Do the Right Thing

by Dick Alexander 

Elder work can be hard work, involving gut-wrenching decisions.  On the one hand there is great joy in seeing lives changed and God honored.  It’s an undeserved privilege to be used by the Lord to facilitate His kingdom work.  On the other hand, there can be late-night meetings and lost sleep.  But in times of crisis in a church, it is essential that the overseers of a church do the right thing – not the expedient thing.

The world has been shocked over the last couple of decades by the still-unfolding stories of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests.  It was one thing to hear the cascading stories of priests abusing children and youth.  But it is an order of magnitude worse to learn how repeated abuses were covered up by church authorities.  It was not only an issue of individual sin, but of systemic corruption.

That happens other places as well.  This year an influential evangelical church was found to have covered up reported inappropriate sexual conduct by its lead minister.  Numerous reports had been given by responsible people.  Staff members who were aware of the allegations were reportedly required to sign non-disclosure agreements at penalty of their jobs, while the leader continued in his role.

In counseling, secrecy in a family is a sign of major dysfunction.  Appropriate confidentiality is a mark of good character; enforced secrecy is a sign of sickness.

It’s a normal reflex for leaders to not want bad news about their organizations to hit the streets.  But what is the impact on victims to not only be abused, but then have the abuser protected by fellow leaders?  And what is the impact on the reputation of God when the story later becomes pubic (increasingly common in a social media world), and it’s not only the sin of an individual, but a cover-up by a whole organization?

Churches are afraid to lose people.  Most are stretched thin financially, regardless of size.  It becomes a matter of institutional survival.  In a small church, losing a few “key families” (read “meaningful givers”) can push it over the brink.  In a large church this issue is the same – there are simply more zeros in the budget.  A badly managed crisis or unpopular leadership decision can cost a few hundred or few thousand members, resulting in staff layoffs, missed building payments, etc.

But at what price do we maintain our institutions?  Is it more important to God that we keep the seats filled than that we live in truth, justice, and integrity?  Can we not admit when there is sin, and as the body of Christ model repentance, restoration and reconciliation to the world?  Isn’t this our birthright – a distinctive and biblical community?

Most long-time church members are weary of spin.  They read between the lines of our carefully-crafted letters on leadership decisions.  The church isn’t a reality TV show or a long-running soap opera.  There is a place for diplomacy.  But can there also be a greater place for clear, honest communication from leaders?  We will take hits no matter what, so should we take hits for being transparent, repentant, and restorative?  Or should we take those hits for being spin doctors? 

We counsel our teenagers about healthy sexual conduct well before they begin dating.  We want them to decide on a right path before they’re in the thick of temptation.  Hopefully your church is not in a crisis now.  That makes this an excellent time as a group of elders to decide to always do the right thing – even when it’s costly.

The Elder and Change

by Dick Alexander

Every elder wants to help shepherd a living church, not a dying one. Yet many miss a critical aspect of the job.

Strong, vibrant, growing churches are both Biblically sound and culturally in-tune.  A church that loses either half of that equation dies.  Entire denominations have given up on the truth of Scripture and are empty sepulchers.  But the landscape is also littered with dead and dying churches that preached the gospel till their final breath, but did it in a polyester leisure suit.  A church that loses its connection to the Word loses its power; a church that loses its connection to its culture loses its audience.  Both must be concerns of elders.

Culture is changing rapidly.  One hundred years ago culture was more static, more predictable.  But by 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock that the only constant is change.  And that was nearly a half century ago.  This means any church that is not constantly making appropriate changes will likely not be here in 20 years.  Maybe not in 10.

Good church leaders don’t apologize for changes in church programming, structures, and worship forms.  They create a culture of change, where ongoing change is expected.  Vibrant churches make continuous changes that are well-conceived, well-communicated, and well-implemented.  Change is a way of life.

I remember thinking some years ago that our church was in a period of transition.  Then the realization came that going forward we would always be in transition.

So where are elders in all of this?  Honestly, most elders are better at keeping the church on track Biblically than culturally.  Part of this may be that elders are, by definition, older, rather than younger.  Many are long-time church members and love their church “the way it is.”  And they hear, sometimes vociferously, from other long-time members who like their church the way it is, or more problematically, who want to take it back to a former time that is gone forever.

Often tension arises between elders and staff over new initiatives.  Staff propose a grand new idea that never gets off the ground with elders.  The staff is deflated, and the elders frustrated or disappointed.  The staff may not have given appropriate respect to traditions or a reasonable pace of change, and may have been unrealistic.  The elders may have been short on vision, a sense of mission, and maybe just short on courage.

Elder work involves governing.  Thoughtful elders aren’t chasing every ministry fad.  Sometimes good governance sets limits and says no.  On the other hand, they are constantly seeking new ways to fulfill our urgent mission.  Elders who want the church to have a future will be asking questions like:

  • How are we going to improve what we’re doing now?
  • What new initiatives will we launch this year, especially in outreach?
  • What will we quit doing that is no longer effective?

On one side, elders are partners with staff in constantly seeking more effective ways for ministry. On the other hand, they are guides to the congregation in helping communicate the necessity and rationale for innovation.

Elders of vibrant churches don’t resist change – they require it.  Any change is risky – some will fail.  But it’s like snow skiing – if you never fall, you’re not getting better.  All good leadership groups have a respectable number of failures noted in their minutes.  After a few years they are good stories to laugh about.

Churches are sometimes hamstrung by dissatisfied members.  Maybe the most deadly words spoken in elder meetings are, “We can’t afford to lose anyone.”  Every significant change, especially those centered on outreach, will cause some to leave the church.  We let them go with tears, but we let them go.  They will find another church – they won’t go to hell.  But someone else might if the church doesn’t connect with today’s world.

Guided by the Spirit and the Word, capable elders shepherd a church in a dynamic, life-giving pathway of service.  It’s not only good now, but it helps ensure there will be a church for their grandkids.