I’ve served on the ministerial staff of five churches (four of them part-time), and I must say I’ve never had a bad experience with the elders. One hears some horror stories from other ministers, but God has blessed. As a matter of fact, I can remember sitting across the table from elders during meetings and thinking, If I am ever an elder, I hope I can have this guy’s openness to change or that man’s levelheaded understanding of things.
Well, now I am sitting on the other side of the table; I am an elder.
Things do look a little different over here. The guys on the ministerial staff side look very young. They seem nice enough, but I ask myself, will they go wild if we don’t rein them in? Why does every idea have to involve changing something? How does an elder strike the right balance between monitoring a ministry and allowing creativity?
I don’t want to be “Dr. No”; I don’t want to be the old geezer who opposes every new idea just because it is new. So, I’ve made a list of guidelines for myself. Maybe they can help someone else out there sitting on the same side of the table as I am. Here they are:
Be open to change.
An exhibit at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta contains these words: “We must adjust to change while holding to unchanging principles.” While not every change is good, it isn’t necessarily bad either. Give it a chance.
Too many people confuse methods and styles with principles. For example, there is no single sacred style of music. Music is the method; the unchanging principle is the message of the gospel. OK, that change came easily for me. I like the new music. But what lies ahead? Can I be open to that as well?
Follow vision, not history.
We’ve all heard the same story: a congregation decides it needs to build a new building. The question is, do they build on the same location or think about moving to another site with more potential for growth? The old guard lines up to oppose any move. They mount pressure on the ministry staff and elders. They may threaten to leave if there is a move. One of them might even promise a large financial contribution if the church stays where it is. This combination of threats and promises of lavish financial contributions is very difficult to resist. In the end the leaders fold and decide it will be more peaceful to remain where the church has been for the last 50 to 100 years.
Ten years later the leaders regret it because there is not enough parking and the church is landlocked. The leaders allowed a family or a small group rooted in the past to dictate the course of the congregation for the next 20 to 30 years. I pray I can withstand such pressures if I am ever in such a situation.
Do the right thing first.
Church growth specialists will tell you programs like food pantries, teenage youth groups, foreign mission projects, and prison ministries will not help your church grow. The logic goes like this: people who come for free food will not have the money to aid the church financially. Thus, their benefit to the church’s mission will be minimal. Teenagers usually attend youth meetings by themselves. They do not bring their parents along with them. Further, they are only with us a short while, and most will soon leave town for college. No real church growth there. Foreign missions siphon money away from our local needs. Prison ministries will not boost attendance, for obvious reasons. So these programs (and others like them) gain the congregation nothing in terms of encouraging numerical growth.
This analysis may be true. But it is still right to have all of these ministries. We may want growth badly, but doing the right thing must come first. The old dictum of Robert Schuller, television preacher and author, still sounds good to me: “Find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it.” The church’s priority is to glorify God. That means interacting in the community and the world in ways that will do that. If we grow numerically while ignoring real needs, then we have failed. I think it takes clear thinking to keep asking, “What is the right thing to do?”
Well, that’s my list and I’m sticking to it (I hope).
David A. Fiensy serves as professor and dean of the Graduate School of Bible and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky, and as an elder with First Church of Christ.