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Why some church elders have trouble making decisions

Texas-based Hope Network Ministries strives to help congregations and leaders improve processes and outcomes.

DALLAS — The church doctors are in.

Actually, Jon Mullican and Grady King — co-leaders of Texas-based Hope Network Ministries — prefer to think of Hope’s 18 ministry partners as fitness coaches.

“Mentoring Leaders, Guiding Churches” is how Hope characterizes its work in mentoring, consulting, interim ministry and marriage care. Lynn Anderson, a longtime preacher and author who served congregations from Canada to Texas, and his wife, Carolyn, founded the nonprofit in 1996.

Jon Mullican and Grady King of Hope Network Ministries sign a cooperation agreement with Mission Resource Network’s president, Dan Bouchelle. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)“We are well acquainted with the challenges of leading a church,” says Hope’s website. “Many of us have lines on our faces and scars on our hearts from years of trusting God in the trenches of church life.”

Mullican, minister of church development for the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, and King, senior minister for the Mansfield Church of Christ in Texas, discussed church conflict and communications in a recent interview with The Christian Chronicle. 

Question: You note that some Christian leaders find it easier to run multimillion-dollar businesses than to make decisions in elders’ meetings. Why is this, and what is the solution?

Being a part of an elder group is like no other form of leadership. In essence, no other organization in the world asks a group of men to come together and make decisions where power is not invested in a final decision (like a CEO, board, president, etc.).

Read Grady King’s full bio on the Mansfield church website. The challenging part is learning to trust one another with great diversity — varying philosophies of leadership, biblical interpretation matters, theology, personalities, etc. It’s hard work, and most elder groups do not have processes for functioning well.

This comes to decision-making processes, what I would call governance: How those responsible choose to exercise control over the church. The word “control” is a good word, since those responsible must accept that responsibility. What often happens is poor group dynamics make a group of extremely competent individuals an incompetent group.

We take for granted that men can come together and make decisions. One elder once told me, “We are so stuck we can’t even make a bad decision!” Knowing the scope of the elder’s role and what they will retain to themselves and then properly delegate to the rest to staff and lay leaders is the way through.

So often, however, elders cannot let go of the “stuff” and the decisions surrounding it. Rather than lead the church, they manage the mess — or attempt to — and find themselves stuck and frustrated and beat down by the sheer tension of the continuous stalemate.

Q: How prevalent is conflict between ministers and elders in our fellowship? What causes such conflict, and what can be done about it?

I would say that minister/elder conflict is more prevalent that most want to admit. The basic conflict comes about due to lack of role clarity, expectations, good processes for clear communication and working together. Clear role definitions for both elder and ministers, working agreements and expectations for both are essential. The bottom line is when trust is absent, nothing goes well.

Read Jon Mullican’s full bio on the Highland Oaks church website. Mullican: It’s significant yet lessening for several reasons:

1. Elders and ministers are learning how to share responsibility for the church based on roles rather than fighting for power.

2. Ministers who are tired of fighting are quitting ministry and going to more compatible churches.

3. Ministers are planting churches where the polity model better suits their gifts.

4. Elders are finding ministers who better suit their chosen polity model, i.e., selection processes are providing better “fit” between elders and ministers.

Q: You suggest that in many cases, we in Churches of Christ don’t even know how to have a conversation about certain issues, be it gender roles or worship styles. What do you mean by that?

We begin from a management perspective vs. a theological or leadership perspective. The first questions asked when a major issue comes up are “How do we keep the peace?” and “How do we keep all our people in the church?” Better first questions are “What is God calling us to at this time in our history under these circumstances?” and “How does the Gospel inform this current situation in which we find ourselves?”

Read our previous feature on Hope Network Ministries’ work with interim ministry. Rather than move immediately to answers to any issue, we can slow down and ask the right questions. If immediate relief is given to the church regarding an issue by giving them an answer, then growth is stunted, and all are robbed of a chance to mature through a process of discernment.

Leading the church through an issue’s conversation means tolerating discomfort in our congregation as the conversation is had.

In essence, it is fear and pain avoidance. We are a right-teaching and right-preaching people. That is, we have to get things right. When a group of people have to get things right and hold that we can get it right, there is little room for conversation. It is simply a matter of hearing the right position.

The obsession to get everything right or else hinders honest conversation and our capacity to engage Scripture with freshness, and more importantly, not write off others who have honest disagreement or another perspective.

Q: As I understand it, you see the role of Hope Network partners as “church fitness coaches.” Tell me more about that concept and how you go about it.

We often work with churches as they consider their future: “What does a healthy ‘XYZ Church’ look like, sound like, feel like, act like?”

Dreaming of the church’s future allows the church to move in directions of vitality rather than continually fighting the alligators of “issues” that inevitably loom nearby. What is the best use of the gifts on the leadership team? How are day-to-day items being delegated and carried out? Who are the possible next-generation leaders, and how are they being readied for their role as leaders? What new opportunities are appearing to us? What ministries have run their course and need to be celebrated and closed out?

 We strive to be, first and foremost, good listeners and respectful of the ministry context we are in. We do not throw around the words “conservative” and “liberal.” Rather, what does it mean to be the church envisioned by Christ?

Fitness is about health. I like to say four words: healthy leaders, healthy churches. So, the end of the spear for us is working with leaders and instilling good processes for moving forward.

Q: What else would be interesting or important for our readers to know about you and Hope Network?

No matter the size of the church or need of the leaders, we want to be responsive and helpful. If we don’t have someone that can be helpful, we will help find someone.

We’d much rather help a church formulate the best questions to ask than give even one answer to a question of “What should we do?”

Love the preacher who left? You won’t like the new one

Filed under: Dialogue Headlines - Secondary Partners

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