Mailbag #22: Thinking Through Pastoral Transitions; Loving Those Who Repeatedly Commit Sexual Sin; Declaring Membership Bankruptcy
I’m looking for wisdom to help with a senior pastor search. We could use some wisdom on what the process looks like, how to choose, etc. Thanks for your help.
We did a 9Marks Journal in 2011 called Pastoral Moves. Take a look.
In that Journal, Mark Dever wrote a article called “What’s Wrong With Search Committees.” He lists (ahem) nine things:
- Search committees are built to do the wrong thing.
- They allow for undue influence from outside denominational leaders.
- They are susceptible to wrongly-directed committee members.
- Committee members can be wrongly suspicious of the current or past pastor’s counsel.
- They can adopt a beauty pageant mentality.
- They can be risk averse, and so prioritize experience over giftedness and character.
- They can be susceptible to an inordinate hunger for resumes, which is to say, an overly professionalized conception of the pastorate.
- They act in secrecy among themselves and with other churches.
- They can fixate on credentials.
If you are going to use a search committee, however, have every member read Chris Braun’s excellent, When the Word Leads Your Pastoral Search: Biblical Principles and Practices to Guide Your Search. My review of that book is here.
Mark then wrote a companion piece for why you want your elders to lead your pastoral search called “What’s Right About Elders, Part 2 of 2 on Finding a Pastor.” He gives three reasons:
- Elders are best qualified to assess a man’s preaching and teaching.
- Elders are best qualified to assess a man’s character.
- Elders are charged to raise up other elders.
And Mark concludes with these three tips for finding a pastor:
- Involve the current pastor.
- Ask other trusted pastors for recommendations.
- Ask probing questions about the man’s character, theology, and philosophy of ministry.
Here’s a list of the kind of questions you will want to ask a pastoral candidate.
In that same 9Marks Journal, Pastor Dennis Newkirk offers wisdom based on years of experience on how you know if you have the wrong candidate. Very rubber-meets-the-road advice here. See also Matt Schmucker’s How to Prepare the Church for the Next Guy.
Here is how I would summarize the basic wisdom I have for pastoral searches:
- Put the right people in charge of the search, by which I basically mean elders. If you don’t have elders, choose people who are known for their maturity, not people known for how they represent various interests, which is a subtle form of factionalism.
- Work to make sure those in charge of the search (elders, committee) possess a shared understanding of the gospel, a biblical church, and a pastor’s biblical job description. Your first search meeting should sound like this: “Friends, let’s start by looking at what the Bible says a church is, and what it says a pastor is.”
- Prioritize what the Bible says a pastor is and does in your search.
- Rely on trusted relationships and contacts more than resumes and professional search agencies.
- Ask, is there an obvious candidate within the church to place into this role? In general, I think it’s better to hire pastors from the inside than from the outside, especially if the pastor has been doing his job of discipling up his replacement.
- As with point 2 above, be teaching the whole congregation throughout the process what a church is and what a pastor’s biblical job description is.
- Ask the whole congregation to vote on the elders’ recommendation since it’s finally the congregation that is responsible to protect the church’s gospel faithfulness (see Gal. 1:6-9).
I pray this is useful.
We are a younger congregation, and with this demographic we elders often find ourselves dealing with sexual immorality, particularly premarital sex. Some members seem caught in a vicious cycle. When confronted, they initially express sorrow over their sin and a desire to turn from it. They fight sin well for a time, but over the course of weeks or months they fall back into the same sin. We confront them again with hopes and prayers that we won’t have to have the conversation again, but then they fall again and again into sexual sin. If someone seems caught in this cycle, is there a point where the elders need to say that their sorrow and desire to turn is “not enough” or “not genuine” and therefore exercise formal church discipline?
Knowing when to push toward formal church discipline amidst cycles of sin is one of the most difficult questions elders will face (divorce and remarriage questions also rank pretty high). Multiple competing principles are at play, leaving you to ask God, like Solomon, for the wisdom to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9).
Godly sorrow or worldly sorrow? The challenge, in a nutshell, is knowing how to discern between what Paul calls a worldly sorrow and a godly sorrow (see 2 Cor. 7:8-11). Both forms of sorrow may be “sincere,” but one is more horizontal while the other is more vertical. One makes half-hearted efforts at repentance, the other is zealous, willing to “cut off the hand” or “gouge out the eye.” (Check out this article by Jared Wilson, which offers 12 signs of a genuinely repentant heart.)
But you and your fellow elders cannot see the heart like the Holy Spirit can. Let’s not pretend. But Jesus does say a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33), and a godly, Holy-Spirit-given sorrow shows itself by its fruit.
