Healing Help 32: Accountable Shepherds

Pastors need pastors

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Our discussion of things that help us in receiving healing cause us to look at the power of being part of a Christian community. The Bible says we are “the people of God.” In that study, we came to the concept of submission to authority, in particular the authority in the local church. That’s a problem for many of us. First, I don’t like to give anyone power over my life, period! Yet the Bible is adamant on the subject. Second, I have seen, heard of, and experienced personally, instances of the abuse of power by men (and women) who appeared to be called and anointed by God.

In the previous lesson, “Connection on Purpose,” I said this, “your pastor should have a pastor. Pastors are also sheep. In order to exercise authority, one must be under authority. If your pastor doesn’t have a pastor, find another pastor.” Before you make a commitment to be a member of a church or any community of believers, find out if there is real oversight for leadership. It occurred to me that most Christians, especially in our independent churches, are unfamiliar with the subject. In light of that, I want to share an excerpt from my book, “How To Run A Sheep Shed.”

“Pastors Are Sheep, Too

The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. (9) For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” (10) When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! Matthew 8:8-10

Remember our story about the Centurion in Matthew 8? In order to exercise authority I must be submitted to authority. The Centurion recognized the nature of authority and was therefore commended for having great faith. Every Pastor needs the authority necessary to carry out his mission as Pastor-Leader-Feeder-Protector. But biblically it is imperative that he be under authority, also. In many of our independent pastoral-style churches, the Pastor is accountable only to God. That is unwise. The Pastor is human. That means he is a sheep, too.

A number of years ago I was working in a fairly large local church. My position caused me to be involved in staff meetings where policy was discussed. I also had some knowledge of the accounting practices of the church. As time went by, I began to notice some troubling attitudes in the Pastor concerning women. He was very disparaging toward them, and also allowed himself to be alone with women in his office at night. At the same time, I became aware of some financial practices that I felt gave cause for concern. My wife and I prayed for the Pastor and for the church. I eventually went to him personally and expressed my concerns. He became very angry. I left his office convinced I had to do something.

We labored over the situation. I believe in praying for the pastor, and we did. I also felt a certain responsibility to the flock, as it seemed clear to me that a tragedy was almost certain. I began to look for the place of accountability of the Pastor. The local board of the church consisted entirely of his family members. He claimed that the head of his national organization was his pastor and that he was accountable to that group. Through a series of circumstances that only God could have arranged, I found myself in a position to speak with one of the national leaders of the organization. He asked me about my experience in the church. I told him. He told me that, though mine was not the first complaint, they would do nothing to correct this pastor because of their fear of legal repercussions. I was stunned.

Unfortunately, my concerns were correct. The pastor experienced a very public moral failure and the church went through horrible anguish. This was a mess that could have been avoided had there been some real accountability. In our movement we tend to see the Pastor as sort of a “mini-Pope.” He is God’s man for the church, and his judgment is not to be questioned. When questions do arise, they are often greeted with the “Touch not God’s anointed” argument. The isolation that this breeds is a perfect set up for catastrophe. Every pastor needs some accountability that is not in name only. It provides protection for the church and for the pastor.

As a pastor, I am obligated to establish some sort of accountable relationship somewhere. Accountability means that there is someone who actually speaks into my life on a regular basis. There must be contact and input. In addition, they must have some actual clout. There must be the ability to enforce consequences. Finally, there must be a genuine willingness to be involved if there are difficulties. I tell all our new members that they can call the national office of our organization if they think I have gone off the deep end. I encourage them to come see me first. Then, if they are not satisfied, we have a Board of Advisors with whom I meet regularly here in the church. If that fails to satisfy them, I give them the name and number of our national president and encourage them to stop me if I am headed for a train wreck. I don’t want to fail. Somebody stop me!

In one of our churches, I was part of a national organization that ordained me. The church itself had no connection, but was entirely independent. As time went by it became apparent to me that there was no real oversight being offered by the organization. In fact, any complaints that came in concerning pastors were either ignored or minimized. I explored several options, but finally wound up establishing a local Board of Advisors to whom I could direct any issues that came up. We had a written statement of faith that established doctrinal boundaries and outlined action in case of moral failure. Any complaints would have to be evaluated and addressed by the Board.

There are a few difficulties with having a local Board made up of church members as the only place of accountability for the Pastor. The first is that he is still the Pastor. That means that he has a Shepherd-sheep relationship with the people on the Board. That can become quite complicated. On the one hand, the Board members look to the Pastor as the anointed man of God and may tend to yield to him too easily. I found it difficult to get my Board members, who loved me dearly, to get honest with me when they disagreed. On the other extreme, some Board members may become quite proprietary. They begin to see the church as their business and the Pastor as an employee, thus diverting the proper flow of authority and submission. It’s complicated.

Another common practice is to appoint only family members to the board. This short-circuits any real accountability. I have even been advised by some very well-known ministers that I should always “keep control” of my board. By that they mean that I should always have enough family members on the board to control the vote. That is not accountability. That is a sham. I understand the idea. We have all heard horror stories of church takeovers that sound like third-world coups – the pastor comes back from vacation to find he has been replaced or the church dissolved. Those issues must be dealt with in a set of by-laws that carefully delineates the grounds for any disciplinary action or change of leadership. We must always err on the side of real accountability.

One good option for churches who want to use a “board of trustees” as the point of pastoral accountability is to appoint outside ministers to the Board. These should be men or women who have experience in ministry and who share the Pastor’s heart for the church. The function of such a board is two-fold. They take an interest in the financial affairs of the church to the extent that they look at income and expenses on at least an annual basis to verify that things are in order. In addition, they are known to the congregation as the place of appeal in the event of doctrinal problems or moral failures that cannot be settled within the church family. I have seen this model work very well even in times of great crisis.

I have become a proponent of having accountable relationships with an outside ministry organization. I am ordained and my church is affiliated with a national body. Within that structure, my ordination is reviewed and renewed annually. I have relationship with men and women of God to whom I can turn for help. The flock has someone to call if I should get too far afield. Each year our books are reviewed to confirm our financial integrity. We have a set of outside, objective standards for doctrine and behavior. Our local board oversees the daily affairs of the church. Our vision and mission are our own. I am clearly the Pastor. But there is a higher authority where there is real accountability.

Real freedom comes through real submission, real accountability, and real structure. It is worth the trouble to stop and take a look at your accountability structure. It is only accountability if someone is actually looking at the books. It is only accountability if there are standards defined and someone who has the authority to intervene to enforce them. It is only real accountability if there is a specific person or group to whom concerns can be expressed and who has the willingness to take action. None of these things have any meaning, however, without the ability to see what’s going on.” (See Virgil L. Stokes, How to Run a Sheep Shed. Faith Christian Fellowship of Tucson. 2013)

Next Steps: If you don’t know how your church provides accountability for leaders, it’s time to find out. You don’t have to be obnoxious, but if asking questions brings a defensive response, that should prompt some alarm bells. I know this is kind of difficult stuff, but these things matter because you matter. God wants you to get all He has for you and being part of a community of believers is part of His program. He also wants you safe. It’s just good Bible sense.

In our next lesson we will look back at the 4 big benefits of being a submitted sheep. Each of them has some key elements that will help you receive all God has for you in your connection to others. God wants you healed and so do I.

Pastor Virgil

2 thoughts on “Healing Help 32: Accountable Shepherds

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