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Church Leadership

Should churches have open meetings?

Long-time youth worker Titus Benson has gotten himself entangled in a mess. There were sexual misconduct allegations in the congregation, the church leaders allegedly tried to deal with it privately, and from what I can tell… the more Titus tried to step in and help the more trouble he found himself in.

This post isn’t about that particular incident. But it is about the larger questions the church is facing.

Yesterday, Titus wrote a post about how a lack of transparency can often lead to church-based misconduct from going public. He wrote:

One thing bothers me almost as much as the abuse itself. The whole dramatic undoing of most of these faith leaders I’ve cited could’ve been avoided with greater transparency on the church’s part. Don’t misunderstand me — there would still be criminals and victims and a life of recovery for those who are harmed. But fewer victims would exist and more healing could happen if churches handled things with more Gospel-centered honesty and less deceitful self-protection.

A Problem of Polity

In my opinion, the lack of transparency starts with how churches govern themselves.

Let me unpack that statement a bit… 

A lot of the larger non-denominational churches have ties to “Baptist-y” backgrounds. That might not be Southern Baptist necessarily. But if you start tracing back the history of where the founders got their education or grew up, you’ll likely see a rather Baptist lineage.

Now, the traditional Baptist polity (how the church is governed) is “Pastor lead, Congregational rule.” So the pastor operates under the authority of the congregations vote, but on most day-to-day matters the pastor is trusted to lead. There might be a number of committees that provide oversight and recommend direction or budget to specific areas of the ministry, but ultimately the churches members vote to decide at quarterly or annual meetings.

In healthy contexts this works out pretty well. Congregational rule served “baptist-y” looking churches just fine for generations. This system provides many checks and balances and gets A LOT of people involved in leadership roles. So if so form of misconduct were occurring “the whole church would be in an uproar.

It’s unhealthy contexts that warranted the form of government so popular today.

In smaller congregations, especially in rural areas, the pastor wields the ultimate political trump card– If he’s unhappy he can leave.

If the pastor doesn’t get what he wants he can merely threaten to leave and that’d get him what he wants.

As a result these unhealthy congregations fostered a lot of wanna-be Napoleon rulers. I remember interviewing at a few of these types of churches… Pastor had his fingers in every decision… everything seemed to be vetted through a filter of “Is this what Pastor would want?” From the songs sung in worship to the color on the walls of the nursery, the operative word for these organizations was “control.” You second guessed Pastor? You got fired. You asked a question in a deacon meeting that seemed inappropriate? Gone.

Checks and balances are replaced by threats and manipulation.

Mix in the fact that the Pastor is generally the one slicing and dicing Scripture and this mix of religious leader and political leader– for some congregations– is toxic.

I believe this is the birth place of some of the problems Titus writes about.

Why? 

Because a lot of founders of the church plants that became larger non-denominational churches [which are then idolized and lifted up as examples by today’s church planters] were born from associate staff working in a church job where they had no power, organizationally. [Cough, many of them got fired.]

They looked at the pastor-lead, congregational rule system as broken and unhealthy. And so they fostered a new polity: Staff lead, elder rule. 

Basically, how this form of government works is that the pastoral staff (or leadership team) have all of the power for day-to-day activities with general oversight by a ruling elder board. (They are the experts, even if they lack a credential to be an expert.) The congregation has absolutely no effectual power, short of leaving the church or cessation of giving. A lot of these organizations have no voting membership. They don’t vote or approve anything, there aren’t many committees or places where people have a voice, the congregation is often consulted about things… but that’s it.

The intent is to remove power from the congregation and it does just that.

In healthy contexts, the staff-lead model works great. Congregants don’t really need power as the self-governing staff serves the church well. When these congregations run into a problem they are quick to seek outside help, they are transparent about what’s going on, etc.

But in unhealthy contexts, this form of government is really no different than the Pastor-lead model in a small, rural context… the pastor wields unlimited control by controlling who sits on the elder board, who is hired, etc. (I’m using male language here because, let’s face it, most of the players are indeed men.)

What’s important to point out is that this staff-lead form of government is– without a doubt– viewed as the “only” way to lead a larger church. All other forms of government are devalued (to put it politely) and the mantra among “church growth experts” is that you cannot grow a church unless you are staff-lead. Staff are experts, congregants are sheep, end of story.

