We know from Acts 15 (doctrinal decision) and 1 Cor 5 (decision to withdraw fellowship) that these kinds of decisions were made with congregational participation by both small and large churches. The Jerusalem church likely had more than 20,000 members! And I sure wish the scriptures told us how the apostles managed such a huge congregation, but the scriptures are silent on process.
Let me suggest some approaches (and I’ve participated in all of these at one time or another) —
- Meet with the entire congregation one small group at a time. Have carefully worked out questions to pose each group and then let the group discuss whatever is on their hearts. We asked, “If you were to leave our church for 10 years, and if while you were gone the Spirit had his way with the church, what changes, if any, would you expect to see?”
That’s a indirect way of asking, “Where do you think God wants the church to go?” which is much better than “Where do you want the church to go?”
We did this on Wednesday nights and allowed an hour but went later if the group wished. We took careful notes, and it’s probably the most encouraging thing I’ve ever done in church leadership because so many of our members were clearly in tune with the Spirit and remarkably mature.
(This process was cut short by a certain F-5 tornado.)
- Take a survey. We’ve used a template from Jon Ellas’s Church Growth Workshop. The best I can tell, that ministry is no longer active, but there are plenty of sources for this sort of material. In fact, Jon’s book can be bought at Amazon.
Be sure to ask some open ended questions, even “What else would you like to say to your elders?”
Try to use a format that allows for most of the results to be charted in Excel — or else most elders will only read and respond to the longhand comments of a few. Humans can’t average 200 or questionnaires in their head. The longhand comments will be invaluable but may not be representative of the church as a whole.
- Set up focus groups. Divide the Wednesday night adults at random among multiple classrooms and have a facilitator (not an elder or staff member) lead a discussion. The elders should sit in the rooms to hear what’s being said (I’d record them all), but he should avoid participation in the discussion. The members need to feel free to say whatever they wish. (I wouldn’t mind an elder correcting a factual misunderstanding.)
- Divide the small groups or classes among the elders, and have an elder meet with his groups or classes to hear their thoughts. He could just routinely rotate among his assigned small groups. (Small groups would work better because they have a more flexible agenda and would feel more comfortable talking informally with the elders over a meal at someone’s home.)
- You could use smartphones to allow members to vote on questions, with the results immediately posted to a screen. I’ve not tried any of these, but they look interesting: PollEverywhere, mQlicker, polltogo.
- In kind of a backwards approach, we’ve taken a half-quarter of Bible class time, put the elders in chairs in front of the class, and allowed the class to ask anything. Even if the elders don’t ask a single question, they quickly learn what’s on the hearts of their members.
Now, notice that one reason the process is important is that the members will appreciate elders who allow themselves to be vulnerable — to receive criticism. Elders in Churches of Christ have a reputation for being distant, defensive, and unwilling to communicate. As a result, even if the elders aren’t like this at all, they’ll be perceived this way. Hence, going out of your way to break the stereotype will not only provide congregational input, it will build trust and support for whatever decisions are made down the road. It may well completely redefine the relationship of the elders to the church.
The problem with all the above is that it’s just a whole lot of trouble — and many elders will be terrified of being criticized in public. But I’d far rather someone criticize me to my face than talk behind my back. At least I can then respond. Maybe I need to apologize. Or maybe I need to explain a misunderstanding. There is just no substitute for face to face conversation.
The “whole lot of trouble” problem is not as difficult as might appear — and it’s okay to recruit some members or staff members to help with the planning. You don’t have to go it entirely alone. In fact, involving members in the process will further create the perception of openness and vulnerability.
The elders before my time (when the church was much smaller) sometimes met separately with every single family in the church to deal with very difficult issues — such as our decision to relocate and build a new building. And they have my forever-respect for having done so. But as the church grows, the ability to do this becomes much more challenging. I mean, in a church of 500 with 200 family units and, say, five elders, that’s 40 meetings each. Just scheduling those meetings would be a huge piece of work.
