On eagles and elders

March 24, 2003

How should ‘eldership’ in a YWAM context be expressed nationally?

In Romania last week we wrestled with this question in a meeting of YWAM leaders. After the dramatic Romanian Revolution in December 1989, many well-meaning ministries rushed into the country to help with the rebuilding process. All sorts of YWAM teams arrived there without any coordination from almost every continent, and soon we had almost a dozen independant locations operating under the YWAM flag.

Now, it may well be biblical for the right hand not to know what the left hand is doing, but it’s not always very efficient! So in 1995 we set up a Round Table with all the ministries represented, to promote communication, coordination and collaboration. Much progress had been made, relationships developed and cooperation improved.

However, as we considered the implication of the word from Loren Cunningham to the mission about the proper place of spiritual eldership (see Weekly Word, 13.09.02), we sensed it was time to rise to a new level of leadership in the nation. We began to see the need for the leaders to accept on overall responsibility for the whole, to be committed to the welfare of the whole, and to be more accountable to one another.

We discussed the mandate of eldership as including the safeguarding of the vision, values and principles of YWAM; the promotion of a sense of belonging and solidarity within the mission, as well as with the broader body of Christ; the nurture and development of staff and leadership; priestly prayer and intercession for the ministry and the nation; the appointment of leadership and major discipline issues; and the coordination and growth of national vision and strategy.

A fresh image came to my mind comparing the eldership role with that of a farmer. A farmer does everything possible to foster the health and well-being of his livestock, to yield more milk, beef, wool, mutton or bacon; he prepares the ground and applies fertilizers to maximize growth of crops; he make fences to keep destructive elements out; he uses pesticides to destroy harmful insects. He does all he can to create an environment of well-being and productivity. Elders too should do all possible to promote spiritual well-being and fruitfulness for their base/nation/region.

During a recent video-conference, Loren (in Hawaii) reminded me (in Switzerland) of another image I had quoted to him some years ago, concerning how God relates to his creation. I have since pondered this in relation to the task of eldership.

I came across this image in Basil Hume’s book Remaking Europe. The cardinal drew on a medieval Jewish commentary comparing Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit of God ‘hovered’ over the water, and Deuteronomy 32:11, where the eagle ‘hovers’ over its young. The same Hebrew word for ‘hover’ is used in both verses.

The tohu wabohu, the separation between the waters above and below manifests this distance that the Creator puts between himself and his creation in order to safeguard its autonomy. Without it, the world would be ‘overwhelmed’ by the divine, absorbed into it; the tohu wabohu resides in creation, since through it the world distinguishes itself from the divine and gives itself a place as creature. However, its distance from the Creator should not be understood as an absolute separation, since that would detach the world radically from the Creator. In fact it is only virtual and paradoxical. It is ‘supposed’ and cannot be thought.

God is led to show his love towards Israel in the same way as the eagle which is full of tenderness for its little ones; the eagle which does not enter its nest brutally, but first beats and flaps its wings above the nest so that the eaglets wake up and have the strength to welcome it. The eagle flies over its little ones; without pressing heavily upon them it glides; touching them and not touching them.’

The concepts of God’s sovereignty and man’s autonomy are beautifully held in tension here – touching them and not touching them – the image of God inviting us to open our hearts and to feed on his love, yet respecting our free will. Godly principles of government, eldership and relationship can be drawn from this image. There is an element of ‘hovering’ in the task of eldership, encouraging a godly response without overwhelming with authority.

Hume then extracts from these verses four concepts that are pillars of Catholic social doctrine. They also help us understand the task of eldership.

Human dignity:
Each human being is created in the image of God, and therefore has a dignity that nothing can eradicate. God’s respect for each person means that each is entitled to unconditional respect. No one should ever be sacrificed for the sake of some alleged greater good or in the name of some principle, however exalted (e.g. the state under communism, or profit under capitalism, or for any project in our church or mission.) Individuals have value independent of their usefulness to society or to YWAM, their productivity or lack of it, the quality of life they enjoy or can expect in the future.

