What Wrong With How We Do Church?: Problems with Authority

reveal.jpgI found this on-line book by Andrew Strom helpful. Strom has spoken with many who’ve left the institutional church and quotes countless emails giving a sense of their discontent. Ultimately, however, Strom finds many who’ve left are so anti-authoritarian that they struggle to be able to use their talents and skills to lead others.

Some of this is surely due to bad experiences with ineffective church leadership. Many have been burned. Others are reflecting the Post-modern, post-Watergate discontent that many Westerners have with authority in general.

It’s critical in this day, when so many are skeptical of leaders and biased against authority, that church leaders develop the skills of participatory leadership and learn to guide gently.

Jesus said a long time ago, we are not permitted to “lord it over” our churches. The Bible never really tells us where the line is between lording it over and proper spiritual leadership. And it can be very tricky to find that line.

Nowadays, the wise course is to make every effort to avoid being perceived as arbitrary or failing to take the congregation’s wishes into account in your decision making.

This is by no means easy (nor do I have all the answers!) It’s a lot of trouble to ask for permission to do what you have authority to do. It’s risky to yield decisions to the church when you know the right decision to make. But it’s often wise and even necessary.

Therefore, the wise leadership makes sure the church is taught well enough that the church can make good decisions for itself when called on to do so.

On the other hand, church members are busy and generally would rather that most of the decisions be made by the leaders. They figure that’s your job. The trick is know when they want to be asked their opinion. And there’s no book for this. You just have to stay in touch with your members and listen.

Let me suggest some practical tips. This is not the definitive solution. It’s just some things I’ve picked up along the way.

* The larger the church, the less the members want to attend business meetings. This is a function of group dynamics. When 100 members are in the room, only the loudest or most angry or most insensitive will speak up. These meetings are often very unpleasant. We haven’t had one in years, and no one has complained!

* Baptists have honed the committee system to a fine art. I think committees are important. I just don’t think they should be much involved in governance. You see, people love to be in charge and order people around, but a well-organized church doesn’t need that much governance. It needs workers. Committees need to be 90% pointed to actual service to the church and community. Most governance positions should be filled with a gifted, Godly individual, not a committee.

For example, until a church gets really, really big, one accountant can handle the books and tax filings. You don’t need a committee to count the collection or make the deposits or reconcile the bank statement.

Avoid busy work or creating work because of the structure. Remember Parkinson’s Law. Work expends to fill the available resources. Bureaucracies expand just to fill the needs of bureaucracies–as do church committees. Keep your organization lean. Let the others do something more important.

* Involve the membership only on the really big issues. In particular, have them deeply involved in questions of vision and direction. If they feel they helped set the direction of the church, they’ll be glad to leave the details to the leadership–and will be motivated to help bring the vision to fruition.

One of the biggest events in the life of my church was a visioning process we undertook in 1995. A small committee was formed to oversee the work. An elder served on the committee to avoid any fear of insubordination and to be sure the elders were kept informed of the plans.

We started with surveys given to all members–including teens and college students.

From the surveys we gathered some priorities for improvement. We then dedicated a Wednesday night to focus groups where people were asked to discuss their desires for the church. The elders and preachers were not allowed to talk–only to take notes.

The following Friday and Saturday, we had the members come and sorted them randomly into groups to discuss each of the priorities in a separate room. Again, the leadership just listened.

A couple of weeks later, a committee submitted a report to the elders and then, with their approval, to the congregation–and the elders and congregation worked hard to make the recommendations reality.

This was a lot of trouble. It took months of planning. And it was 10 years before anyone was even willing to consider doing it again!

Our church is now 100% larger, we have improved in many areas, and we’ve been radically changed by the vision we believe that God gave us.

A vision statement is a sentence. A vision can change the world–but only if the congregation feels that they helped find God’s will together.

* Take surveys for big questions. Ask the church how they feel about the topic. Of course, this should only be done occasionally and only if you’re willing to live with the results! But once in a while, let the church decide.

I don’t like the practice of some churches of putting things to a vote. A Church of Christ wouldn’t stand for it! (We are very un-Baptist in this respect.) But members need to know that their opinions matter.

* Communicate, communicate, communicate.

We’ve often had people say that they want to serve on such and such a committee just so they can know what’s going on. That’s a danger sign! People need to know what’s going on even if they don’t do committee work or spend time in the church office. Nothing makes people feel more empowered than information.

Fill the Sunday bulletin up with news. Add supplemental sheets. Fill the church web site with news. Send out a monthly bulletin.

Avoid the temptation to fill these with a short preacher-drafted lesson on forgiveness or whatever. It’s not about education–it’s about news! The members have plenty of fine teaching. They need to know what’s going on in their church.

Review the minutes from the last several elder meetings and staff meetings. Review what the committees have done this month. Obviously, not everything can be printed, but print everything you can!

And report–celebrate!–good news, victories won by Jesus through your members, even if not as part of the formal program of works of the congregation.

* Be shepherds. This is a whole ‘nother topic–and a big one. But churches are to be led by shepherds, and shepherds are supposed to be among the sheep. Spend time with people not your age. Teach a class or a small group and sometimes talk about church stuff.

Teach every adult class over time, not just your peer group. Get the class’s feelings on the issues that you’re struggling with. Be transparent. Let them see you wrestling with the church’s spiritual problems.

One of the biggest mistake church adult Bible programs make is to have the same man teach the same class for years on end. This is especially a problem when an elder teaches the same people for a long time.

In such a case, the elder risks assuming that his class is representative of the entire congregation. It’s likely not. Worse yet, those not in his class never get to know this elder. Far worse yet, his class may develop doctrinal beliefs they differ from the rest of the church–and this leads to splits.

An alternative approach is discussed here.

* Get to church early and stay late–talking to as many as you can. Don’t feel the need to mingle, though. If someone needs to talk for 20 minutes, take the time right now. Be accessible. Be available.

Okay. Now remember–this discussion is not so much about how to be a leader as how to be a leader in a culture with a deep-rooted distrust of all kinds of leaders and authority figures.

Expect to be unfairly judged by people with a chip on their shoulder about authority figures. It’ll happen. Smile, hug them, don’t avoid them, forgive them before they ask, don’t do anything that validates their opinion.

It’s a lot easier bossing everyone around. It’s Christlike to be the church’s servant.

This is not the ultimate solution to the problem Willow Creek has pointed out. However, I think it’s an essential step toward effectuating any solution.

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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