Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 1B (Conflicts; Pastoring the Preacher)

shepherd3Dealing with conflicts of interest is one area where business is generally more ethical than churches. Business law says that you can’t vote if you have a conflict — and the conflict has to be disclosed to the group and you may not participate in the deliberations on that topic.

A young man applied to be youth minister at my church. I had acted as his surrogate father at his wedding. He grew up in my house. And I recused myself. I refused to participate in any element of the hiring process. He didn’t get the job, which was a huge disappointment to me. But because I always recuse myself in such situations, he can’t blame me for not getting him the job he wanted (not that he would), and his mother can’t blame me for not bringing her son home.

This is not about being unwilling to face family and friends. It’s about doing the right thing — and no one should ever vote on a matter where he has a personal interest that might keep him from doing what’s best for the church — even if he’s willing to vote against his own best interests. Best to stay out of it so there’s no question and so you can assure the congregation of the integrity of the process. I’d leave the room when the topic comes up for discussion.

(And, no, the elders cannot give you permission to not recuse yourself. If you have any personal integrity at all, you recuse yourself on your own initiative, even if the other elders are telling you it’s not necessary. If you don’t recuse yourself, then you won’t be able to ask the other guys to recuse themselves when they should.)

Just so, if I’m mentoring a staff member and think of him as a son, I should not be involved in his review or any vote to terminate. I need to leave the room because I cannot be objective.

Moreover, because the other elders know I’ll vote to keep him, they’ll be reluctant to call for a vote — because elders just hate split votes on matters that are emotionally close to one of the elders.

The right thing to do? Recuse yourself. Leave the table when your minister friend is being discussed. Say nothing  in his defense. Stay entirely out of the discussion.

If elders would routinely do this, several good things would happen —

First, no elder would have to face his friend having voted to fire him.

Second, the church will have greater confidence in the elders’ decision making.

Third, no manipulative minister would ever ask an elder to mentor him as a means of protecting his job (not that this has ever happened). If he asks to be mentored, it will be sincere because that elder will be disqualified from discussing or voting regarding the minister.

Fourth, we’ll get our ethical standards up to those of a business.

Fifth, reviews will be more objectively about job performance rather than whom among the elders the minister has befriended.

To Befriend or Not to Befriend

This brings us to a recent Wineskins article by Jon Mullican, who ministers to church administrators across the country. Jon argues that the preacher should make the elders his “first church,” that is, a priority in his ministry. The elders need all the pastoring they can get — which is doubtlessly true.

He then asks whether the elders should befriend the minister and pastor him. Jon says at least one of the elders should — even though he may one day be required to fire the minister. After all, if the minister can’t build strong mutual relationships with the elders, his days are numbered anyway.

It’s a difficult subject because (a) Jon is surely right that the preacher needs to have a strong relationship with the elders for his own spiritual health and (b) relationships can’t be one way.

One solution might be for one or more of the elders to be charged with pastoring the preacher, and it’s expected that they’ll recuse themselves from his review. This way the relationship can be entirely personal and the other elders will handle the professional employee side of salary negotiations and such like.

But even that doesn’t work ideally, because the elders who aren’t pastoring him will likely keep some professional distance because they are his supervisors. It’s not just the risk of emotional pain. They owe a duty to the church to set fair wages and benefits, to reprimand when appropriate, and otherwise to supervise him.

Some ministers have so many years in that they need little coaching or supervision as employees — but a young minister may well be far better off with a supervisor than a friend — because the supervisor will tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. Professional distance, to the extent it generates honest, healthy communication, can be a very good thing.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the elders become the stereotypical bad boss. Rather, I think they should do what good bosses do — provide regular feedback, coach the preacher to do better, reward good work with bonuses and raises, defend him against unfair accusations, and otherwise be in his corner to help him be successful in his efforts.

But they aren’t his best friend. They aren’t his surrogate father. They’re his supervisor. And that always creates emotional distance. It doesn’t mean you have to be strangers or even mere acquaintances. But it’s hard to be best friends with someone you may have discipline or even fire.

PS — There’s not one word of this essay I feel entirely comfortable with. I mean, the elder/minister relationship is very difficult. Too much emotional distance is bad for the church and the minister. Too close can be just as bad — even worse. And I’m the sort who tends to become friends with preachers. I’ve been (and am) close to many men who served at my church. I’ve fired ministers who now stay at my house when they visit town.

It’s a tough area — and the one piece of advice Jon gives that I feel most comfortable with is his advice to discuss these questions openly with the ministers. I mean, we should be adult enough to talk about these kinds of boundary issues.

In short, I’d welcome input, especially from ministers and elders. Those who’ve never been one or the other will not easily understand the dynamic that we all struggle with here.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to Advice to a New Elder: Group Dynamics, Part 1B (Conflicts; Pastoring the Preacher)

  1. I find “recusal” to be excellent advise, and advice that I have NEVER seen followed. Elders, who worked closely with the youth minister in youth ministry for years, now discuss firing and hiring of youth ministers. Substitute other ministries and ministers as you wish, but conflict of interest is the norm with Elders. We excuse it with, “this is church, not a business, we don’t run church like we run a business.” Oh well.

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