What is the single most common cause for meltdown and dissolution of a local church?
How would you answer that question? Pastors frequently will mention things such as lack of leadership, indifference in the congregation, lack of financial support or a doctrinal dispute. Although all of these may contribute to a church's demise, the single most destructive force affecting a congregation is usually unleashed from within. And it usually has to do with one simple thing: the tongue.
The power of the tongue to destroy a local church is staggering to behold (see Prov. 21:23; James 3:1-12). Through the years, I have counseled with numerous pastors who have been through enormous heartache, conflict, hurt and eventual dissolution of their churches--none of which had to happen.
It is my firm conviction that if a pastor's elders, pastoral team, board of deacons or other governing authority will adopt what my church has named an "elders' covenant" and fully embrace it, that church will thwart the evil one's desire to destroy the work of the kingdom. I know because that's our story.
CONFLICT IN THE CHURCH
As a brand-new church, we had enjoyed nearly 10 years of relative peace and unbroken growth. It sounds like a pastor's dream, doesn't it? Sure, we had times of testing, change and some personnel transitions, but overall our first 10 years were something special. To our amazement, we had grown from nine couples to nearly 2,000 in weekly attendance simply by caring for all those God was sending us. Then came the proverbial train wreck, or almost.
In an effort to continue to accommodate growth in our congregation, I sought the counsel of consultants gifted in strategic planning and administration. Their recommendations included a number of personnel changes, which sent shock waves through our largely homegrown staff. When news of the possibility of these changes began to filter out, those directly affected approached various elders, who understandably raised serious questions about the potential impact of a staff shake-up.
Tension mounted. Fear escalated in our relationships, and even though some personnel changes were made, things got worse internally, not better. As time went on, I could tell we were in increasingly serious, relational disarray. And so, about two years after I moved with vision and determination to make improvements for the future, it looked like things were going to melt down.
Open-heartedness and transparency were replaced by long nights of charges and counter-charges at our elders' meetings. Things were so uncertain that even some secretive meetings were held by some groups of pastors and elders to try to develop a self-preserving strategy for the future.
Needless to say, I was crushed. My well-intentioned efforts to provide leadership through the decade of the 1990s looked as if they would end in disaster. I was devastated, and what was worse was the church, which had flourished so beautifully, was in serious danger of a possible explosion.
Interestingly, most of the people in the congregation had no idea of the level of tension that existed between the pastors and elders. They were aware, to be sure, of the personnel changes that had taken place, but really didn't perceive the degree of unrest and disunity that was growing in the core of the leadership. Looking back on it, I think things would have gone on quite normally right up until a major crash.
In my 25 years of pastoral ministry experience, I have found that some version of the above scenario is all too common. Whether because of impure motives, immaturity or, in my case, poor communication and judgment, internal conflict derails many more healthy churches than does any external obstacle.
In seminars and conferences that I attend around the country, as well as in the context of my own local relationships, I encounter the casualties of elders' groups gone ballistic more than any other destructive force. The pain from these kinds of splits and divisions is incalculable, let alone the dissolution of the impact of a once thriving church now divided.
Internal conflict may happen in the early stages of ministry, when a congregation faces one of the famous "barriers" of church growth, or not until the 10-year mark or so of a church's history. (Peter Drucker sees this as a very predictable half-life of all organizational structures.) Being denominationally aligned may provide the form for stability, but not necessarily the heart.
So what can be done? The rest of my story may provide some direction.
One New Year's Day, I gathered all of the pastors and elders with their spouses for an overnight retreat at a local hotel. What followed was nothing short of a miracle.
I began our time together with my own personal confession. I took responsibility for my failures in communication and in properly honoring our processes. And then, with very little prompting from me, people began to share their hearts and opened up to one another in ways of repentance and reconciliation.
The session went on for several hours, with an abundance of tears and no shortage of meaningful hugs going around. At the end of the session, I was awed by the power of forgiveness and the miracle of reconciliation I had witnessed. Rarely have I been more aware of a smile on the face of the Father.
The next morning we reconvened to share what we might do in order to minimize the possibilities of this kind of dissolution of trust in the future. What follows is the spontaneous, non-researched, seven-point covenant we crafted together.
