My wife and I spent Cinco de Mayo in a Midwestern city watching a wide variety of Americans dancing and celebrating. The event commemorates the Mexican army’s defeat of the French on May 5, 1862. I noticed that, generally, it took two to tango, but there were a few who tried to do the tango by themselves.
So, understanding that there are two sides to every story, and it usually takes two to tango, I want to discuss a disturbing pattern among churches of all sizes. Here’s how it works . . .
A preacher goes on vacation or an extended study break and returns to find the elders have “reorganized” the way “decisions will be made from now on.” In most cases, the rules are changed while the primary teacher and vision caster of the church is away on a much-needed break.
It usually starts with an underground discussion between a couple of elders or between one or more staff members and an elder or two. It is an underground discussion because the preacher and sometimes the chairman of the elders were not even aware it was occurring. The discussions may have been well intended, at least at first. But the end result is often divided leadership that can lead to elders resigning and/or the preacher leaving a ministry he has spent years cultivating.
To be clear—sometimes the preacher is young or has spent only a short time at the congregation, but many times this happens to a seasoned leader who has led the congregation in unprecedented growth for decades. Yet, it ends in heartache . . . JUST LIKE THAT!
Sometimes the elders involved in this divisive action will apologize and, with the preacher engaged in the dialogue, things get back on course. But there’s usually a lingering spirit of distrust that hinders the work of the Lord’s church.
The preacher’s wife, who has given decades of service to the congregation and worked alongside her husband, is deeply wounded and maybe even afraid. She’s concerned about the damage to her husband and the woundedness of her children. But she quietly returns to her prayer closet where she is reminded to trust God, love her husband, and try to heal while she attempts to forgive these “well-intentioned dragons.”
Let’s discuss why this happens and how we can avoid damaging the unity of the Lord’s church.
I do not believe disunity among the elders is inevitable. I have been a preacher with two congregations for 34 years, and I have never experienced this kind of chasm among the local eldership.
I have experienced elderships that have weathered false accusations of the elders and preacher, staff members who tested the unity of the eldership in an attempt to divide, highly visible divorces of staff members, hundreds of extremely difficult issues tackled head-on, and the loss of influential staff members who deeply wounded the church as they left.
But, thankfully, I have also experienced a unity among the eldership that has made possible my 25-year partnership with the congregation I currently lead.
Let me offer some possible reasons why we have been able to serve as a united front. My prayer is that paid preachers and volunteer elders can avoid this despicable occurrence that is really an attack on the bride of Christ.
Leading in Unity
When the preacher is not a fellow elder, he often is viewed as a hireling under the elders or as a CEO over the elders. Neither is healthy, in my opinion. First Peter 5:1 reads, “I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed.”
Our congregation, staff, and elders see me as an elder like the ones described by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:17: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” When the preacher has an equal voice among the elders, it allows them to operate under this critical principle: “We speak as one voice or not at all.”
That one principle, if followed, eliminates the private conversations that so often lead to disunity. That principle, if followed, allows the preacher to speak on behalf of the elders, rather than using couched language, such as “I believe” or “those elders have said.” That principle, if followed, does away with the blame game.
How often have you heard a preacher throw the elders under the bus or vice versa? When the preacher is also an elder, good decisions are celebrated together and there is shared responsibility for mistakes.
The real payoff of this principle comes when there is “change in the air” and a member of the congregation disagrees with the proposed change.
For example: When we changed the name of our congregation, we explained the reasons for doing so during a six-week series on Acts 1-6. A few disgruntled members sought out certain elders and, in each case, that elder spoke on behalf of the other elders: One voice or not at all.
Affirming in Public . . .
When the congregation regularly hears the preacher affirming the wisdom of his fellow elders, and church members hear verbal affirmation of the preacher by an elder, they begin to understand that the elders are a united front and that positive culture is caught by the congregation.
. . . Loving in Private
Commitment, loyalty, devotion, and brotherly love are by-products of ongoing communication, honesty, and prayer. I have weekly conversations with the chairman of the elders. It is not a “formal meeting,” but
for 25 years we have kept the lines of com-munication open between us. Young preachers need to know that elders do not like surprises, and experienced elders understand the preacher needs to hear both good news and bad news directly from the elders.
So . . . open communication is as important as brutal honesty. The elders meeting is the place we confront our current reality. It does not happen in the parking lot or when we get home to discuss matters with our wives. Devotion comes from honest assessment together on the state of the church.
But the most important thing we do together is pray. Acts 6 is very clear that elders must be devoted to prayer. If you were to randomly ask what the elders of our congregation do, most members would say pray.
The congregation hears every week that the elders are available for prayer after the service. They hear every month that the elders are available for prayer and anointing with oil. What they don’t know is how much time we spend in prayer for the congregation, the paid staff, and for each other.
I guess it’s time to come clean: I love elders meetings! You might think I’m a candidate for therapy, but I know how much the elders love me and how much I love them. We share our deepest burdens with each other, and every elder and his family is prayed for, because we are devoted to each other behind closed doors and we have each other’s back when we leave.
Protecting in Ministry
Our elders take seriously the words recorded in Acts 20:28: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
While it is necessary to draft policy, review finances, and discuss strategy for ministry, as fellow elders and shepherds, much of what we are called to do is protect. Protect the truth of God’s Word by speaking it in love. Protect the staff so they are free to carry out the vision and values cast by the elders. Protect the congregation from savage wolves, false teaching, and harmful division.
I cannot adequately describe the gift of knowing my fellow elders are devoted to protecting me, my family, and my calling to preach God’s Word and shepherd his people.
Case in point: my study break. Every summer I am out of the office and freed of preaching responsibilities for four weeks. It is not considered vacation time, but a time to refresh my relationship with God, my wife and family, and my teaching plan for the next year.
These 30 days remind me that my identity is not limited to my role as a preaching elder. When I am away, it is healthy just to be reminded that I am God’s child, my wife’s husband, and my kids’ dad.
I always return with renewed energy and vision for the days ahead. Our elders are so protective of this time that even when the church was in a difficult season, they encouraged me to get away, seek God, discuss by phone and e-mail what needed to be addressed, and spend time with the wife of my youth.
This is when I knew how blessed I was to serve with these fellow elders and dear friends in Christ. It’s because together we seek to obey Paul’s injunction in Ephesians 4:3: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
In June, Steve Reeves marked 25 years as lead pastor with Connection Pointe Christian Church, Brownsburg, Indiana.