work in the congregation.
Elders should also bear in mind that their commission to shepherd the flock of God in their care includes the brothers serving as ministerial servants. True, such responsible men are expected to be mature Christians. Nevertheless, like the rest of the flock, they need personal attention from time to time. Elders should be keenly interested in their spiritual development.
For example, when the apostle Paul met the young man Timothy, he immediately grasped Timothy’s potential and “expressed the desire for this man to go out with him.” (Acts 16:3) Timothy served as Paul’s traveling companion, receiving invaluable training as a result. Why, years later Paul could write Christians in Corinth: “I am sending Timothy to you, as he is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord; and he will put you in mind of my methods in connection with Christ Jesus”!—1 Corinthians 4:17.
Elders, have you begun tapping the full potential of the ministerial servants in your congregation? Do you help them advance by giving them personal training in public speaking and Bible research? Have you invited qualified ones to accompany you on shepherding calls? Do you work with them in the field ministry? In Jesus’ parable of the talents, the master told his faithful servants: “Well done, good and faithful slave!” (Matthew 25:23) Are you likewise generous with praise and commendation toward ministerial servants who modestly carry out their assignments in a fine way? (Compare Proverbs 3:27.) If not, will they feel that their work is not appreciated?
Communication is likewise critical to a harmonious working relationship. (Compare Proverbs 15:22.) Duties should be neither assigned nor taken away in an arbitrary or haphazard manner. The elders should prayerfully discuss how a brother’s abilities can best be used in the congregation. (Compare Matthew 25:15.) When an assignment is made, a brother should be thoroughly briefed as to what exactly is required of him. “When there is no skillful direction,” warns Proverbs 11:14, “the people fall.”
It is not best simply to tell a brother to take over the accounts, magazines, or literature department from another servant. Sometimes a newly assigned servant inherits a batch of inaccurate or incomplete records. How disheartening! “Let all things take place decently and by arrangement,” directs 1 Corinthians 14:40. Elders should take the initiative to train brothers, acquainting them with congregational procedures and setting an example themselves in following such procedures. For example, elders are to arrange for the congregation accounts to be audited every three months. Neglecting such an important arrangement can lead to problems and undermine the respect ministerial servants have for organizational instructions.
But suppose a brother seems negligent in handling a particular assignment? Instead of summarily removing him from his assignment, elders should talk matters over with him. Perhaps the problem is a lack of training. If the brother continues to have difficulties handling his assignment, perhaps he would do well in another assignment.
Elders can also promote harmony by manifesting humility. Philippians 2:3 encourages Christians to do “nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism, but with lowliness of mind considering that the others are superior to you.” An elder should thus try to cooperate if an attendant directs him to sit in a certain seat in the hall, not reasoning that because he is an elder, he need not obey. Perhaps the attendant is simply following through on the suggestion to sit in different sections of the hall, though he should remember that there is no rule that all must do so.* An elder will avoid unnecessarily overruling decisions on matters that have been assigned to a ministerial servant.
Ministerial Servants Working for Harmony
“Ministerial servants should likewise be serious,” noted the apostle Paul. (1 Timothy 3:8) Their viewing assignments seriously—as part of their sacred service—does much to prevent tensions from developing. If you are a ministerial servant, do you perform your duties with enthusiasm? (Romans 12:7, 8) Have you applied yourself so as to become skilled in the handling of your duties? Are you reliable and dependable? Do you show a willing spirit when it comes to assignments? A ministerial servant in one African land handles three different assignments in the congregation. His attitude? “Well, it simply means more hard work,” he says, “and hard work does not kill you.” Indeed, those who give of themselves enjoy the most happiness.—Acts 20:35.
You can also do much to promote harmony by cooperating fully with the elders. “Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive,” says Hebrews 13:17, “for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account; that they may do this with joy and not with sighing, for this would be damaging to you.” True, the elders are imperfect men, and it might be easy to find fault with them. Yet a critical attitude breeds mistrust. It can ruin your joy and adversely affect others in the congregation. The apostle Peter thus gave this advice: “You younger men, be in subjection to the older men. But all of you gird yourselves with lowliness of mind toward one another . . . Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.”—1 Peter 5:5, 6.
Such counsel is particularly apropos if you feel you are being overlooked for privileges of service. Perhaps you have been “reaching out for an office of overseer,” but no appointment has been made. (1 Timothy 3:1) Lowliness of mind can help you to maintain “a waiting attitude.” (Lamentations 3:24) Rather than feel resentment toward the elders—which is sure to undermine your working relationship—ask them if there are areas in which you might make improvement. Your genuine willingness to accept and apply counsel will no doubt be seen as evidence of spiritual growth.
Godly humility and modesty can help a ministerial servant to keep his balance if he has exceptional abilities or educational and social advantages. How tempting it might be for him to try to outshine the elders or to call attention to his own abilities! Proverbs 11:2 reminds us that “wisdom is with the modest ones.” A modest brother is aware of his limitations. He is willing to work quietly in the background and to use his abilities to support the elders. Modesty may also help him to realize that while he may have much knowledge in a worldly way, he may still lack in the important areas of spiritual wisdom and discernment—qualities in which the elders may excel.—1 Corinthians 1:26–2:13; Philippians 1:9.
Clearly, elders and ministerial servants play vital roles. Together they can do much to build up all in the congregation. But to do so, they must work together harmoniously, “with complete lowliness of mind and mildness, with long-suffering, putting up with one another in love, earnestly endeavoring to observe the oneness of the spirit in the uniting bond of peace.”—Ephesians 4:2, 3.
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Elders view ministerial servants, not as subordinates, but as fellow ministers of God