ESTABLISHING A LEADERSHIP COVENANT
Each point of our leadership covenant speaks to a specific breakdown of communication or commitment we had experienced. Each of the points addresses a painful failure we hope never to repeat again. Though quite specific in focus, each point leaves room for subjective interpretation that keeps the covenant from falling into the trap of legalism. Although each point has a scriptural basis, I will forego the theological and biblical foundations we discussed in our meeting.
Here are the seven points of our leadership covenant, with a brief comment or illustration for each one. Implementing a similar covenant among your church leadership is one of the best things you could ever do to ensure a healthy, thriving ministry into the future.
1. We will pursue honesty, openness and grace in our relationships. The key word here is pursue. This requires an investment of time and energy on the part of all those participating in the covenant, to build into our relationships rather than to wait passively for things to happen. In other words, the responsibility for a growing relationship is yours, not someone else's.
One elder couple approached me with the frustration they felt toward one of the pastoral team members. "Each time we have an exchange with Brian, we feel somewhat of a distance," they told me.
My immediate response was to pull out our covenant and ask them this simple question: "Have you approached Pastor Brian with your frustration in his response to you?"
"Well, we didn't know if it was our place to do so," they replied.
I reminded the couple that pursuing openness required being proactive on their part. The next weekend they spent some time with that pastor who, by the way, was totally unaware of his perceived distance toward the couple. Interestingly, this couple has now become a very close supporter of this pastor and his ministry.
2. We will see that hurts, offenses and differences are reconciled quickly. We faced the fact that hurts, offenses and differences are facts of life in ongoing relationships. The key is what we do with them.
To be reconciled quickly means that we move within the span of hours, or at the most days, to bring about reconciliation. We were amazed to discover how many people had buried offenses for weeks, or even months, during the course of the near meltdown.
Once again, this part of the covenant requires a measure of initiative on the part of every elder. Some months ago, I personally benefited from the actions of an elder in response to this point of the covenant.
At a training meeting with our elders and pastors, I inadvertently made a remark that was somewhat disparaging about the results of one pastor's particular ministry. Though unintended, my remark could have been interpreted as having cast a negative judgment on the efforts of the pastor and his team. This particular elder, who was a member of that team, was hurt by the exchange and knew something needed to be done.
Rather than take the offense, nurse it along and share it with other elders or pastors, this courageous brother chose to approach me with the offense, and helped me to see it in a light I had completely missed. Even though there was considerable risk on the part of the elder (for example, if I would reject his overtures or perceptions), there was much greater risk in bearing the offense. As a result, I was able to ask forgiveness of the pastor involved and reconcile the entire team back to a place of fruitful involvement.
3. We will honor and cover one another in word and action. Leaders are painfully aware of one another's weaknesses. But rather than make those weaknesses a point of criticism and vulnerability, we covenanted to cover one another and protect one another in our vulnerable and weak areas.
One member of our pastoral team was seeking to grow in his expression as a worship leader. However, the particular evenings in which he exercised leadership were somewhat disjointed and clearly lacked a sense of direction and anointing. It was very gratifying to see several other pastoral leaders surround this struggling brother with encouragement and edification rather than a negative posture that could have discouraged him from any other future attempts to grow in this important area of leadership.
4. We will not entertain accusations against one another. We found the enemy's weapon of accusation to be very strong. Phrases such as "I heard that" or "This brother says that" were simply ways of beginning to spread gossip and slander, which were very destructive. If an elder was to be confronted, it had to be according to the biblical pattern of Matthew 18.
This is not to say elders don't make mistakes and that there aren't times when they need to be confronted. However, it was clearly astounding to see how many initial complaints concerning the sensitivity or wisdom of a particular elder or pastor were truly unfounded when tested against the biblical standard.
5. We will hear one another's opinions, honor one another's differences, hold love supreme and wholeheartedly embrace our collective decisions. This point is a celebration of diversity and unity. We are very different people and have been given various gifts and perspectives by the Spirit of God. We needed to focus on learning to hear one another's opinions rather than protecting our own.
