As you probably know by now, I have great respect for the wealth of wisdom and insight readily available to me from the large pool of Reflections readers, and I have previously tapped into this reserve when seeking perspective on a difficult topic. I would like to draw from that source once more. Thus, I seek your reasoned responses to the following situation.
A couple of days ago I received a lengthy email from an elder of a congregation that is experiencing some degree of turmoil. I won't name the congregation, nor will I even identify the state, as I don't wish to draw any more undue attention or hardship upon this group of believers. This elder, however, did preface his email to me with these words, "Everything that follows is for you to consider for a future Reflections article." Therefore, he does desire for me to give this matter some amount of public reflection, and I also informed him that I would be seeking the insights of the readers prior to composing my response.
The bulk of his email to me is found below, which he further prefaced by saying: "Al, I'm at my wits' end. I've written the following without any identifying characteristics." However, he then provided me privately with the necessary identifying information, as well as a phone number, so that I could verify the information, if I so desired. Here is the problem that he then presented to me:
"Late last year, and early this year, two deacons took it upon themselves to ask current and former members of the congregation this question: 'Have you had any problems with the minister?' When they got around to my wife and me, and I figured out where they were going with their line of questioning, I put it to them this way: 'Here's the deal, guys. If you want to go ahead and push for the minister's firing, then you are going to have more problems here than just a little bit. You will divide this congregation. You will have an old-fashioned church fight, and it will be ugly.'
"Word of the deacons' effort worked its way through the congregation, and one of the elders said we needed to discuss it. And so we did. We considered once again the accusations against the minister, including some new ones (more of the same thing) that the deacons had uncovered. We could not reach a consensus, but we did attain a 4-1 vote that there was no reason to ask the minister to resign. Recriminations from this have followed. The wife of a former elder wrote a letter that decried the current elders' inaction, and called the minister's nine years with the congregation a failure. That imprecatory letter caused one elder to resign. As things stand now, only one elder (that would be me) wants to continue serving as an elder. The other three want to quit ... and soon. We've lost key members of our worship team, the chairman of our missions team, the head of our fellowship team, and a retired man (himself a former elder) who did the buildings and grounds upkeep. This past Sunday one entire side of the auditorium was practically vacant.
"What has been odd is that the people who have left our fellowship have done so for varying reasons. Some wanted the preacher to stay and were upset that 'they' (the always present, always impersonal, 'they') could make him quit. Some wanted the preacher to leave, and, now that he has resigned, they feel that they are under attack from those who wanted him to stay. So people on both sides of the equation are bailing out. The local leadership here has come under severe attack and criticism, and our motives are now suspect in the eyes of some. We are seen to be either for or against the preacher; the conversations all beginning right there, and usually not going much further.
"A relative, who is an occasional church-goer, and who has a Church of Christ background, wondered WHY Churches of Christ seem so willing to do this to each other. 'It's easy,' I told him. 'We don't have a bishop!' My co-worker is Catholic, and she says that when a priest comes to their parish and doesn't work out, the bishop will take care of the people of the parish. If we had a bishop, like they do, he could come into our congregation, listen to all the points of view, determine who's right and who's wrong (without bias), and we could then go back to where we were before this all started. However, that is impossible with 'home-grown' leadership; at least, it is in this case! I realize that we have solid biblical reasons for not putting a church hierarchy in place, yet there does not seem to be any direct command in Scripture from God against it. I know how Diotrephes loved to be first (3 John 9), but that seems more of an argument from inference than a direct statement of faith and/or practice. Regardless, I can certainly understand now why other religious traditions have gone to the practice of a bishop.
"Well, I don't want to give the reactionaries an entirely new reason to whack you around the head and shoulders, but your thoughts on our current situation (and others that I'm sure you're aware of), and your thoughts on some sort of bishop system or other support structure, is certainly being requested!!"
I do indeed have quite a few thoughts on this very tragic, and in many ways disturbing, scenario being played out within a local congregation of disciples of Jesus Christ. I have already written this elder with a very brief plan of action that I believe might be advisable in such a situation. However, I would sincerely like to hear from the readers as to how you think such chaos within a congregation should be handled, and what these elders can do (or could have done earlier) to bring resolution. Is some sort of "bishop system" advisable? Should there be persons above the local elders who can decide such matters for a congregation? What are the benefits of such (if any)? What are the dangers (and, frankly, I think there are several). Is there some other, perhaps more biblical, process whereby such scenarios could be successfully resolved? I believe there is, but will wait to share that view until I have heard from the readers. Thus, I'm asking what you think Churches of Christ in particular (given our views of "autonomy," organizational structure, etc.) ought to be doing to avoid such situations as this (could these elders have handled this better?), and what we can do to resolve such chaos when it does come upon us. Is our organizational structure to blame, or does the fault (and solution) lie elsewhere?
I look forward to your suggestions and insights. In the meantime, please keep the above congregation in your prayers ... and others like it. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and when they are hurting, we all hurt. May our Father step into that situation and bring healing and restoration.