Friday, July 17, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Disconnected?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Tom, let’s talk about elders, particularly in their shepherding (the meaning of “pastoral”, as you know) relationship to their congregations.

I’ve observed a consistent phenomenon: churches are usually required by law to have some sort of general annual business meeting (AGM). At that meeting there are always some members of the congregation who are unhappy with something that has been decided on their behalf. It may be something small, or something quite big.

But, whatever it is, it almost always catches the chairman of the meeting, and likely the elders, entirely off guard. They didn’t know anybody was feeling that way, and they often handle the new information rather badly. (Nobody does well when they feel ambushed.)

When this happens, what it suggests to me is that the elders and congregants are not in close communication, and this creates the “ambush” situation and ensuing conflict … usually under the worst circumstances for actually resolving anything.

Two Different Versions of Reality

So my question is this: why is there often a huge disconnect between what the elders know, and what the congregation is experiencing? And is there anything that could be done proactively to close the gap?

Tom: Wow, that is a bit of a conundrum. It seems to me you would be talking about a situation that might arise in a larger, more modern evangelical church? I suspect this kind of thing happens less frequently in smaller churches. I know of several complaints in the last few years about something a local church’s elders had done or allowed to be done, but these never occurred during an annual business meeting or in any other public setting.

But even in smaller churches, I think you’re right that there is often a sizable disconnect between how members of the congregation feel about this or that, and what the elders know about it.

IC: Right. Smaller size may make the problem less serious, but it may not; and it certainly doesn’t always make it go away. In smaller congregations, the elders are more likely not to be able to avoid knowing what people think and are experiencing, because they may be in more natural connection with the congregants. But they may not. What I see as the kernel of the problem is this: for some reason, elders often do NOT know what their congregation is experiencing, because if they did, issues would come up more gradually, with less emotion, and a lot more often than once a year. And there’s something about not realizing an area of potential conflict exists until the AGM that creates a perfect storm of problems.

Getting to Know the Sheep

So how do we stop the perfect storm from forming?

Tom: Well, hospitality, for one. Elders are to be “hospitable”, says the apostle Paul. Growing up, I can’t remember very many Sunday lunches at home that were just family. Somebody from church was almost always there. As a teen it sometimes annoyed me to have all these bodies around, but looking back I can see it was one of the ways Mom and Dad found out what was going on in people’s lives, how they felt about our church, and where they were at spiritually. Having people over for a bite to eat also creates a way more natural atmosphere for conversation than some kind of “visitation program” in which one or more elders schedule an annual chat at your place, and everyone sits around stiffly in a recently spiffed-up living room over a package of Peek Freans and coffee.

IC: Yes, I think that’s good: as you say, hospitality is one of the biblical qualifications for elders in the first place, and that may well be the reason. But I can see an objection to this, too: in a larger congregation, it might well be beyond the possibility of scheduling for the elders to get around to everybody privately more than occasionally. Even if the elders want to do it, and try to do it, it may be that the schedules of the people don’t always permit it.

Cultivating a Reciprocal Exchange

So I’ve been thinking about ways of creating more openness to feedback generally, so that even between opportunities to get together, there is a reciprocal exchange between elders and congregants.

Tom: What sort of things do you have in mind?

IC: Well, I know of one church where the first 15 minutes of every elders’ meeting is specially designated for anyone from the congregation to come and speak to the elders. That’s one minor thing that could be done more generally.

Tom: Sure. Wouldn’t require anything beyond what they are usually doing.

IC: But there might be a different kind of format, too. I saw a “freethinker” society recently held what they called a “reverse Q&A”. It had no speaker, but a designated topic and a moderator, and an open mic for people to speak about what they were personally struggling with in relation to a pre-specified topic. I wonder how a similar format would play in the local assembly, were it carefully managed. For example, how much could the elders learn if they had such a session, with the designated topic “For you, as a Christian today, what is the hardest struggle?” That would keep the elders off the hot seat, but might give them a wealth of feedback, both directly and indirectly, as to how the congregation was processing things relevant to their own Christian lives.

Siphoning Off Negative Energy

Tom: Properly managed, I can see that. What I don’t know is whether it would get the sort of objections and dissent that might manifest at an annual business meeting out into the air earlier, or defuse them. Being another kind of public affair, if it did, it might have the same potential for volatility.

IC: It might. But I don’t think it will tend to. The big explosion usually comes when people have been sitting on their feelings of frustration and not articulating them for a long time. Things build, and then, the one opportunity to speak comes, and “boom”. Siphoning off a lot of that energy, by addressing some of the frustrations earlier and in a more timely way would probably de-escalate any tensions at the AGM. Besides, I think we need to be concerned not just about the AGM, but more importantly, about how the elders can get more in touch on an ongoing basis with where people are at.

