Dr. David Hankins, executive-director of Louisiana Baptists, was part of the delegation which met in New Orleans Tuesday to put the finishing touches on plans for the annual convention which will take place in our city in mid-November. Over lunch at Deanie’s in Bucktown, he told the group about his son Adam who finished his residency at our Charity Hospital just before Katrina hit. Charity, you may or may not know, is the state-owned downtown medical center which receives all the cuttings and beatings and killings. Or, it did before Katrina. The storm inflicted great damage and the hospital has not reopened.
“Did you learn anything working in the emergency room at Charity?” Father Hankins asked Son Hankins, the M.D.
He did, he said. “Three things in particular. I learned to wear my seat belt, not get on a motorcycle, and never buy my wife a forty-five.”
So, what have you learned in your “residency”?
In reading a book on 1940 England recently, I received a reminder that the makeup of my church and yours is a microcosm of society in general. Case in point.
On May 10, 1940 (six weeks after I arrived in the world), as newly chosen Prime Minister Winston Churchill was forming his cabinet, former Prime Minister Lloyd George sent word that he would be willing to serve under Churchill, so long as he could retain the right to criticize.
To no one’s surprise, Churchill did not go for that.
Then, a few months later, Mr. George sent a similar message. He had a particular office in mind which he coveted. The price Churchill would pay for the prestige of having Lloyd George on his team would be that he would be free to criticize.
Whatever was the man thinking?
The right to criticize. You get the impression from some people that this is a guarantee found in the constitution or somewhere. As if to ask them to be loyal team members and support the program was tantamount to encouraging them to betray their country.
“Will you support the new minister of education?” That was the single sentence on the ballot I distributed in a Sunday morning worship service. Our church was in the process of bringing a new staff member on board and I wanted our people to get behind him and follow his lead.
One man, who was perennially elected by the undiscerning membership to leadership positions in the church, wrote on his ballot: “I will, if I agree with the direction he’s taking us.”
He was retaining the right to criticize. He was also reserving for himself the privilege of sitting in judgement on everything the minister did. If he happened to be walking in the same direction as the new minister, he would be willing to get behind him and follow.
This is not a team player. Unfortunately, the man had his clones among the deacons, which explains why I did what I did.
“I’m asking you to make a tough decision here today,” I told the 15 or 20 deacons who had gathered for their monthly hour-long session. I had their undivided attention.
“I’m asking you to support the recommendations of this board. Discuss matters in here all you please, but when the deacons walk out of here with a recommendation to take to the membership, you are not to oppose it. This is not asking much from you–this is just basic integrity–but it will go a long way toward building the unity of the congregation.”
You would have thought I had asked them to give up their Heavenly reservation. The very idea. Why, it’s my God-given right to criticize.
One said, and others nodded in agreement: “If I feel strongly about a matter, I owe it to the congregation to speak out and tell them why. If it’s opposed to what the deacons are recommending, so be it.”
I said, “Then someone tell me why do we hash out matters in the deacons meeting in the first place? I always thought it was so we could come up with the best plan possible and present a unified proposal to the church.”
They didn’t disagree with that.
“But if you the deacons stand up on the floor of the church business meeting and oppose your own recommendation, it confuses the congregation. It works against the unity and peace of the church. Instead of blessing the Lord’s church, you are hurting it. You’re dividing it.”
Someone said, “I’m not giving up my convictions!”
I thought a moment and answered, “No one is asking you to do that. And if the matter being recommended to the church seems so dangerous to you, if it violates some basic doctrine of the Christian faith, so that you are willing to pay the price, go ahead and lay your body across that railroad track. Either stop the train or get run over.”
“But understand this,” I said. “When you speak your mind inside this deacons meeting, then you get up in the church business meeting and oppose the deacons recommendation, the other deacons conclude that you are not to be trusted. You are working against the unity of the church and violating the trust the church had in selecting you as a leader. You will pay a price for your disloyalty in the lack of trust we all will have in you.”
Fighting words from the pastor, some thought. The very idea.
Those few deacons had no use for me, either before that and certainly after it. That’s why I decided to bite the bullet and do something I should have done three or four years earlier when I first arrived. We took the church business away from the deacons altogether.
Actually, I didn’t do that. The constitution of the church did it. It specifically spelled out that the deacons are to be servants and minister to people, but that the pastor shall use the church council to receive recommendations for church programming and business decisions. (A church council is composed of various program heads in the church, as well as chairs of committees.)
I’ll not forget the reaction from those few deacons when I announced that from that moment on, we would begin living by the constitution. No more business matters in the deacons meeting. Just ministry and prayer and spiritual matters.
You would have thought I had announced we were all to shave our heads and chant “hare krishna” in the airport from then on.
Then I made a discovery which seemed hilarious at the time, although the few antagonists saw no humor in it. It turned out that some of the nay-sayers had been members of the committee that wrote that very constitution, no more than two years before I arrived on the scene.
Since their resistance to me was continuing unabated, I informed the deacons of this fact and read the names of the committee members who wrote the constitution. One man in particular was furious. He remembered nothing at all about any of this. He was sure the constitution had been slipped by the deacons in a sneaky move.
But I was ready.
I pulled out the minutes of the church business meeting which chronicled the details of the presentation and discussion of the new constitution, five years earlier. Not only was the deacon in question present at that meeting, but he participated in the events of the session. We had the smoking gun.
If you know anything about dealing with certain people, you know full well that some are not into logic or reason. The battle is an emotional one and gets personal real quick. But they had lost this battle for good. The other deacons were only too happy to start obeying Scripture and ministering to people, and took to the program immediately. And, give them credit, the nay-sayers quietened down.
The other deacons never looked back and continue ministering to this day, as far as I can tell.
Last weekend, as the new pastor-to-be met with various committees and groups in the church, a woman threw a question to him. “I want to know if you intend to restore the deacons to their rightful place of running the business of the church?” Or something to that effect. I wasn’t there, but heard the report.
The pastor, wise beyond his years, assured the questioner that he loved deacons, believed in them, valued their counsel, and would be depending on them to do well the work the Lord called them to.
Not what she wanted to hear. But it was the right answer.
The way I read the Bible, no one in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ has an inherent right to criticize. We have a far greater duty to submit ourselves to Christ and to the leaders He chooses for the congregation (see Ephesians 5:21 and Hebrews 13:17).
In fact, if you want to do an enlightening Bible study for the next hour, study those instances in the Old Testament of the people who murmured against the leadership of Moses as he led them from Egypt to Canaan. Start with Exodus 5:21. We are surprised to see the Israelites started criticizing Moses from the very first, before they even left town.
Then, as you move forward with Moses and the Israelites through the Exodus, you will want to check out texts like these: Exodus 14:11-12; 16:2; 17:2-3; Numbers 11:1; 12:1; 14:1ff; and 16:1ff.
What’s at stake in this matter is a multiplicity of concerns, with these four topping the list: the glory of Christ, the unity of the church, the effectiveness of the Lord’s work, and our witness to the world.
How we wish every church member would learn that these concerns supersede our individual rights to complain against our leaders.