I’m frequently asked by ministers how to cope with the fact their church desperately needs to change, to escape legalism. Sometimes the elders are uncooperative, even opposed. Sometimes the elders are open to learning.
Now, I’m talking about stuff I don’t know much about. I’ve never worked as a minister of the gospel. My livelihood has never depended on keeping a bunch of elders happy. So forgive me if my perspective is skewed. It likely is.
I don’t think every church can be rescued by the minster’s efforts. But some have been and can be — and I’d never place a limit on what God can accomplish through a good man — and his Spirit. Don’t give up too soon. But then, don’t waste your career and your life beating your head against a wall. Sometimes you need to move to whiter fields. Sometimes you need to rescue your children from the legalism of the congregation.
And so these are just some ideas that’ll help in some places and not in others.
* Pray. It’s always first. But pray intently and often for God’s Spirit to melt the hearts of your congregation and its other leaders.
* Be subject to your elders. This is the system God gave us. However, I think ministers are well within their rights to speak to the elders to confront sin or mere intellectual laziness. Lynn Anderson describes it as the prophetic role of the minister — not to predict the future! — but to call the entire congregation, even its leaders, to repentance. Being subject to the elders doesn’t mean pretending to agree with them or condoning their mismanagement of the church.
On the other hand, your disagreement with the elders has to be behind closed doors — and loving.
(2 Tim 2:24-26) And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25 Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
A minister who is insubordinate will get himself fired and — more importantly — not persuade his leaders. Elders don’t listen to men who go behind their backs.
* Build a close, personal relationship with the elders. We meet with our ministers nearly every week for lunch. If nothing else, it breaks down the natural distance between employer and employee and gives the ministers implicit permission to approach us with whatever is on their minds.
I’ve been astounded to learn that some elderships meet with their ministers only monthly — or less often. I know one church where the preacher had to write the elders a letter to get an audience! Such elders really need to get off their high horse.
Were I a minister, I’d plead, urge … even beg to meet regularly with the elders. If they ultimately refuse, I’d be moving on. There’s no way a minister can do his job and not be in regular, close, intimate relationship with his shepherds.
I suppose some elders want to make a point that they are in charge. Well, we elders are in charge, and more in charge because we meet regularly. The ministers better know our wishes and our hearts. They can usually anticipate our thinking. This is good management. Distance from the ministerial staff never, ever is.
* Urge the elders to participate in a Bible study with you. There are several ways to approach this. One would be to find a good book and agree to study it together. Some elderships have invited outside experts — a professor or writer — to speak to them and the ministers.
The advantage of a book or outside expert is that the minister doesn’t have to be the advocate. He can serve as facilitator and make sure the hard questions are fairly addressed without having to confront his own elders.
In some churches, the preacher is the doctrinal expert and the elders yield to his views. In such a case, the preacher has considerable latitude — if he doesn’t go too fast and if he’s careful to prove his case from the scriptures.
Another approach is to go with the elders to events like college lectureships and ElderLink. Sometimes, they present the case for grace. This is usually only a one or two hour event, and so likely not enough to persuade. But it may start a good conversation.