Churches are supposed to be storming “the gates of hell” (Matthew 16:18), not guarding the keys to the coffee supplies. Pastors are supposed to be training ministers for ministry (Ephesians 4:11,12), not entertaining the critics of the minister. Churches should be adapting themselves to “win as many as possible” (I Corinthians 9:19-23), not falling all over themselves to lose as few as possible. With all the great books that pastors are reading and conferences they are attending, the gap between the contrasting visions for the church held by pastors and church attendees seems to be growing. One of the results is old-fashioned “pastoral frustration,” but another is an abandonment of congregationalism (viewed as the disease responsible for diverse and serious symptoms).
I remember chatting about this half-seriously as a young pastor. My pastor friends and I loved doing ministry but trying to lead, govern and manage our congregational churches was driving us crazy – we all wanted to go to a mythical “Camp Burnout” for pastors. Our frustrations were also driving us to the fantasy that all our troubles would be over if we were leading chapels instead of churches. This frustration probably has something to do with the growth of the Calvary Chapel movement as well as the movement of some of our best “lay people” into churches without voting memberships where a few self-perpetuating elders (church board members who re-up or replace each other without any input from the flock) “run the show.”
I don’t blame these folks for their frustration, especially where it is fueled, not just by elitism or impatience, but by a strong desire to be a part of missional churches – churches that are truly doing something to expand the kingdom of God. The problem I have with this movement (and I think that it really is a movement) is that, like a lot of pastors and other leaders in the Evangelical Free Church, I still believe in congregationalism. I believe in it not so much because I believe that the priesthood of the believer demands it (I’ve never understood that argument) but because, in my reading of the New Testament, the people, the flock, did seem to have a say in what their churches did – as in Acts 1:23ff, Acts 6:5, etc. If we still had Apostles (Ephesians 4:11) – and Evangelical Free folk generally believe that we don’t – I would be fine with the appointing of leaders by Apostolic decree, as in Acts 14:23 or Titus 1:5. In the absence of Apostles, I have to concede that the congregation – the local body of adult believers – should have a say at least in who their leaders are going to be. Having them vote on a few other things as well, like the purchasing of land, the building of buildings, the approving of an annual budget or the implementation of major new policies, just seems “right” to me – and I know that people will vote with their feet if they don’t get to vote with their hands or pens.
So here’s the burning question: is it possible to have congregationalism that works (and “works” should be defined in terms of kingdom expansion success, not just congregational happiness)? For the sake of getting a discussion started, I believe that there’s hope for the congregational church if:
1. We teach Biblical leadership and followership. In the church polity (government style) of the New Testament, the leaders lead and the followers follow. This is just common sense. Leaders put many hours (and hopefully much prayer) into their leadership proposals. Followers should give the benefit of the doubt, appreciate the work done by their leaders and, unless they have strong reasons to speak up or vote “no,” they should follow. Hebrews 13:7 & 17 and I Thessalonians 5:12 tell us to respect, emulate, follow, obey and submit to our leaders. Churches need to be taught this with patience as well as with the expectation that “this is the way we’re going to do it here.” Vast numbers of American Christians assume that because we’re Americans, our leaders should be suspected, mistrusted, spoken against and opposed! This is far from what is taught in the Bible! Pastors need to dare to teach what Scripture really says about this and allow those whose “bent” is to defy God-given authority to go elsewhere.
2. We repudiate parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order. Parliamentary procedure (as found in Robert’s Rules…) is fine for American government, the Lions club or the Rotary. In my view it has no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Robert’s Rules allow for the church’s official (we believe “God-given”) leaders to be publicly opposed by the followers, their proposals turned on their heads at business meetings, without any forethought at all. Robert’s Rules allows the newest member of the congregation to make proposals at meetings which are then voted on by the members without the legitimate leaders being able to veto them. From the standpoint of many Americans who are new to the church, this is the way it should be. From the viewpoint of Biblical leadership and followership, this is beyond absurd. In Scripture, followers who do such things are burned up, struck down, swallowed up by the ground or turned into lepers! It’s time for us pastors to teach the truth about these matters and to call for the “banishment” of parliamentary procedure from our churches.
3. We turn business meetings into occasions for formalizing and celebrating God-instigated forward progress. Good, careful leadership involves the conveying of information by leaders, careful listening to the responses generated, the willingness to re-think proposals after listening, convincing ever-widening concentric circles of “influencers,” even the solicitation of opinions from those who are likely to be against the proposal (because they’re against most proposals). If leadership is done right, the “yes” vote has been decided well in advance of the formal business meeting. This good leadership allows our official meetings to be occasions for last minute answers to legitimate questions and for votes that are celebratory, not controversial, in nature. Most people in most churches rejoice when their leaders stop relying on the followers to try to lead at business meetings and start practicing careful, bold, united leadership. Everybody wins when the meeting becomes a celebration.
4. We courageously confront bullies. I’m so grateful for Tim Addington (“High Impact Church Boards,” “Leading From the Sandbox”) and other authors for emphasizing the need for courage for all church board members. Bullies, controlling people, folks who love being “big fish in small ponds” love democracy (congregationalism in its worst form) because it allows them to drive the bus from the back seat, to make “scenes” at business meetings, to reach up and pull the break cord (like on old-time trains) and to get their way for the worst possible reasons. Some of these folks need to be stood up to, rebuked, warned, maybe even removed from their churches. Leaders who think they’re being “gracious” by letting these people “run wild” are practicing neither grace nor responsible leadership (where the shepherds protect well-behaved sheep from biting sheep).
5. We demonstrate real competence as pastors and boards. Pastors desperately need to become proficient at leadership because every church needs an effective “leadership relationship.” That is, every church needs to have a pastor/leader who is competent at leadership and whom it will allow to competently lead them. Next, all pastors need to teach (or find somebody who can teach) their church board members how to be effective in their roles. Most church board members are wonderful people who have no idea how to be church board members because no one has taught them. In many cases eight board members have eight different ideas about what the board’s role should be. If you don’t agree with the books that I love to use for this purpose (the aforementioned “High Impact Church Boards” and Larry Osborne’s “Sticky Teams”) find a book or books or curriculum that you agree with and teach it until senior pastor and board are functioning like a strong, bold, careful, united, effective leadership team. Most people will give their leaders lots of latitude to lead, they will follow with joy, if (a big “if”) and when their leaders demonstrate competence. If you want to escape from the morass of congregational mistrust, this is the most important way out: you’ll get all the leadership traction you need by demonstrating both concern and competence.
6. We demonstrate that it’s about God’s kingdom and God’s glory. While trying to lead boldly we must continue to demonstrate real humility (which shouldn’t be so hard since we’re so fallible!) and meekness. When you mess up, apologize. Tell your people constantly that Jesus Christ is the head over everything for the church (Ephesians 1:22,23) and that you’re trying to be good leaders by becoming good followers of Christ. There is only one king in the kingdom we are building. To lead well, we need meekness (the willingness to not get our own way) as much as we need boldness (the courage to point to the right way). People will not surrender their right to lead from the floor of business meetings if they fear the foolishness of those who want to lead them. But most will gladly surrender that right (or so they thought it was) to leaders whom they love and trust, for good reason.
I think there’s hope for the congregational church. Do you?