But once a decision was made, it then would become incumbent on those whose perspectives were different to embrace the corporate consensus. This brought about a new sense of strength in all of our decision-making as well as ownership of all our major decisions. Of all the points of the covenant, this one has been perhaps the most helpful in terms of building a sense of corporate unity.
As a church body, we had committed to a major building project shortly after the striking of this covenant. As anyone who has undertaken such a project understands, it is fertile soil for discontentment and disagreement. There are so many decisions with vast implications affecting every ministry that it is almost impossible to preserve unity throughout the process.
But this point of our covenant required that when a decision had been reached, even if we disagreed somewhat as to the details, all of us would embrace that decision as our own. For example, it seemed truly miraculous to see an engineer and an entrepreneur both agree time and again to hear each other, honor each other and yet move wholeheartedly in love toward the same end.
6. We will meet together monthly to pray, share, worship, support and pursue accountability. Once a month for approximately two hours, we gather as husbands and wives to share our journey in living out our covenant. Within the context of the large, group setting, we established a rotating small-group framework that enabled us to discover the joys and challenges of moving forward and together in this journey. Accountability in the spirit of love has made for numerous confessions and "work-it-out" sessions along the way.
This is a very important part of our covenant. A resolution made once a year and simply tucked away does not have the same potential to impact our lives as something we are reaffirming on a monthly basis. In addition, it gives opportunity for us to share some of our experiences as well as the personal challenges and victories of living out our covenant with one another.
7. We will remain faithful to intentional, personal evangelism. On the surface, it may appear this particular point has very little to do with keeping the covenant with one another. However, this reflects an outward attitude we believe is essential to avoid the trap of dangerous introspection, which tends to infiltrate so many earnestly committed groups.
It has been sobering for us to realize how easily we neglect this important area. Our goal has been to celebrate evangelistic and even pre-evangelistic encounters that demonstrate our expressed intention to share Christ with others.
When we originally agreed to our covenant, we took a week to prayerfully confirm each of the points and then met together once again to sign a copy of the covenant, which was later framed and hung in our boardroom. We then had copies of it reduced and laminated so that it could be carried around in our Bibles, purses and wallets as a reminder of our commitments to one another.
Few moments in my ministry have been more powerful than the time when every single pastor, elder and spouse put their signature on this document. Something was broken in the heavenlies that has released our ministry to a deeper degree of love and fruitfulness.
Without being dramatic, I must say that the results of establishing our covenant have been life-changing. Harmony has returned to all levels of leadership. Painful relationships have been healed, and trust is re-established at every level of ministry. As a result, the church is once again infused with the life-giving dynamic of unity that Jack Hayford calls "the birthplace of vision."
On occasions too numerous to mention, elders have shared at our monthly meetings about gossip or slander intercepted by the covenant. The specific nature of the points of the covenant, not unlike marriage vows, remind us on a regular basis just how we are to work out our commitments to one another.
I wish I could say all of our struggles have ceased. It would be great to report that we have had no relational difficulties through the last few years, but that's not the case. Believers will have disagreements and conflicts until Jesus comes.
But even the occasional disappointment of a relationship that was not reconciled has not broken the strength or security of the covenant as a whole. We endeavor to learn from our struggles and strengthen our relationships through the adversity we all face.
What has been astonishing to all of us is the life-changing power of corporate love. Nothing from the enemy can withstand it and, what's more, the ministry has continued to flourish and grow without further incident.
In my travels the last couple of years, pastors have seemed to express more interest in this facet of our church life than any other. I am convinced that every church, no matter its size, background or affiliation, would benefit from some adaptation of this kind of covenant. Young churches can do a great deal to ensure their continued health and growth, while established churches can revitalize their internal relational dynamics and create an environment for true revival as relationships flourish.
Perhaps most of all, the devastation that always accompanies internal church conflicts and divisions can be largely avoided by this kind of spiritual warfare. That's what I believe an elders' covenant is--a weapon of spiritual warfare (see Acts 20:28-31).
With the security of true unity at the core, the church is free to pursue its mission and fulfill its destiny. It's worth it--the fruit of the covenant is very sweet.
Jay Passavant is senior pastor of North Way Christian Community in Wexford, Pennsylvania.
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