Tom: I’m wondering if the sort of “elder ambush” you described might not be averted if more elders made it their practice to be as open and transparent as possible with the congregation about the things they are doing and the decisions they are making ... if they did a bit more consulting. I think we have some sort of precedent for that in the book of Acts, where the issues between the Hellenists and Hebrews in the church at Jerusalem came to a head. The Twelve, acting in the capacity of elders, say to the congregation, “Pick out from among you seven men of good repute ...” They choose the method of solving the problem and establish the criteria for the men involved, but give the responsibility for selecting the team of problem solvers to the believers, which shows a fair bit of trust. Later on in Acts, we read that it “seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch.” There is no high-handed decision-making going on there. The church is persuaded of the correctness of the leadership’s actions. They don’t simply have some fait accompli dropped on them; or, worse, find out what is going on after it has already been done.

IC: Yes, that’s really good. I was thinking of that passage too.

Elders Being Deacons

But it raises another problem that’s impeding good communication: namely, the reduction of many elders to dealing with non-spiritual administrative concerns instead of their scriptural mandate, which is happening everywhere.

Tom: Yes, absolutely.

IC: You notice that the apostles and disciples concluded, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.” And again, “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” So why is it that elders’ committees today are so preoccupied with “table-serving” level concerns, such as finances, paving the parking lot, the annual picnic, reports from committees, and so on? Where is the devotion to the two key things that it is actually “desirable” for them to do: attending to prayer and the ministry of the word? If that’s their priority, then should they not be, like the early apostles and disciples, handing off those secondary concerns to other non-elder “men of good reputation” to sort?

Tom: I think this is where we may make a mistake sometimes — and I’m speaking about those churches that either over-formalize the role of a “deacon”, having a Deacon’s Board or regular deacon’s meeting, or else go to the other extreme and don’t have deacons at all. Where no deacons at all are recognized, the elders end up doing work they shouldn’t really be involved in, or else it’s handed off willy-nilly to whoever is available to do a particular task without sufficient consideration of the biblical qualifications for service. In the former case, where the role is thought of as a permanent appointment to serve the congregation’s needs in any and all ways necessary, the load it involves may appear overwhelming, and a church may find itself short of willing candidates because of the size of the commitment it takes to be a deacon. That often seems the case these days.

Defining the Role of the ‘Seven’

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recognize that what the seven men chosen in Acts 6 were doing was the same sort of work deacons do. But they were not called by the church to be its servants in all things; rather, they were appointed “to THIS duty”, meaning the task of equitably distributing what was available to those in need. When another need of another sort arose, it’s quite possible another group of qualified men could have been chosen to deal with that.

The key, I think, might be for the elders to identify men with the spiritual qualifications to carry out the non-spiritual responsibilities of which they are trying to divest themselves, then use them informally as need arises. It may involve a long-term commitment to one area of service, or a short-term commitment to several.

But whatever the remedy, elders need to be careful that their oversight doesn’t begin to extend to all sorts of things other people could do. The more the load can be shared around, the better it is for everyone, and the less likely that the elders will ever be accused of highhandedness or lacking transparency.

IC: I might add that if the teaching of the word and prayer are the Lord’s priorities, is it really okay for a group of elders to say, “Well, the finances have to be sorted first” or “We’ll do all that spiritual stuff after the parking lot issue is solved”? In fact, one might ask, should such pragmatic issues come up at all in an elders’ meeting, except long enough to say, “Fred and Bob have got that in hand for us, and will report when it’s done right”?

Major Changes Needed?

Tom: I think that might be a major change in some congregations. I find two different kinds of elders among the ones I know, IC. There are elders who are happy to delegate a task even if there is a certain amount of risk that the person who has been made responsible will not do the job the same way, or even as well, as the elder might. Then there are the “control freak” types who skip dessert to sneak down to the church building when it’s being painted to make sure the color and brand of paint is acceptable to their personal aesthetic sensibility.

I really believe it’s far better to let go, even if the building ends up with too much hot pink in it. (Okay, maybe I wouldn’t take it that far.) But how many times did the Lord send off his disciples to preach or cast out evil spirits on their own for extended periods, and how much potential disaster might that have caused? And yet he did it. He knew he wouldn’t always be there to do it himself, and the whole point of the exercise was to equip his disciples to do it.

IC: Let me see if I can bring this train of thought to an end at the station. I think we’re agreeing that the scriptures teach that elders are to be: (a) spiritual men; (b) preoccupied with teaching and prayer; (c) designating all lesser tasks to other spiritual persons; and (d) shepherds attending to the spiritual welfare of the local flock, working for the discipleship to maturity of their fellow Christians. Anything else is not optimal for elders to be doing. And they could probably be doing these things more effectively and in a more dedicated way if they were to get more in touch with where the local believers really are in their spiritual lives. Getting back to scripture might involve some of us reconstructing what we have come to regard as being involved in an elder’s role.

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