Patience or urgency? While you are seeking to discriminate between godly sorrow and worldly sorrow, you must simultaneously try to strike the balance between the Bible’s call to patience as well as the Bible’s call to urgency. On the one hand, Paul says, “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thes. 5:14). And I’m willing to grant that some individuals are constitutionally weaker than others based on a variety of circumstantial factors. A pastor must always ask himself, “Is the person acting out of high-handed rebellion or out of weakness?” At the same time, Jude calls us to act with urgency—and notice, Jude doesn’t pit mercy against urgency: “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23). Sexual sin in particular should create this sense of mercy mixed with fear.
Is there harm to other sheep or outsiders? Part of what should contribute to your sense of urgency is whether other people are involved, whether fellow members or outsiders. In other words, I am generally more patient toward someone struggling with, say, pornography. (Tangent: you should always ask people what kind of pornography they have been viewing, and not assume their first answers are their worst answers. And though I won’t name child pornography as a possibility, so as not to introduce that category even as a possibility, I will look for ways to draw out the things they will want to hide even while confessing. Child pornography you must not be patient with.) But if you are dealing, say, with a man who has pattern of what he calls “courting” or “dating” different women in the congregation, but really he is having sex with them, then you need to recognize him for the wolf that he is (2 Tim. 3:6-7). Also, Paul worried not just about the direct harm which comes to those involved in sin, but the indirect harm of tolerating sin: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). The more a sin is publicly known, the greater urgency there is to act.
Willingness to doubt professions of repentance vs. seventy-seven: Most crucially to your question, Paul does have a category for excommunicating people who profess repentance. The situation in 1 Corinthians 5 is not parallel to what you are describing, but in that chapter we encounter someone who refers to himself as a “brother” (v. 11) yet continues in unrepentant sin. Interestingly, Paul does not tell the Corinthians church to warn the man. Instead, he tells the church to move immediately to “remove” the man from membership (v. 2, 5, 12). At the same time, we hold Paul’s example together with Jesus’ instruction to forgive someone “seventy-seven times,” by which Jesus means an unlimited number of times (Matt. 18:22).
My bottom line: No, a church should never excommunicate someone whom it judges to be genuinely repentant, and you should be willing to forgive again and again and again. But, yes, you should have a (probably rarely-used) category for excommunicating people who falsely profess repentance, whose words “I’m sorry” are discredited. There are (again, probably rare) situations where you can no longer believe a person’s words because they keep putting themselves in situations where they end up defrauding others. And they won’t receive your counsel on how to avoid such situations. A young man or woman can avoid pre-marital sex, in a sense, quite easily: ask the elders or mature friends for an accountability structure that never puts them alone in a car or house with someone of the opposite sex. So the first question I’d want to ask such an individual is, are you willing to live in the light with others, and heed their instructions about finding ways to not even get into those situations in the first place? If not, why would I believe your profession of repentance and sorrow?
I discuss all this more at length in Church Discipline (pages 54-65).
I pray the Lord gives you wisdom. That’s what you need most, because such scenarios require careful judgment.
I’ve heard of some churches “deleting” their membership rolls, so that they can start from scratch. Most of the cases where this is done reflect situations where the amount on the roll and the amount attending are very different. What do you think about this practice?
I have a couple of friends who declared “email bankruptcy.” Meaning: they emailed everyone in their contact list and said they were deleting all emails and starting over due to the excessive volume of unanswered emails; so if people had an outstanding an email that had to be answered, send it again.
I don’t have a problem with doing this for emails. I do have a problem with declaring bankruptcy with your sheep. Listen to this:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” (Luke 15:4-5)
Sheep are not emails. They are infinitely precious, and we must search them out one by one, name by name. Each sheep is eternal, and the fact that, at one time or another, a church assured them of their salvation by bringing them into membership means the church and the elders have some responsibility to track them down and set the record straight.
So if your membership roles are a mess, meaning you cannot account for all the names on the list, I believe your elders need to give a good faith effort at tracking down each one.
For anyone considering declaring membership bankruptcy, I’d point to Jesus’ words:
He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. (John 10:12-13)
Elders are not Jesus. They cannot quite say, as Jesus does, “no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28) and “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost” (17:12). But as undershepherds of the Good Shepherd, elder should strive to this same end: losing none of the sheep whom the Father has entrusted to them. Which is why Paul exhorted the elders in Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).
What if I said to you, “I’m overseeing all my children,” but I let one out of my four children wander off without me chasing her down? You’d say I’m not really overseeing all of them. Likewise, I think paying attention to all the flock means finding some way or some mechanism to account for every name, even if it doesn’t involve direct elder contact.
Will this require a ton of work? Yes, of course! But then again, what else did you think being elder requires? Is there something more important for an them to do? Isn’t that the very job?
I’m grateful for the question because it reminds me of my own responsibilities. I, too, will give an account (Heb. 13:17), and that is—honestly—fear-invoking. May the Lord grant us his mercy and favor.