When you cut through the Biblical language applied to these forms of government, really it comes down to this: Who is ultimately in charge of the church? The staff or the congregation?

Lack of Transparency

Back to the abuse. Whether it’s sexual misconduct or misappropriating funds or unlawfully firing staff… a lot of problems come out of forms of governance within these organizations which offer no transparency.

  • A staff person is accused of sexual misconduct… what was done about it? In most cases the congregation will never know because it was never informed, the police were not called, there are no written notes/recordings of meetings, etc. Even if you do get information it will not be raw, it’ll be vetted or “cleaned up so you can understand.” As we’ve learned from current scandals the church is much more likely to call a lawyer than they are to inform the congregation.
  • Church funds are misappropriated… what was done about it? When this happens, and it happens more often than anyone would care to admit, how is it handled? If money is stolen is it reported to police? Was anyone held responsible? Did anyone even notice? Similarly— That work that was done on the church… what was the bidding process like? Was it fair? Did we get a good price? Is there a warranty on the work? Did the church get proper inspections and permits? Was the work approved by the correct government agency?
  • A staff person is terminated… was it handled properly? Was there sufficient cause? Was the person properly compensated? Was the person properly classified to begin with? What training was offered? Has the supervisor been re-trained? Is the supervisor an adequate supervisor of staff? Are employees evaluated? What are their goals?

In a staff-lead congregation you’ll probably never know the answers to any of these types of questions because they are mostly treated as private matters for the staff to deal with.

But here comes the rebuttal…

Titus writes, ““It is not advantageous for churches to have conflict in the public eye,” church leaders sometimes argue. We hurt the Kingdom when we argue about church stuff on Facebook, for instance. That’s just not the place for that kind of expression, some insist.” (source)

That cuts to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? Protect the good name of the church at all cost… even if that cost is a person’s life or livelihood.

When something goes wrong, horribly wrong, the congregation might never be properly informed. Instead, the church staff is left to tell a story about what happened without anyone getting access to what actually happened.

My problem with “staff lead” forms of government is two-fold.

  1. As a congregant it’s like going out to eat, being handed the bill, but you can’t see the details of what’s on the bill. You wouldn’t pick up that tab at Chili’s but you’re giving to the local church is treated like that.
  2. As a staff member, you’re left without due process.

Embrace Open Meeting Rules

Here’s the thought that Titus’ post elicited, that lead to this post in the first place:

What if all 501 3c entities, churches & non-profits alike, had to abide by the same open meeting laws that public entities did?

Though it’d never pass, I wonder if we changed the laws– Want to keep your tax status? Abide by open meeting laws.

Don’t want that tax status? Find another business entity for your organization. (Sole prop, LLC, Corporation, etc.)

See, here’s the kicker that I think 99% of church leaders are in denial of– Your largest donor is likely the government.

  • Why don’t you pay property tax? Because you are seen as benefitting the public. Just like the city doesn’t tax it’s own parks, they don’t tax you. Even though your church uses the same roads and public utilities, etc… the rest of the community pays the bill on that, they are financing your church. 
  • Why don’t you pay the same employment tax other organizations your size do? Because the government subsidizes it by making other business owners pay fractionally more… the rest of the community bears that because you’re seen as good for everyone.

Whether you admit it or not every church is partially funded by your local, state, and federal government.

So why not make it so that every one of your meetings as open to the public as theirs are? Why not make your 501 3c records available to FOIA requests? (Just like other publicly funded entities.) Why not post meeting notes?

You can have closed sessions about personnel or legal matters– just like government entities— but the local church needs greater record keeping and transparency to restore lost trust.

I will say this until the cows come home… the local church should be the best employer in town, it should be the safest place in town, and it should be the one place where every person, from any walk of life, regardless of personal history… should find life.

You will not get their hiding behind closed doors. You will get there when you embrace the transparency our untrusting culture demands.

In a post-Christian world people have to experience good news from you before they will experience the Good News of Jesus in their lives. 

Photo credit: School Board Meeting is Packed by Light Brigading via Flickr (Creative Commons)

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

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