In the early pages of First Samuel, the priest Eli stands as a colorful example of both the strengths and weaknesses of a church administrator. Perhaps some generalizations can be drawn from his performance.
In 1 Samuel 1:9 ff, Eli observes the ardent prayer of Hannah, when she makes her annual plea to the Lord to give her a son. Her emotional state is such that, though she moves her lips, she makes no sound. In those times, as throughout history until very recently, people normally prayed (and read, and thought) aloud, at least in a low voice. So when Eli heard no sound from Hannah’s lips, he reasonably, though incorrectly and uncharitably, accused Hannah of being drunk. When Hannah explained herself, Eli replied, “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have asked of Him.”
In terms of pastoral example, Eli’s performance here is mixed. He jumps rather hastily to a false, judgmental conclusion, though admittedly on reasonable grounds. His decision on how to approach Hannah was based on ignorance and unfounded assumptions. An effective pastor, in the administrative context of interacting with his parishioners, must stand on firmer ground before making an accusation. At very least, his credibility will suffer.
On the other hand, Eli showed concern for the spiritual state of an individual under his care. As soon as his misunderstanding was corrected, he wisely put aside any embarrassment and moved quickly to bless and assure the hurting soul. His boorish rebuke provided, ironically, an opening for Hannah to express her anguish and for him to provide comfort.
Chapter 2:12 ff goes on to describe the corruption of Eli’s sons, who served under him in the tradition of Levitical priests. They were unfaithful in the manner of those who multiply laws in the church, and who abuse their office to materialistic ends. Whatever Eli’s personal character and conduct in office, his integrity is thereby called into question. He allowed such abuse and unfaithfulness to run unchecked in those under his supervision. At any level of church administration, be it in the most minor committee in the smallest congregation, or at the highest levels of the entire church body, tolerating such behavior is tantamount to joining in it.
Nevertheless, in vv. 22 ff, when Eli heard about further abuses by his sons infringing on what would now be considered sexual harrassment and assault, the old priest tried to put a stop to it. Unfortunately his rebuke went unheeded. It is conceivable that Eli’s prior reluctance to curb his sons’ evil had quite destroyed his credibility. The prophet’s rebuke in vv. 27 ff demonstrates that God Himself held Eli responsible for all this.
Eli and Samuel
On the other hand, Eli was apparently a good spiritual father to Samuel, Hannah’s firstborn son, who was put into service at the temple at an early age. The account of 2:18 ff shows that he never ceased to appreciate the sacrifice made by Samuel’s parents. Stewardship is a pitfall in parish administration. Difficult is the task of evangelically exhorting people to give their treasures to the church; more so when (as in Eli’s case) the church in turn is perceived as having a responsibility, or rather, a stewardship to live up to. Part of Eli’s success, no doubt, was his willingness to acknowledge the goodness and sacrificial nature of those gifts already given.
Eli, meanwhile, not only made use of Samuel, but was useful to him as a spiritual mentor and guide. The nurture of Christian youth, and the guidance perhaps of future pastors, is not merely a resource to be exploited by a Parish Administrator, but a precious growth to be nurtured and treasured in pastoral care. It was Eli who encouraged the young prophet Samuel to listen, for the first time, to God speaking to him. And this at a time when “there was no widespread revelation” (3:1).
Moreover, when the word which Samuel received was a harsh rebuke and judgment on the house of Eli, the old priest not only insisted on hearing it, but accepted it faithfully. In what must have been a very painful way, Eli taught Samuel to be true, first and foremost, to God’s Word. This priority must be maintained in all pastoral leadership, even when it threatens injury and loss in strict terms of “parish administration.”
Eli and the Ark
The error of the elders of Israel in Chapter 4 does not fall entirely to Eli, but there can be little doubt that he participated in the decision to remove the Ark of the Covenant from the tabernacle and to carry it into battle against the Philistines. This fateful decision led to the deaths of Eli and his sons and the capture of the Ark. Perhaps what we can generalize from this is that, outside its sphere of competence (ministering to the faithful and to the world with the Means of Grace), the church treads on dangerous ground. Acting without any express word from God, the Israelites mixed affairs of the church and the state, with disastrous results.
On the other hand, Eli’s observation of the battle from “a seat on the wayside” (4:13) indicates a salutary interest in local affairs, which would aid a pastor in applying Scripture teachings to his flock, and an administrator in leading them in the public acts pertaining to the church’s ministry. Then Eli, at age 98, after forty years of service, and upon hearing of the catastrophic failure of his administration (the battle lost, the Ark captured, his sons slain), promptly fell off his seat and broke his neck. If anything germaine can be drawn from this, it might be: a good pastor and administrator serves as long as the Lord lets him, and retires gracefully.
All of this, of course, is more eisegesis than ex-. But few certifiable pastors in Scripture provide such an extended and colorful object lesson in Parish Administration – for those who have ears to hear.