This acceptance of human dignity must also affect attitudes and policies concerning discrimination, genetic engineering, abortion, euthanasia, employment, marriage, family, issues of justice, etc. Our whole understanding of freedom and responsibility, and thus governmental relationships, also in our church or mission, needs to be undergirded by this basic truth. Eldership must respect human dignity.

The commitment to the welfare of the whole. The eagle flies over a single nest. Humanity is one. Each one of us was born into a family, into a community, and into a single human family. These are not associations we choose to join. God created us all in his image and likeness, as brothers and sisters, as a single community. We are part of, and interdependent with, the rest of creation. Hume points out that while there are many limited solidarities (family, village, town, region, nation, European), none of these need exclude the others, and none should be turned into a false absolute (including nationalism).

Protestants tend to be more individualistic and truth-oriented (my view of truth, that is), and have not been known for fostering solidarity. Since the Reformation, Protestant churches have continued to splinter into literally thousands of subgroups, each with their particular emphasis and view of truth. It has also been harder for Protestants to accept the possibility of multiple allegiances. Catholics have always been conscious of a broader allegiance than their own nationality, being part of a universal Church. As most Protestant churches have been territorially based and nationally structured, the idea of dual citizenship takes much adjustment. This is one reason why the idea of the European Union has been harder to accept in the Protestant north than in the Catholic south.

Within and between our churches and missions, we need to foster this concept of solidarity locally, nationally, regionally and globally. It is part of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18). We must make solidarity part of our ethos. A qualification for eldership should be a commitment to promoting solidarity within and between our churches and missions. In YWAM terminology, that means building a sense of belonging between all the YWAM ministries in a base/city/nation. This is the opposite of independence, territorialism and the franchise mentality.

The image of the eagle thrusting her young out of the nest, teaching them to fly on their own by allowing them to free-fall, but spreading her wings to catch them at the last moment, illustrates the principle of subsidiarity: ‘as much as is necessary, as little as possible’. The goal is the development of the full potential of the individual, the group, the smaller unit.

Hume says

subsidiarity recognises that people should be empowered to take decisions for
their own lives with due re
gard for the interests of the wider community. It opposes excessive bureaucracy, paternalism and the imposition of policies and strategies by the strong on the weak. It stresses the development of human potential as God-given and as the greatest resource possessed by this planet.

Subsidiarity has also become part of the ethos of the European Union, as well as having long been enshrined in the tenth amendment to the US Constitution, laying down the principle of States’ rights. The Catholic Church originally adopted the idea from German political theory, coined the word ‘subsidiarity’, and articulated the moral principle involved in a 1941 papal encyclical: “it is an injustice, a grave evil and a disturbance of right order for a large and higher organisation to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies”. In other words, stealing people’s responsibilities is wrong. Charles Handy calls it reverse delegation – the delegation by the parts to the centre.

Subsidiarity means small units with real responsibilities. It means as little central coordination as is possible, as much as is necessary. Those in the centre are the servants of the parts. The task of the centre – or of eldership – is to help the individual or the group to live up to their responsibilities, to enable them to deserve their subsidiarity. In Paul’s words, the leader’s task is to equip the saints to do their job.

The ultimate goal of the parent eagle is the maturity of its offspring. The fourth concept Hume identifies flows from human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. It involves meeting the whole spectrum of human needs and potential. It is a spiritual as well as a political activity. ‘Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel,’ quotes Hume from the 1971 Synod of Bishops. It is for us, working with God as co-creators in his world, to give his life and love fuller expression in ourselves and in others, he concludes.

The task of eldership must include staff and leadership development, member care, family support, investment into the growth and maturing of our greatest assets: people. It involves working towards the goal of ‘presenting everyone perfect in Christ. (Col. 1:28)

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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