The number one reason most church problems do so much damage is that the people in the know, those charged with leadership, have not anticipated these things and done the hard work necessary to head them off.
Good preparation will end most church problems before they arise.
Here are 10 rules–principles, suggestions, guideposts, lifelines, call them whatever you wish (except “laws”)–which, if implemented, can stop the next church split in its tracks and allow this healthy church to go chugging on down the tracks while the devil sits there scratching his head, wondering, “Wha’ happened?” (Old comic book image there)
1. Get your people serious about prayer.
Prayer is not brackets with which we open and close meetings. Prayer is not tipping our hat to the Almighty to let Him know we are aware He is eavesdropping the proceedings. Prayer is not a formality to be gotten out of the way so we can get on with the good part.
Prayer is calling on the Lord of Heaven and earth to help us, to guide us, to protect and fill and use us. Prayer is accessing Heaven’s power and God’s wisdom for earth’s work.
Once a war breaks out, it’s not too late to pray. But it almost is. It’s never too late to pray, but far better to have been earnest in our praying when matters were in hand and nothing ominous loomed on the horizon.
Prayer for believers is like weight-lifting for athletes: you do it faithfully in the inner room so when you face the opponent you are strong and ready.
This is not a one-time act by a preacher to turn his church into a prayer/powerhouse. It will require many sermons, his example, changes in the order of worship, constant teaching and reminding, and creative plans and challenging reminders for his people.
2. Bring your church constitution and bylaws up to date.
The constitution and bylaws is not a strait-jacket to limit the church. It is not a shackle to hamper a congregation from doing what it wishes. It is not simply a legal document, and should not be turned over to the lawyers in the congregation.
It is a plan to allow the Lord’s people to do what they wish and should. By setting the plan in writing and formally adopting it, a congregation establishes an order for how work and ministry will be done in the foreseeable future.
The constitution and bylaws keeps a church from hit-or-miss, scattergun, impulsive, or misguided leadership. A new pastor comes in and, without waiting to earn the trust of the members, begins to dismantle ministries and end programs in order to install his pet projects. A constitution and bylaws will put the brakes on this and keep the church on track.
The constitution and bylaws are simply the agreed-upon plan as to how the church will run its business. Sometimes it will protect the pastor from errant deacons or impulsive members; sometimes it protects the members and deacons from wrongheaded pastors.
At all times, when done right and kept current, it is a good servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. Adopt the Romans 12 model as the standard for how your church will operate.
We will go more into depth on this in a subsequent article, but briefly, here is the plan.
Romans 12 is an excellent blueprint for the operation of a church. It divides into three sections….
Vs 1-2 RELATIONSHIP TO GOD. (His Lordship)
Each member of the body is to be committed to the Lord. This is foundational. Unless each leader in particular is committed to Christ, nothing else matters and all bets are off as to what will happen.
No one not daily committed to Jesus Christ will be considered for a leadership position for this church.
Vs. 3-8 RELATIONSHIP TO HIMSELF. (Our Discipleship)
Each member is to be…
–humble (vs 3)
–appreciative of the other members of the body (vs. 4-5)
–using his/her spiritual gifts in Christ-honoring ways (vs. 6-8)
No one not humbly using the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gave for the benefit of the entire Body will be considered for a leadership position in this church.
Vs 9-21 RELATIONSHIP TO OTHERS (Our Behavior)
This passage refers mostly to “one another,” meaning other believers. Verbs are throughout: love, hate, cling, rejoice, continue, bless, pray, etc.
This passage directs our relationships to one another (vs. 10,16), the saints (vs. 13), persecutors (vs. 14), rejoicers (vs 15), weepers (vs 15), the humble (vs 16), all men (17,18), and your enemy (vs 20).
God’s people are to be active in their love toward one another, responsive to anyone in need, and patient with people people trying to destroy them. They are to be prayerful, faithful, peaceful.
No person not demonstrating love and kindness will be considered for a leadership position in this church.
4. Schedule periodic church business conferences and plan them well.
Get every church leader present. Make them aware that they may be called on, on the spur of the moment, to share their work, answer a question, or even defend some charge.
Now, there is such a thing as having business meetings too often and making them too detailed. For the most part, select good and Godly leaders and trust them to do their work well. But there has to be accountability and there should be a time for each leader to report to the authoritative body, whether that be the pastoral staff, deacons, or the congregation as a whole.
We suggest that you build in plans for people to ask questions and have answers ready. In order to be prepared for anything, role-play situations in which a divisive church member asks key questions. (Politicians role-play for their public debates; it makes them ready for surprises and on guard for low-blows.)
5. Keep all leadership informed.
No pastor can guarantee that every church member will be up to snuff on everything, even when regular mailings go out with all the data. People quickly tired of that and ignore it. Best to work with your key leadership on a regular basis, and give only periodic reports to the whole congregation.
A pastor’s best protection against a member with inadequate knowledge and a burr-under-his-saddle attitude is a church leader with the facts. Someone is slandering the preacher based on his poor understanding when the person in-the-know steps into the conversation and says quietly, “Could I tell you what that’s all about?”
