Advice to a New Elder: Getting Started (Vulnerability)

shepherd3Having now spent a few weeks thinking about being an elder, while also posting a series on mission (which should be thought of as part of the eldering series), some things have kind of become clear.

First, churches can be successful for lots of reasons. Great preaching. A great teen program. Or just a really good location where lots of people are moving and looking for a church home. But being a healthy church only happens one way. Lots of successful churches are, at the core, unhealthy — and it catches up with them. So you need to start by deciding that you’re going to work to make your church healthy — even if it’s incredibly successful. Even if it’s already healthy. Because just like people, you can lose your health — and it’s much harder to get it back than it was to lose it.

Second, healthy churches have healthy elderships. The relationships among the elders are of critical importance — and if they’re messed up, the church suffers — and often will not know why.

Now, as I’ve said several times already, the best book on team health is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It’s profoundly biblical, even though it’s a management book. In fact, business management books are often more spiritually sound than church management books — not always, but sometimes. You see, true, deep insights into the nature of humans are always biblical — even if not coming from the Bible. God knows people the best, and those people who’ve come to understand people well necessarily see them much as God sees them. It’s a logical necessity.

The first dysfunction that Lencioni addresses is a failure to be vulnerable — that is, in most teams, people are unwilling to be told that they’re wrong. Most people want affirmation, and some elders are very sensitive to other people’s feelings (I labor under no such burden), and so they are careful not to disagree with the other elders. They value their relationships among the elders too much to risk hurting a relationship over a disagreement — and this is disastrous. It may be the number 1 reason that unhealthy elderships are unhealthy. I think it’s the most likely cause of most church problems.

That is, it is impossible for a group of men to reach the right and best conclusion unless they’re willing to — lovingly, respectfully — disagree out loud and sort through their differences as adults. As a lawyer, this is second nature to me. It’s what I do for a living. People pay me for my advice. They often don’t take it — but they do want to hear it — and I offer it.

In elders meetings, I tend to be very outspoken. If I disagree, have a reservation, or just have a question, I usually voice it. And I don’t mind being disagreed with. I mean, my clients, law partners, judges, and many other people disagree with me all the time — and don’t hesitate to voice their disagreeing views. Again, it’s the benefit of my career choice.

But most people live in very different worlds — worlds where people are much more polite, less outspoken, more considerate, and — frankly — less honest. People who disagree are often passive-aggressive, meaning that they voice their disagreement by playing games — which don’t work very well on me because I’m deaf to those tactics. They just make me mad because I figure if you disagree with me, you should just say so. Then we’ll talk about it, work through it, and still be friends. So I’m a little naive, I guess.

Among elders, it’s imperative that everyone says what’s on his mind. You should not hesitate to call on elder Joe and ask him what he thinks about a proposal someone just made — by you or someone else. In fact, you should be certain that no one is agreeing with you just to get along. Ask them to state their views out loud. Make them own their positions.

Some elders like to think a long time and speak late — usually last — because they truly want to hear all the dialog before deciding. I’m good with that. I let those guys (introverts, like me, as a rule) ponder while the rest of us talk — but at the end, I ask for their opinion. I genuinely want to hear it — and often these are the guys who ask the devastating question that no one else in the room was willing to voice or had even thought of — and that prevents a very bad decision.

Some guys like to never express an opinion. These guys are pleasers — they want everyone to like them and don’t want to get involved in a debate. They find disagreement very unpleasant and just want it to end. But these are the guys who most need to be made to express a view — because they will be the last ones to own the decision. And if an elder won’t own a decision, he won’t execute it. He won’t fight for it. He’ll surrender it to make peace at the first opportunity. So make him say what he thinks.

Some guys like to be contrary. They take the opposite view just to be sure that both sides are articulated. Sometimes they are speaking for a friend not at the table or for another elder who doesn’t like to voice disagreement. Great. Let’s hear the other side of the argument and sort through it. Just don’t be surprised when this guy does a 180-degree turn at the end of the discussion. He wasn’t intending to be obstructionist. He just wanted to test an idea he actually agreed with.

Some guys are manipulators. They don’t want to talk about their ideas because they place too much value on getting their own way. A real dialog threatens their power. They’d rather whisper to a few key elders what they want and count on tenure and force of personality to get it for them. Obviously, this is unhealthy in the extreme and cannot be allowed — no exceptions at all.

