Many years ago — maybe even back in the 1960s — we used to talk about group dynamics. But I’ve not heard that term in a very long while.
Here’s the idea: people in groups act differently from people not in groups. And groups act differently depending on their size.
So this is actually a big deal if you’re an elder — because you are now part of a group. And that group will not act like you — or any other member. It will act like the group — and sometimes the group-ness will get in the way of doing the Lord’s work. And it can be incredibly frustrating unless you recognize why the group does what it does so the problems can be addressed.
This is actually an academic discipline, and materials are easily found via Google. The best resource for a church, in my opinion, is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Buy it. Read it. Study it together with the other elders and the ministers. Then buy, read, and study Lencioni’s The Advantage.
The Advantage covers much more ground than The Five Dysfunctions, but don’t try to save money and time by skipping The Five Dysfunctions. The principles are so important to an eldership that you just have to read The Five Dysfunctions first. It’s an enjoyable, easy read and very true to biblical principles. And it will enlighten you about why teams work and don’t work. Mandatory reading.
For example, let’s suppose the elders are considering whether to allow the teens to remodel their room. The teen minister has met with the elders, presented a compelling case, and money is not a problem.
But the elders have now had 15 meetings at which this topic has come up, and no decision has been made. The youth minister is very frustrated. His subcontractors won’t hold their bids, and so the elders’ dithering is driving up costs. Worse yet, the improvement can no longer be done in time for fall semester, and so the room will torn up while the minister is trying to recruit new kids and start off the new school year.
The elders support the teen ministry, but by dithering, they’ve turned a chance to encourage the minister and the teens into a discouragement — even if they finally get around to approving the remodel.
Ask the elders why no decision has been made, and to a man, no one will know and they’ll be very frustrated.
So what’s really happening? Well, this might happen for several reasons. Imagine, for example, that —
- One of the elders is angry with the youth minister over something entirely unrelated. The conflict has not been dealt with, and this elder doesn’t want to do a favor for someone who has offended him — and yet neither is he willing to express his anger and bring it to a resolution. Deep down, he knows he’s overreacting, but he still gets angry whenever he thinks of what the youth minister did.
- One of the elders thinks it’s unfair for the youth minister to have access to the elders and the ability to go off budget without involving the other ministries. Another ministry may have even greater needs, but the way they’re organized, he has no way to easily poll the 50 other ministry leaders who have budget line items.
- Some people just have trouble pulling the trigger. When you make a decision, you are at risk of making a mistake — and there are people who just can’t bear to actually take the risk associated with a decision, especially one involving large dollars. So they always want more study, more prayer, someone else present to discuss, more input, more time because I’m just not sure we’re acting on God’s timing. (These people, if made into elders, can destroy a church.)
- Many elders are pleasers. They live to see other people pleased by what they do. Therefore, they go along with the crowd and support the consensus view — outwardly. But because they are acting for approval and not based on real conviction, they often feel differently from what they say. And so they come across as passive-aggressive. “If you really support this, why can’t we decide and move on to other things?” “Well, I feel the Spirit pushing me another way and I need time …” In truth, they are not being honest with you for fear of disapproval. They deep down disagree, but don’t have the fortitude to express their real feelings.
(These are all made up. I’ve never run into any of these myself.)
Now, 2 would be no problem if the church had set up a Ministries Team structure or even an administrative team that has authority over the budget. Then it would not be the elders’ problem to deal with at all and the team would have easy access to the leaders of all ministries to discuss the youth minister’s request. 1 reflects an immature elder who is handling conflict childishly.
3 and 4 can be very hard to cope with because they just won’t tell you how they really feel, but neither will they let the group move along. Some would happily let the elders delegate to a committee and so avoid having to make the decision themselves. Others will cling to power to their last breath.
If you’re the chair of the elders and you are unaware of why there’s a problem (because these guys won’t tell you), how do you break the logjam? I mean, at each meeting, the elders read each other’s body language and conclude that one or two elders really don’t want to approve this — but won’t say why not. What do you do?
Well, you could refer it to a committee to decide (often the best solution and one rarely considered by elders).
You could continue to dither forever.
You could take each elder out for lunch one at a time and cross-examine them until they come clean with their real problems. But there’s no guaranty of success, and that’s a whole lot of trouble.
Or you could vote. And then you’ll have a decision and you can move on. Just vote.
But nearly every eldership wants to operate by consensus — and they’ll invest unspeakable amounts of time into trying to create consensus, believing that unity = consensus = taking whatever time it takes to get on the same page. And they’ll refuse to even take a vote when they know they won’t be unanimous.
But this is not scriptural, and it’s really bad management. Take a vote, make a decision, and move on. The job of the chair is to recognize when nothing new is being said and so it’s time to vote and make a decision. I’m no fan of Robert’s Rules of Order for elders’ meetings, but I do believe it’s fair to “call the question” when everything that needs to be said has been said.
Vote! If the chair won’t call for the vote, ask the group whether anyone has something new to add? If not, move for an immediate vote. Refuse all delaying tactics: “We’ve already discussed that concern.” “We’ve already prayed about it.” “We’ve already gotten a second opinion.”
Does that resolve the underlying issue? Well, actually, it does. Either the elders who have reservations will finally voice their real reservations (good) or they’ll be outvoted and the church can minister properly to its teens (good enough).
There is nothing more unhealthy than unexpressed reservations about an issue — except eternal delays caused by men unwilling to share their concerns with the group. So call for a vote.