This is a thousand times better than the preacher having to do this on the floor of the church when called down by someone with only half the facts. Even when the pastor answers correctly and the dissenter sees how wrong he was, the church leadership is now faced by another problem: how to help him save face and not leave an opening for Satan to work. (See Paul’s approach to this in II Corinthians 2:5-11.)
6. Institute a plan for dealing with charges and attacks as soon as they arise.
A former deacon chairman, Rudy Hough, used to counsel all incoming deacons on a plan which we advocate strongly.
“Now that you are a deacon,” Rudy would say, “from time to time, people will be calling you to complain about the preacher or one of the other leaders. I want to tell you how to handle that.”
“You say to them, ‘Thank you for telling me this. Come on with me now and we will go see that person.’
“If they’ll go with you and deal with the matter, that should end it.
“But if they refuse to go with you, you should say, ‘All right, I’ll go. But I’m going to use your name.’
“If they let you use their name, that should be sufficient. You deal with it and get back to them.
“But if they say, ‘No, leave my name out of it,’ then you are to say, ‘Then that ends it. I refuse to take anonymous criticism to our ministers.'”
I will add this: if, after rejecting your attempts to settle the matter, the individual persists in spreading his/her unhappiness, then they themselves become the problem and warrant a visit from that deacon and one other. Keep Matthew 18:15-17 as your standard of solving this.
7. Preach the Romans 12 Church-Operations Model from time to time. Keep it before your people.
Pastors cannot preach a great plan for anything one time and expect it to take hold. It must be preached from the pulpit, taught in classes, and spread by word of mouth. Sometimes, it will be one point in a sermon, and sometimes only a reference to Romans 12’s plan will be made.
In committee meetings and in sessions with the larger leadership body, pastors will remind them of this divinely given plan for a healthy church.
Use posters, powerpoint, and the church bulletin to keep the principles before your people. Role-playing, dramas, and testimonies will further reinforce the church’s commitment to God’s Word and church health.
8. Rotate leadership.
The surest way to set your church up for trouble is to allow a few people to occupy positions of great influence for many years. Human nature being what it is, unseating them will present major headaches, something most pastors will not want to tackle but will leave for their successors. (I can hear a pastor say, “I’m not ready to die on that hill.”)
The constitution and bylaws should spell out how committees, deacons, and other influential church bodies will be filled and rotated. Furthermore, it should be stated how the chairs will be chosen with some kind of limitation in place. (Without that, a powerful personality can insinuate himself into the chair and retain it for decades.)
9. Preach, practice, and insist upon transparency in all leaders.
We have nothing to hide. That’s transparency.
Transparency is what Jesus had in mind at His trial. Asked to tell what He had been teaching, Jesus replied, “You may ask anyone who heard me. I had no secrets. Everything I had to say, I said in the open.” (John 18:20-21)
If you are the treasurer, insist on regular audits or the financial committee taking a look at your books. This is for your own protection. If you have fears that money may be being handled carelessly, insist on a financial review from a respected accounting firm. They will come in, study how money is handled, then make suggestions.
If you are the pastor, demonstrate transparency yourself. Have no secret bank accounts, no funds to which you alone have access. Be willing to explain every request for checks. (I used to tell our bookkeeper Susan Ash, “If I ever ask you for a check and you have a question, don’t write it. Get back to me. If my answer is not satisfactory, ask the chairman of the finance committee. But you must always protect yourself.”)
Rules for transparency are for the protection of everyone involved.
10. Respond to infections immediately.
Your body does this. Scratch your finger and within seconds the white corpuscles inside your bloodstream get the message and head in that direction. The Creator built in this amazing failsafe system to protect you from infections that can do so much damage.
The laissez-faire attitude among some leaders is, “Well, leave it alone, and it’ll go away. People are always complaining about something.” Bad wrong. This should never be tolerated or ignored, but respected for the potent influence it is.
Rebellious staff members who criticize the church members or even the preacher himself must be dealt with severely and promptly. This must not be tolerated and can be grounds for dismissal.
Now, I am not one who believes that all dissent is evil. Sometimes leaders go astray and church members have lost any ability to call them back to reality. Complaining is all they have left. The pastor who interprets all complaints as of the devil may be playing right into the enemy’s hand. If he has given the membership no means of registering their unhappiness, he’s asking for trouble and going to get more than he ever wanted.
I once included an index card in the Sunday church bulletin. “If you have a question as to how things are done around here–even if it’s a criticism–we need to hear. Write it down here, sign your name, and drop in the offering plate.”
My chairman of deacons said, “Preacher, are you sure you want to do that? You’re just asking for trouble.”
I said, “Mike, if we don’t give them an opportunity to express their unhappiness in a healthy way, they will create unhealthy ways.”
We got a few questions, answered them fully, and went forward without a ripple.
What did we leave out? Give us your comments and additional principles below. Thank you.