My new and improved edition of Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do With Well-Intentioned Dragons arrived in the mail last week and a quick perusal shows some needed updates and timely material in the original chapters. It also sports one of the most simple and attractive covers I’ve seen in a while (I’m a minimalist, in the tradition of the Swiss school).
Marshall Shelley has added two new chapters, which reflect our times. First, he grapples with the emergence of the internet and the challenges of social media that didn’t exist when the book was first published back in 1994. Then, he takes on the controversial subject of mental illness.
Electronic Warfare begins the discussion of social media with this timeless quote by John Calvin:
It is a sign of a perverse and treacherous disposition to wound the good name of another, when he has no opportunity of defending himself.
The author goes on to provide anecdotes that illustrate the actual, not fictional, accounts of churches that have been caught up in roiling flame wars via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, texting and email campaigns. As in other chapters, Marshall Shelley provides Biblical, real-world wisdom for church leaders about how to deal with the electronic warfare attacks from outside the church and guerrilla warfare within.
When the Mind Isn’t Quite Right begins with the story of an awkward public disturbance on a Sunday morning and transitions quickly to a pressing issue in the contemporary church:
Public disturbances such as this are relatively rare, but other less dramatic encounters with mental illness in the church are increasingly common. In fact, mental disorders are the number-one cause of disability in North America. Some of the most common are mood disorders, depression, autism, and attention deficit disorder… and in that awkward climate of pain and silence, conditions are conductive to surprise appearances of dragon behavior.
Both chapters address this present reality on the ground, in our churches:
None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. (Romans 3:10–12 ESV)
But, Ministering to Problem People offers a parallel reality of hope, redemption, and change in the Gospel:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21–25 ESV)
First, no doubt social media offer more opportunity than ever for narcissism and material evidence (in writing) does provide “proof” of a problem, as well as clues to ways forward for a positive conclusion or outcome in the church. But, that’s the easy part and your second observation may be the most formidable obstacle to a resolution of the kind of problem this particular “well-intentioned (or, not so well-intentioned) dragon” poses in the church.
That brings me to the second and most important thing you brought up: the passive elder. Perhaps I can shed some light into the heart/mind of the church leader, who appears to be passive or phlegmatic or indecisive or uncaring or heartless or, “insert descriptor here.” You may be seeing a response to the problem that is thoughtful and deliberate, flummoxed and searching for solution, passive and untroubled or sinfully ducking the responsibility of Biblical love, care, and oversight. There’s really only one way to discover or find out what you’re dealing with:
“let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
(Ephesians 4:25 ESV)
Simple? Yes. Easy? No.
The church leader has always been juggling a number of balls and it has always been difficult to keep them all in the air — even more so in 2015. There are the Biblical principles and imperatives or commands of the Scripture, which all would agree are preeminent in responding to a situation like you described. Second, there is the desire or necessity to play well with others: to deal with problems within the context of the contemporary church with all its denominational, traditional, institutional, and even legal aspects. Finally, there are the human or personal limitations everyone deals with on a day-to-day basis, whether you fill a leadership role or not. Of course, there are more pressures coming to bear on a pastor in this situation, but I think these would be the “big three” that cause the leader to appear “passive” or “active,” in dealing with a difficult person, whether on social media or in traditional Gospel community.
I want to address this appearance of passivity, from personal experience, discussions with other leaders over 30 years, and interaction with books, podcasts, boot camps, training and other media informing the Christian leader. As a local church leader, I will have some of these considerations on my mind, as I approach your social media dragon. 1) The Scriptures give me both principles and imperatives in dealing with this kind of person or problem. I need to ask where and how the Word of God comes to bear on this particular situation. 2) The Scriptures have a lot to say about the offender, as well as the offended, and they are both to be guided toward love, grace, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, restoration and unity – I should have concern for the offender, the offended, and the entire church, including a bunch of people who may not even know about the problem, but who are affected nonetheless! 3) I may have to weigh out how much time I want to spend on this problem, when there is so much good going on – I want to have coffee with the person I’m discipling, lead them into God’s Word, pray with them, and work in a more “productive” relationship. Perhaps my time is better spent on something more “positive.” This would be a pragmatic consideration and I think there’s some value to it. 4) If I get “bogged down” in this sort of problem, the planting of the church may suffer or it will suck time and resources away from proclaiming the Good News or social injustice cannot be addressed, because we’re too focused on this kind of infighting. (remember, these kinds of things never stop popping up) I have to “count the cost,” in order to determine if this is “a hill we’re willing to die on.” 5) I have to consider personal loss: what will it cost me, if I’m in vocational ministry and this issue may result in a loss of income? What good can come of the situation, if I end up leaving the church or the area, because I took this on? I only have a limited amount of emotional and physical energy: do I want to do my best work dealing with troubled people, who frankly don’t care about others, including me? I don’t like confronting people (as if anyone really does, except sociopaths). It’s not my gifting – some people are natural “brawlers,” but I’m a man of peace. People won’t like me. 6) A leader sometimes has to “consider the source” – is this a personal affront, that’s being blown out of proportion? Or, “are these two at it again?” In other words, leaders have to use wisdom in considering who’s involved in the problem and decide if some sort of action is warranted. 7) Sometimes leaders are dealing with a situation and working with a lot of unseen factors, including a need to protect confidentiality. What is perceived as passivity or “doing nothing” is a Christian leader, dealing with an incredibly complex and sensitive issue and doing it honorably, with the full knowledge that their reputation is losing capital, while their natural weaknesses are being magnified to the watching world. The leader can’t win, no matter what she/he does in the situation.
