“Most of you know why we’re here. For the rest of you, let me just say that we believe it’s time to appoint new elders. But our present elders are refusing to allow it, because our preacher won’t let them. They think they work for him, rather than Jesus and his church, and they won’t do anything without the preacher’s permission.
“Worse yet, we have sin in the camp, and it’s destroying the church.
“We have no financial records. The preacher wants us to take on a large loan to buy some property, but he can’t provide a budget or financial statements so we can’t even tell whether we can afford it.
“Every single employee of the church is a family member of the preacher.
“And he’s lately taken a take-it-or-leave it approach, telling the congregation from the pulpit that if they disagree with him, they should make use of the back door! This is just not the attitude a man of God ought to have.
“And our elders refuse to take any action on any of this. When we ask them about it, they just tell us we need to speak with the preacher! But even an excellent preacher has to be accountable to the elders!”
A long discussion followed at which many other accusations were aired. The two leaders insisted, however, that no charge be raised unless there were two or three witnesses. “We can’t accuse someone of sin while sinning ourselves! No matter how outrageous it is, we should only act on matters with at least two witnesses.”
Several times, someone asked whether a particular charge had been brought to the elders or the preacher directly. “Are we complying with Matthew 18? Why are we even talking about it if you haven’t followed Matthew 18?”
By the end of the meeting, only a few charges remained that had two or three witnesses and that had been brought up to the elders and preacher privately as described in Matthew 18. A few other charges were tabled until the witnesses could approach the preacher or elder involved privately. The group prayed, with particular fervor, and the meeting broke up.
Two weeks later, another meeting was held. In some cases, men reported that their accusations had proved to be false, and they apologized for having brought up the accusations prematurely. But most accusations had been confirmed, and yet the preacher and elders refused to repent.
The men decided that it was the church’s prerogative to ordain elders, and they nominated two men to be elders. These two men had been careful not to participate in any of the conversations at the previous meeting, and they were not present at this meeting. After all, everyone knew who’d be ordained if the church only had the chance to pick its own leaders. The nominees wanted the men to be able to speak freely about their qualifications, and so they stayed away.
Over the next few weeks a series of negotiations ensued. The preacher pushed for any arrangement that left him in control of the church. He said the two men could be ordained if he was ordained, too, meaning he’d have the tie-breaking vote. He refused to let the existing elders resign. Finally, it was agreed that two new men would be ordained, the two existing men would remain, and the preacher would not be an elder.
A few weeks later, the preacher hosted a group of young members on a winter trip. While away from town, he told them how he’d been railroaded by the men of the church. When he returned, he took a job as preacher for a new church and took the young members with him.
Well, this offended even the original elders. And so the four elders divided into two teams of two, one older and one new elder each, and they met with all who’d left in an exhausting series of meetings. They told their side of the story, and all the members, except one couple, returned.
With the preacher gone, new leadership in place, and the members taking new ownership of their congregation, the church prospered and grew rapidly for many years. Meanwhile, the preacher who’d left soon left town, and his church, on the verge of death, soon merged with another congregation.
Like all stories, this one has a moral. And the moral is this: great churches can be birthed from sorry churches, even churches with self-centered, power-hungry preachers and weak elders. All it takes is a membership willing to stand for what’s right — and to do it the right way.
A less obvious moral is that churches only change if people who want change stay. In fact, the reason this church changed is simply that members got tired of leaving. When they disagreed with the ever-more domineering preacher, rather than transferring, they stayed in the church they loved. After several years, enough stayed to lay the foundation for a renewal.
And those who came later will always be thankful for the faithfulness of such men and women.
Now, I don’t consider this a theoretically pure model of church governance. After all, one could argue that the weak elders really should have resigned. But as it turned out, the compromise worked for the benefit of the congregation, as the continuity helped hold the church together when the preacher left. As it turned out, their weakness was not a problem when they were joined with strong leadership.
And one might argue that the elders should have been rebuked before the church, but this was quite impossible. They were nice, gentle men, and no one would have felt good about shaming them in this way.
PS — Some years later, the preacher returned and apologized for his behavior.