On the other hand, if the elders will make a point to visit all the small group meetings for groups in their shepherding group, not as teacher or authority figure but as a good listener, the elders will effectively be in continuous contact with the congregation — and the congregation will know it and feel it.
Most church members don’t want control. I mean, most people understand that in a group of hundreds of people not every decision can or should go before the entire group. What members want is to know that they’ve been heard and that their opinion matters. They may not get what they asked for, but their opinion was respected and prayerfully considered.
So how will the members know this?
And there are LOTS of ways to receive input from your flock. But it’s also possible to do all the above in a way that makes the members feel that the decision has already been made and this is all spin-doctoring. The best way to avoid that feeling is for it never to be true. That is, don’t huddle up, decide on the change you want, and then think about how to fool the church into thinking it’s their idea.
Of course, any elder is entitled to have his own opinion — but the elders need to carefully avoid any indication that the decision has already been made and the church is being instrumentalized (used). In fact, some members will have been burned before and assume they are being used regardless of what you do. The more face to face the communications, the more persuaded the members will be of your good intentions.
I like to tell elders that they’re in the perception management business. And yet, elders tend to assume that the entire church attends all their meetings and knows all the decisions made and why — when in fact they just don’t.
A friend once told me that in an institution, knowledge is the greatest motivator. That is, the more the members know about the decision and the process, the more motivated the church.
Another friend told me that people fill gaps in their knowledge with their fears — in the most pathological way possible. And it’s true. (I have stories.)
Therefore, over-communicate. If you took a survey and made some decisions based on the results, tell the church. Let them know that you decided to change the start time for services based on a strong majority vote.
When you make a change, ask yourselves what the members fear about the change. And then address their fears directly when you explain the reason for the change.
One of the most difficult things to do in my years of eldering has been to get everyone to explain the reasons for their decisions when they’re announced. Some elders and some ministers feel that giving a reason implicitly says they need the church’s permission to have made the decision. Wrong! What is says is that I love you and therefore respect your passion for this church and trust you to react like an adult even when you didn’t get your way. Refusing to explain implicitly says, “I don’t trust you to react maturely to this.” Or, worse yet, “I’m not sure I agree with our decision and probably should have thought about it longer before announcing it.”
Preacher compensation, for example
If the preacher has been given five weeks of vacation and the elders are a little embarrassed by their generosity (they shouldn’t be), failing to tell the church where the preacher is this week only feeds their distrust and fears. Maybe he’s trying out at another church? Maybe he’s deathly ill? Maybe there’s been a death in his family?
This leads to the question of confidentiality in preacher oversight and reviews. Most churches do not publish the preacher’s salary — and more than one preacher has said to me that he’ll happily publish his salary when the members do the same!
What most church members don’t know is that executive fringes, severance, etc. are very different from what most members see. They get 2 weeks of paid vacation and, if they’re terminated without cause, likely a two-week severance package. They are astonished — even angry — when the preacher gets a better deal.
They also don’t know that the preacher has to pay self-employment taxes of 15.3% on his income — that is, he has to pay his own FICA match (in effect). It can get complicated. But his salary is really about 7.65% lower than the stated amount because of the extra federal self-employment tax (although the housing allowance cuts the other way and makes it even harder to compare a minister’s pay to a member’s pay).
So it’s important to tell the church that (a) preachers are compensated like recruited executives in business, meaning they (b) get more vacation than many and (c) may be treated more generously in terms of severance. Like a business executive, you’ve asked this man to move into town, buy a house, and take on massive responsibilities — and he’ll be right to want more than two weeks vacation and enough severance to let him find a new job and relocate. Moreover, tell the church that you’ve consulted with Abilene Christian to make certain you are paying what a church of your size should pay a preacher of his experience.
So, like just about everything else, the more information you provide, the more trust you build. And there will come a day when you need the church to trust you on something you can’t share with them. You need to have some trust (political capital) banked. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.