So, that may be just some of the backstory to what is perceived as a pastor or church leader appearing passive. Some of these thoughts or considerations are reasonable Christian/Biblical considerations, some are normal or natural or common to struggling humans, some are sins, which need to be acknowledged, repented of, forgiven, and forsaken, in the church leader. When dealing with a particular situation like the one you reference, the only way these things are teased out for both the leader and the follower, is through dialogue – communication that is as open as possible (I say “as possible,” because sometimes leaders are privy to confidential or sensitive conversation or information). The bottom line is this: if what appears to be “passivity” is found to be a lack of courage or decisiveness or obedience on the part of a leader, it’s sin and needs to be confessed, forgiven, and forsaken. That will come through ongoing interaction and dialogue within Gospel community.
Now what about the situation you put forward. How does that work for me / how has that worked for me / how would it work for me? Well, it changes, as I change in maturity, understanding, and obedience. So, today, I can tell you how it would work for me. The right course to take, the active and Biblical, not passive or sinful course, is usually the hardest one and the costliest. I think that observation and approach is both Biblical and consistent with the best of Christian biography, where we celebrate the lives of those who have laid down their lives for the Gospel (we usually root for the hero of the story and for good reason – we see them live out the Gospel and follow Jesus).
I would have to subordinate motives numbered 3, 4 & 5 to motives numbered 1 & 2. While giving greater weight to motives 1 & 2, I’ll have to consider motives 6 & 7. Sometimes, I will have to completely block motives 3, 4, and 5 from having any influence in my affections, thoughts and actions, because they are probably the result of sinful and not reasonable pragmatism. So, what would be some of the controlling Scriptures for me in this or a similar situation?
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
(Galatians 6:1–2 ESV)
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.”
(Colossians 3:12–15 ESV)
My first concerns in the situation are for the individuals and their relationship to Jesus: the transgressor and the transgressed. When Paul talks about “the peace of Christ,” it’s in the context of the Church and the “rule” there describes the actions of an umpire or referee: we are to appraise, judge, decide, and act in ways that result in or promote peace in the church. That simple little phrase is right in the middle of a bunch of imperatives. Paul is saying, “do all these things out of a desire to bring peace and wholeness to the community.” He’s not talking about a peaceful feeling or atmosphere as much as he is actual peace: people experiencing the kind of peace found in the Gospel, with God and with others. In other words, Paul is pointing us toward the normal Christian life, which is an ongoing cycle of repentance, forgiveness, restoration (as in “Gospel Centered Life”).
The Scriptures are full of “how to” or “what to do,” in order to address the well-intentioned dragon: there’s plenty of instruction to bring peace to the church and peace between individuals and God. But, if the leader’s motives are weighted to the pragmatic or personal loss, I’m afraid their “passivity” may actually be a sinful lack of courage or indecisiveness or faithlessness. But, the only way to know whether that’s the case or not is through open dialogue, in the context of Gospel community: what the Bible describes as the ecclesia or church. There are no shortcuts or easy answers.
An elder wears 3 hats, so to speak, and the characteristics they represent are woven together nicely by Paul:
“From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church. When they arrived, he said to them… Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”
(Acts 20:17–28 NIV)
So, the elders are pastors, who shepherd or care for the church of God. They are also overseers or church managers. Often elders are or appear “passive” in those areas that are not their strength, either in natural talent and abilities or Spirit gifting. That’s why a plurality is helpful, in order for the team to “self-assess” and address the weaknesses of team members. However, if all the members of the team are too similar, that ideal or paradigm will breakdown and you will have a homogeneous group that can be ineffective for a number of reasons and in a variety of ways. This is magnified if the team members do not practice some kind of mutual accountability or communicate openly and truthfully.
The particular problem you address is particularly vexing to me, because it’s often mistaken for a lapse of leadership, when it may be something deeper and more disturbing. First, as every parent knows, problems rarely if ever “go away.” They may appear to, from the perspective of someone who is passive or used to having others take care of situations, while someone else deals with the problem. This is common in families, where men duck their responsibilities and mom is left to handle things. When that comes into the leadership of a church, well… But, as I was saying, sometimes we look at passivity as pragmatism or an aversion to conflict or some kind of “managerial” shortcoming.
But, sometimes hoping or waiting for a problem (in the form of a person or persons) to “go away” is the inaction of a person who is heartless. The Old Testament has some harsh things to say about shepherds, who lack compassion for the flock and appear aloof or unconcerned, when the sheep are biting and kicking one another. Yes, they may grab the staff and charge, when they see a wolf coming. But, they’ll look the other way when sheep are “biting and devouring” one another.
I’m no different than anyone else. When it comes to problems in the church, my first response is generally from the “overseer” in me. So, I get the pragmatic and diplomatic sort of approach. But, I also have a strong pastoral impulse that doesn’t have a lot of patience, after watching people suffering in the kinds of relationships you describe for months, years, and decades. I think it borders on being inhumane and cruel.
Paul wrote to Titus and Timothy, directing them to address preexisting or longstanding problems in the churches he planted. Elders have an obligation to do the same and, in today’s church where people are free to move about, I think the same goes when new members show up or members head to another assembly. Yes, it may feel like a relief, when a problem person or persons head off to another church (in fact, as in divorce, a certain amount of temporary relief is common). But, if there is not some level of compassion or concern for the individual in a leader, it may point to a lack of love for God’s flock. Heartcheck.