Some guys are bullies, and they get their way by screaming or threatening to quit or getting angry or acting like their feelings are hurt because you disagreed. All sorts of games can be played to avoid honesty and discussion. And anyone who is opposed to honesty and discussion has a problem and likely shouldn’t be at the meeting. But you play the hand you’re dealt. Just insist that the issue be discussed. Don’t let someone panic you into a hasty decision. Don’t let someone tell you that you don’t trust them, are micromanaging, aren’t giving due credence to their experience and education … whatever excuse might be given to avoid honesty and discussion. Roaches and rats run from the light.

Some guys will avoid the process altogether by acting without permission. They figure forgiveness is easier to get than permission. (Technical term: fait accompli.) This is a particularly common tactic among younger ministers. I’ve told the ministers that this is, in my book, a firing offense. No surprises. And, PS, forgiveness will in fact not be easier to get than permission. You don’t have to agree with me to be on staff. In fact, I encourage disagreement and discussion. I don’t mind disagreement at all. But going around the elders to do what you want to avoid disagreement and discussion is intolerable. It reveals a lack of trust — which is usually traceable to an experience with the minister’s parents or an earlier eldership. It’s wrong to impose your distrust of other people on these elders — and childish. The deal is that you have to ask permission — and we have to be fair — and you’re welcome to call us on it.

(Off the subject, but when you interview a minister, especially a young guy, ask him about his relationship with his father. Daddy issues have a way of bubbling up as elder issues.)

Now, some elders (and some preachers) find all the foregoing offensive. Their goal is to get to a decision with as little conflict as possible — and they are dead wrong. The absence of conflict does not demonstrate the absence of disagreement. It just means the conflict wasn’t dealt with in a healthy way. Those who disagree will refuse to execute the plan (classic passive-aggressive behavior) or will bring the topic up for reconsideration at the least opportune time (passive-aggressive procrastination combined with a fear of making big decisions).

Things will go badly, feelings will be hurt, and relationships will suffer. So by trying to protect relationships, we actually hurt them. And we make bad decisions. Or delay decisions unnecessarily because actually talking about the problem is so difficult with years and years of old resentments festering in every chair. DO NOT DO THIS THING. Make it clear that you are willing to be disagreed with and prefer to hear the disagreements.

The solution is simple.

  1. Read the book. Ask the other elders to read the book. Discuss each dysfunction together one week at a time. In five weeks, you’ll be done. Do this even if the other guys have been through the process before. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
  2. Do not expect the chair of the meeting to do his job correctly. As a student of Lencioni’s work, he should call on the other elders and make sure they express their views and really are on board — but most chairs forget. Therefore, if he doesn’t do it, you must. Literally call on elder Joe, elder Bob, etc. until each has said he agrees with the decision or, if he’s been outvoted, he’s fully expressed his reasons for disagreement. It takes time, but not much, and it will pay huge dividends. And, of course, you really shouldn’t take a vote until the elders have all been polled to say whether they’ve expressed their views. If someone hasn’t, the vote is premature.

Again: there will be an elder or minister who takes great offense at this kind of thinking. They may have grown up in a household filled with argument and find the disagreements unbearable. Or they may have grown up in a household where no one ever disagreed — and  so they don’t have the skills most people have to talk through disagreements as adults. They may only know how to be passive-aggressive. If so, then studying how to disagree with respect and love and how to talk through a disagreement is all the more important.

There is no plan B. If the elders won’t do this, resign. Join a church that has a chance to be healthy.

There are four other dysfunctions, of course, but this is the foundational discipline — and the one that many find the most difficult.

Same rules apply to any team — including a marriage and family. And every committee you serve on. Accept no substitutes.

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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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3 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: Getting Started (Vulnerability)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Jay is pointing out how church unity is possible.

  2. I refer to the writings and teachings of computing consultant Gerald M. Weinberg who based his work on that of family therapist Virginia Satir. What Jay describes as “vulnerability” these others describe as “congruence.”

    I can see a lot of persons rolling their eyes and pointing to these things as humanist teaching that have no place in the church.

    I like Jay’s thought that “true, deep insights into the nature of humans are always biblical — even if not coming from the Bible. God knows people the best, and those people who’ve come to understand people well necessarily see them much as God sees them. It’s a logical necessity.”

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    I wasn’t aware of Weinberg’s work. Interesting parallelity.

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