Editor's Note: Today is part two of a three-part series looking at the ways difficult decisions must be made in churches, even when they're sometimes risky. Part one looked at personnel decisions.
In deciding an institutional issue, church leaders should try to determine which alternative will serve the largest number of people. That is, what will allow 100 percent of the congregation to worship and serve God most effectively? In difficult situations, of course, 100-percent solutions may be impossible. Many decisions will satisfy only 90 percent; some only 60 or 70 percent. Truly agonizing decisions arise occasionally when the congregation is split evenly.
Institutional decisions can often be no-win situations. Our research has shown little correlation between making or not making these decisions and staying or leaving. Ministries may be forfeited either way. These are the truly selfless decisions, done for the good of the body, though recognition may not come for years, if ever.
One pastor remembered such a situation:
The board chairman and the financial secretary constituted the power structure of this Congregational church. By the middle of my second year, I realized change was needed for the congregation to survive. These two men fought any action by members or by me. For example, the board chairman questioned my purchasing power. He said I could buy only one thing in the next year … I called his threatening bluff by stating the procedure called for in the church constitution—presenting written requests to the entire board. I then asked the board to clarify the procedure. This made him my enemy. Soon thereafter he presented a detailed list of my shortcomings. From then on, everything was a battle. I fought it over the next year and a half and "won"—the two leaders left the church. Eventually, though, I, too, left because the church needed healing after this protracted battle.
Of course, not all such decisions lead to the pastor leaving the church. One respondent for our survey noted:
Two couples started a home Bible study without church sanction. People from our church were invited as if it were church sanctioned. We had three problems with this. First, new church activities had to be approved by the board. For a Bible study, approval is usually automatic, but the procedure keeps us aware of small-group interaction. Second, it was organized to replace an existing program. Third, there was no control over the doctrinal teachings, and in this case, there was reason to be wary. The board asked the couple to stop the study. They continued, saying it was none of our business. So we spelled out the board's disapproval for those attending. Some left the church with the two couples, but the church as a whole has increased in unity.
The proper approach to an institutional problem is commitment. A pastor and congregation must be committed to their church for it to continue functioning.
This commitment has three dimensions:
- willingness to remain despite inducements to leave;
- acceptance of the structure's norms, values, and beliefs;
- action to achieve common goals.
In many ways, commitment to the church is no less intense than obedience to Scripture. The institutional church is the vehicle through which the gospel is proclaimed. Just as we maintain the health of our vocal chords so we can speak and we service our automobiles so they can provide transportation, we maintain the structure and harmony of our churches so they can speak and embody the gospel. Indeed, in the eyes of the world, a pastor's commitment to the institutional church is every bit as odd, perhaps, as obedience to the Word.
Commitment, however, can lead to extremes. G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate burglar, for example, confused commitment to a government with a devotion that should be shown only toward an absolute moral principle of God. Apathy, on the other hand, will ruin a religious institution.
Applying the principle of commitment properly means avoiding either extreme. When a pastor considers an institutional question, he or she must be willing to perform the hated, suspect act: compromise. Making an organization work in a fallen world means we must find the middle way between expecting a perfect City of God and settling for an earthly enterprise judged only by standards of money and members. It is often difficult for a theologically trained pastor to realize that compromise in institutional matters is appropriate and necessary.
Adapted fromWhen to Take a Risk, copyright 1987 Christianity Today. Full access to this book is available through membership access at CTLibrary.com. For more information on church discipline, see BuildingChurchLeaders.com's downloadable training resource on the topic.
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