After four decades of church leadership as a minister, elder, and lately as a church consultant, I have come to see the importance of a simple rule that is too often overlooked. But if it were followed, it would make life for elders, church staff, and congregations more harmonious. And very likely it would lead the watching world to take a higher view of the church.
That rule is twice mentioned in Scripture (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31), children memorize it in Sunday school, and it is stamped on pencils and cross-stitched on samplers. We call it the Golden Rule. Jesus spoke it to sum up the ethical and relational teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.
Every group and individual in any local congregation could make their church a better place if they were to practice it, but since this column is for elders, I would like to explore two ways elders could practice the Golden Rule.
First, I would suggest that elders need to treat others as we would want to be treated in the way we share information. Elders regularly spend months in meetings to study and discuss a situation involving a program, building, or staff member. But too often they present their decision to the congregation without the information they studied and ask the membership to accept the decision on a few weeks’ notice. Most decisions cannot and should not be made by the entire congregation, but the better the church understands the reasons for a decision, and has time to consider those reasons, the more broadly and wholeheartedly the decision will be embraced.
When it comes to sharing information about why a decision was made, do to others as you would want them to do to you.
On the other hand, many times a group of elders is privy to information about the struggles, failures, and sins of church members. Occasionally this information is shared with those who really do not need to know it, perhaps on the grounds they might eventually need to know or they might be able to help. And sometimes the information may be shared for no real reason at all. What if each elder were first to pause and ask himself: If this were information about my struggle, my failure, my sin—would I want it told to anyone beyond those who absolutely need to know?
Managing Church Staff Members
A second way elders might practice the Golden Rule is in their role as employers. While the Bible highlights the role of elders as shepherds, in most churches today elders also function as employers, overseeing multiple employees even in smaller churches, and tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars in payroll. In most churches, the elders evaluate job performance, reward and reprimand, hire and (when necessary) fire, establish job descriptions, and carry out other functions of employers.
Those on the church staff, of course, are the employees, but they are something more as well. Just as in a family business an employer may also be a parent or sibling, so in the local congregation elders and church staff have multiple relationships. While the elders are the employers of the staff, they are also the shepherds responsible for the pastoral care of the staff. And they are brothers in Christ with the staff.
Far too often, elders borrow corporate management, evaluation, and human resource practices that are not appreciated or beneficial to employees in secular settings. So when shepherds and brothers in the local church use these approaches, they are even less appropriate. This is not to say that some evaluation, sometimes leading to discipline or even dismissal, is not necessary. It is to say elders should take great care when evaluating, compensating, reprimanding, and even dismissing staff. Elders need to be sure they are treating the employee (minister) the way they would want to be treated.
The Golden Rule is handy because it can be applied in virtually every situation an elder might face. And with regard to difficult decisions, all one needs to do is to look at the other party—church member, minister, or other church employee—and ask, “How would I want to be treated if I were in that person’s shoes right now?” The answer will let us make church leadership decisions in line with the second part of the great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).
Barney Wells is assistant professor of Bible and ministry at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.