On a regular basis, Pastor Church Resources hears from members of congregations who are frustrated or concerned about something going on in their church. Not knowing where to turn, they sometimes bring their complaints to denominational staff hoping that we can resolve the issue.
Allegations of Physical or Sexual Abuse
In cases where an allegation of sexual or physical abuse has been made against a ministry leader, Synod has approved the use of an Advisory Panel Process to help the council determine the gravity and probability of the allegations. Claimants, safe church team members, and councils may contact Safe Church Ministries directly to learn more about and to initiate such a process. (See Guidelines for Handling Abuse Allegations against a Church Leader (Synod 2010)
All Other Concerns
But in all other cases, from straightforward disagreement about some aspect of the worship service to more troubling concerns about leaders misusing authority, the first place a member raises serious concerns is to the council.
Step One: Put it in writing. Ask for a response.
Ministry leaders are sometimes surprised to hear from a concerned member “I told you about (this issue) months ago and you haven’t done anything!” While it is true that ministry leaders, like all of us, can be guilty of selective listening, it is also true that sometimes complaints or concerns are shared in ways that are too obscure to make meaningful response possible. In other words, you may have thought you were perfectly clear in sharing your concerns, but the ministry leader did not understand your words or your meaning clearly enough to realize you were formally asking them to respond.
One way to reduce the risk of being misunderstood is to put your concerns in writing to the council and specifically ask for a response. You may also offer to meet with the council to elaborate or answer their questions.
Step Two: Give the Council the gift of your patience and prayers
The typical council agenda is packed. Leading a church is a challenging calling. Officebearers often find themselves on the receiving end of unfair accusations and unreasonable demands. These realities make it important for you to assure your council of your patience and prayers even as you share your concerns.
Don’t assume that a delayed response means you’ve been ignored. Councils are notoriously slow-moving decision-makers. But that slow pace is partly by design--councils are called to spiritual discernment, not business-like expediency. Remember that while you may have had months or years to digest the significance of what you reported, the council is trying to process it second- or third-hand, perhaps in the face of contrary evidence you’re unaware of, all the while uncertain of their proper role and of proper process.
That said, even as you try to extend grace to the council, don’t be afraid to ask for monthly updates concerning when you might expect a response.
Step Three: Ask to speak to Church Visitors
Ordinarily, steps one and two are sufficient to prompt a council to respond. But in some cases, a council dismisses your concerns or stonewalls your pleas for help. Here, your classis’ church visitors may prove helpful.
According to Church Order Article 42, church visitors are officebearers chosen by classis to “ascertain whether the officebearers of the church faithfully perform their duties, adhere to sound doctrine, observe the provisions of the Church Order, and promote the building up of the body of Christ and the extension of God’s kingdom.”
In other words, church visitors are precisely the “outside” people equipped and called to help in a situation where there is concern about a council’s functioning. The church visitor guide, adopted by Synod 2015, explains that church visitors are to “ascertain, admonish, advise and provide accountability to” councils of churches in classis.
Church Order states that church visitors should “visit each church in classis on a yearly basis.” Those visits must be announced to the congregation with sufficient notice that members of the congregation may have the opportunity to meet with the visitors and share “concerns about congregational life and/or about the present leadership of the congregation.”
Note, however, that the church visitor guide clarifies that “Any members wishing to meet with the church visitors must inform the council of their intention, and identify the substance of their concerns before meeting with the church visitors.” So you cannot share with classis what you have not already shared with council.
When this process works, it follows a pattern not unlike Matthew 18. Concerned members talk to their own leaders first, giving that line of communication a chance, while reserving an outlet to seek outside accountability of a council they believe is continuing to fall short.
Step Four: Ask Council to invite Church Visitors
Unfortunately, church visiting is practiced inconsistently across the denomination. It is possible (even likely) that a church visit is not and won’t be scheduled for a long time. What options do you have if your concern cannot wait? Can a church member contact a church visitor directly?
In his commentary on the church order, Henry DeMoor is clear that church members should deal directly with their councils and not go “over their heads” by going to classis or church visitors without the council’s knowledge. That means your next step should be to ask the council to invite church visitors. That’s because our polity holds to a “relative autonomy of local churches.” Accountability of the local church is possible through classis or even Synod, but only using the prescribed processes.
DeMoor suggests that wise councils, even if their decisions or behavior are being questioned, will invite church visitors to meet with all the involved parties and provide advice. He writes, “Difficult situations have been defused before they might have exploded. In our system, you might say, leaders who "must give an account" (Romans 14) do so by way of the classis and it never hurts to show the congregation in concrete ways that they are willing to be accountable for how they lead."
In other words, sunlight is often the best disinfectant (1 John 1:6-7). If light is shed on the council’s work, and shows that the council is acting properly, inviting the church visitors allows their conduct to be affirmed. If the council is missing something important, a church visit could help them realize their error.
Step Five: What if Council won’t invite Church Visitors?
If you have followed steps one through four, and given generous time for council to respond but they continue to stonewall or dismiss your concerns, you may want to inform your council that you will be reaching out to your Classis Stated Clerk or Classical Interim Committee. You could ask the Clerk or Interim Committee to arrange a meeting with church visitors--especially if a visit has not occurred for some time.
In light of the principle of “the relative autonomy of local churches,” this should be a last resort. But church visitors do have a mandate to “ascertain whether the officebearers of the church faithfully perform their duties…” and if the church visitors are not faithfully making their visits, the classis should address that problem. A council, which has resisted steps one through four, likely has either a good reason for their resistance or they may be neglecting their duties as officebearers. In either case, church visitors are well-positioned to help move this intractable situation toward better resolution.
What about a formal appeal?
Church Order Article 30 and its supplements provide a procedure to appeal an official action or decision of the council. If the council makes a decision and that decision is one you believe to be unjust or in conflict with the Word of God or the Church Order, the Church Order describes the process and timetable for a church member to appeal a decision of the council to the classis.
However, the church order is also clear that “before invoking the rights [of formal appeal] brothers and sisters in Christ should make every effort to resolve issues between them amicably, according to the teachings of Scripture. If they require external assistance to reach agreement, they should, where appropriate, seek trained facilitators or mediators to help them reach agreement. A process of mediation led by neutral parties may facilitate a more satisfactory resolution.”
Both Pastor Church Resources and Safe Church Ministries can provide assistance in finding suitable mediation. Safe Church Ministries maintains a network of facilitators trained in Restorative Practices, a tool Synod particularly recommends in these situations.
Concerning Denominational Staff
It is not uncommon for someone contacting Pastor Church Resources, Safe Church Ministries or another denominational ministry to believe that by contacting denominational staff, they are appealing to a higher authority, with more formal power to effect change. However, denominational staff do not actually have formal ecclesiastical authority according to our church order. Church Order Article 27a clarifies that “each assembly exercises, in keeping with its own character and domain, the ecclesiastical authority entrusted to the church by Christ; the authority of councils being original, that of major assemblies [classis, synod] being delegated.”
What this means, practically, is that denominational staff function primarily as advocates of good process, helping bring conflicted parties together and helping to clarify how each party should navigate the sometimes complicated procedures of church order.
Ministry leadership may be harder now than ever. Our leaders, particularly our councils, need our prayers and encouragement. But just because ministry leaders have a tough job doesn’t mean their actions and decisions are infallible. When a member of the church has concerns about the actions or inactions of the church, the steps laid out above provide a respectful and prayerful path toward God-honoring resolution.