Changes in Church Demographics: Conflict, Part 3 (High-handed Elders)

[Moved from preceding post and revised.]

The most common way I’ve seen where even a grace-centered church can split is where the elders are perceived as acting in a high-handed way, often despite the elders’ conscious efforts not to be high-handed.

Church members, especially older, longtime members, get very upset when major changes are made without their input. As a result, major decisions often require that time be spent being sure the memberships feels heard. Even when the elders already know how the members feel, it’s often essential that the members feel heard.

Moreover, in church we have a tendency to argue process when we know we can’t argue substance — even though we really want to argue substance. In other words, if I’m unhappy that the elders changed the time church starts, I might not be willing to tell them they made a wrong decision, and so I complain about the process: why didn’t you ask us what we wanted first?

And the natural tendency is for disgruntled members to think they are speaking for the majority, even when they are really only speaking for three families. It helps if they know that nearly everyone else disagrees. You see, being right often isn’t good enough.

Imagine that an eldership is considering starting a second service with instrumental music. Most in the church have no scruples about the instrument. However, many are second and third generation Church of Christ, and the use of instruments will create something of an identity crisis. Moreover, many have family members who’d consider them apostate for attending such a church, even if they attend the a cappella service.

If the elders just stand up and announce it, some members will applaud and some will be angry: Why didn’t they consult with us? How can they change who we are and not even ask our opinion? It’s very natural and very predictable.

One approach is to announce the plan but give the members time to adjust. However, the members will conclude that the elders have already made up their minds and the extra time is just for them to be persuaded, with no opportunity for them to persuade the elders. Most will still be mad.

Another approach is to put the decision before the church and trust the members. It’s risky because some members may take it upon themselves to campaign against the change. Some might even threaten to leave or withhold contributions. Of course, those members would act the same way if the elders made the decision without advance consultation, so the risk isn’t as great as it might appear. 

It may be a good idea to head such behavior off — plainly saying that threats and such will not be considered. At the least, the elders should each pledge to refuse to hear such comments and not to report them to the other elders. Hear the complaints. Don’t hear the threats.

There’s also the problem that some members will disappointed and some will be happy, and opening the topic up for input creates the risk that some members will take too strong a stand and be unable to humbly accept the decision that is later made. Therefore, an open-floor business meeting seems like a really bad idea when dealing with something really controversial.

It seems to me that the elders have to plan any such a change with the greatest of care, perhaps years in advance. First, they have to teach grace — and in no uncertain terms — before any decisions are put on the table. A church with a strain of legalism has little hope of making such a decision without a split.

Second, the elders need to have built a church with a real spirit of community. In a large church, this likely means a small group program that’s been working for a few years. You see, people won’t leave so readily if they have many close friends at church. Churches are held together by love, not doctrine.

Third, the elders have to devise a means of getting input that is not itself divisive. Perhaps a survey with some open-ended questions.

When my church considered whether to relocate and build a new building, the elders met with each family. It took a while, but everyone moved (I’m told most churches lose 20% when they move.) 

Or the topic might be taken up in the classes, with a chance for discussion and an elder present to hear both sides. This gives the vocal minority the chance to hear what the majority think and why. But because it’s a smaller group than a whole-church business meeting, the atmosphere will be less confrontational and more people will be willing to speak. 

I think the elders have to genuinely commit that their decision will be based on the congregation’s input. If the church isn’t willing, it’s not willing. Better to know now than after the guitars have been bought and the church split down the middle.

You see, as much power as we give elders in the Churches of Christ, the membership is never willing to give up all power. They will insist on retaining some. What that power is has never been clearly defined, but the wise eldership remembers that they are powerful, but not all powerful. 

The real line is defined more emotionally than rationally. Members want to be consulted on a pulpit minister hire. On a major building expansion or a relocation. On adding a second service. And on anything that challenges the traditional boundary markers — instrumental music and the name of the church being most pertinent.

And my experience is that the membership can be trusted to do what’s right. Therefore, an eldership has nothing to fear from asking the membership to give input — provided that the elders have done a good job of teaching and shepherding the flock.

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2 Responses to Changes in Church Demographics: Conflict, Part 3 (High-handed Elders)

  1. Well articulated, as usual, Jay. There is a passage in proverbs, which I've lost the citation for, but the summary of the point is: Pray and proceed.

    Ultimately, we must simply proceed. And people get to make their choices. They deserve to be treated right and heard. But often what people seek is "veto power." Which you talk about in "Conflict, part 2".

  2. Joe Baggett says:

    The real elders are those who are preparing their congregations spiritually not just doing estate planning for the future larger building. Where are the classes and training on how to interact with our ever changing culture? Where are the classes that help us learn how to make friends and relationships with people who are not like us by race, age, socio-economic groups etcetera? Where are the classes that help us with perspective on how to approach the typical post modern spiritual seeker and how their theological questions are shaped? You see a lot of churches are planning for the future but not spiritually preparing for it.

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