Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Spiritual Abuse and Church Polity

In the span of about ten minutes this morning, two friends shared with me three or four examples of people they knew who had suffered "spiritual abuse" at the hands of certain church leaders. The examples given were outside my particular faith community, and though the Seventh-day Adventist church certainly sees its share of "spiritual abusers," something suddenly dawned on me.

I know there are many within our ranks who lament over our church structure. They want more independence on the local level, with less involvement from the higher levels. More money should stay locally, etc., etc. But I don't know how many times I have been extremely appreciative for the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist church is organized the way that it is. Among other things, I believe our church structure does a fairly good job of weeding out spiritual abusers.

This is not meant to be arrogant back-slapping on my part. As I said earlier, I do recognize that there are problems that inherently surface in any church. Adventism is, by no means, immune from these problems. But I believe that our structure is set up in a way so as not to perpetuate the ever present component in the human heart to covet power. Hear me out for a second. . .

There are basically three types of church structures (and please forgive me for simplifying this). There is the Episcopal structure, which places much of the power in the hands of a bishop or bishops. The Roman Catholic church, Anglicans, and Lutherans are examples of this type of church governance.

More relevant to many Evangelical churches, there is the Congregational model, and the Presbyterian model - of which the Seventh-day Adventist church subscribes. Most Evangelical churches have some type of congregational government, and I believe this is largely to blame for much of the "spiritual abuse" that takes place (as was the case with all of these examples that my friends shared with me). Essentially, although there is a local board that ultimately governs a congregational church, if the local pastor can coax enough people to his side, he can, for all intense and purposes, "control" the church. Thus, the pastor's goal is far too often to learn how to manipulate, cajole, or do anything he can to gain power for himself.

This is even easier for the pastor who starts his own church. Because he is autonomous, and is not really accountable to any other human being, he figures out what he needs to do to control the masses that are coming to worship at his new church. The pastor becomes the arbiter and final authority on what can and cannot happen. Coupled with the fact that the more people he can get to attend his church, then the more money he can pad his wallet with, and one can see how dangerous a congregational model can be.

I don't think that it is a coincidence that all of the megachurches are non-denominational, congregationally-based churches. The pastor is the church. Bill Hybels is Willow Creek. Rick Warren is Saddleback. Joel Osteen is Lakewood. This is not to say that these men are wicked or they have bad intentions. It is to say that they know what they are doing. Neither is it to say that many pastors, when they set out to start a new church, have these motives in mind. But the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9), and the more a person tastes a little bit of power, the more power he wants. And when such a person abuses others "spiritually," it is a devestating fall (Jim Jones, anyone?).

I am glad that in the Seventh-day Adventist church, it doesn't matter how many members I have; how many churches I pastor; or whatever else is involved. I get paid what I am going to get paid, and it doesn't change based on how many people I impress or don't impress, or other circumstances. And, on many levels, my success in the minstry is not necessarily based upon how many people I can make happy or influence, or which big church I can convince to take me as pastor. Granted, this does happen. But, at least hypothetically, my ministry is based more upon external circumstances; about other men and women prayerfully considering where I should be placed as a minister next.

Congregational churches inherently attract a "maverick" mentality, and there are no true checks-and-balances that can address some of these challenges. If a pastor in the congregational model ruffles enough feathers in his present church, he might be driven out of town, but he can still go somewhere else and start pastoring another church, or perhaps even start his own (if all else fails). This, of course, happens sometimes within Adventism, but structurally, I don't believe that it is the inherent byproduct that it is in a congregational model.

This is why I think it would be a grave mistake for Adventism to become more congregationally oriented. Yes, the ultimate "power" is in the local congregation, but if we were to go down that route we would be setting ourselves up for more spiritual abuse, more power grabbing, more irresponsible autonomy. And, more than that, we would lose site of the fact that this is, indeed, a global movement. Just as democracy, though not perfect, is the best model of secular government we have, so, too, the Presbyterian/democratic model is the best model we have of church governance.


Charles said...

Hi Shawn,

Though painted with broad brush strokes at times, you have many valid and true points. I disagree somewhat, though, only because I have seen how little time most pastors have with their own church community, much less the general community at large.

As I hinted in a previous post - how many churches does one individual need to pastor to be considered employable? 1? 2? 6? This one pastor then becomes so involved with the business and busyness of the church, they often cannot fulfill the gospel commission, and thus, church becomes a teaching and tradition ceremony to comfort the faithful - to keep pews filled and ruffle as few feathers as possible. And, there are so many you are well aware.

It seems to me that there is a not a need for autonomy, but for refocus. Does a pastor really need multiple churches? Why? Well, is there really ever any emphasis on local communities other than running a Daniel/Revelation seminar? (Granted, there are exceptions). But this could be lamented ad nauseum, so I will stop there. Its only a for cogitation.

Now I have to say this only cuz I gotta! Our denomination does have it's power player personalities - Doug Bachelor, Dwight Nelson, Shawn Boonstra, Mark Finley, etc. And in our conferences, we can have leaders/presidents that rule with an iron fist (Michigan, anyone?) This is not to say that anyone of these people are wicked, but they assert a powerful personality driven influence that can on many respects, have the same affect as a Joel Osteen, but is spread over a wider audience due to television or internet and publications. And don't get me started about the power held by conference leaders - that can be an abuse in itself.

I am not trying to complain about the SDA church or it's model, but to paint with such broad strokes about our brothers and sisters in other denominations seems a bit off to me. I don't know how to put it otherwise. It almost sounds again like "we have the truth and you don't, so we are better than you." Shawn, I believe you are not like that, so it's not an accusation.

Also, I know my comments rattle all over the place. I haven't fully awakened....

God bless. Charles

Bill Cork said...

"There is the Episcopal structure, which places much of the power in the hands of a bishop or bishops. The Roman Catholic church, Anglicans, and Lutherans are examples of this type of church governance."

Except that Lutheran bishops have no power. Martin Marty has called the Lutheran system "presbygational." Lutheran bishops (formerly called "presidents," as they still are in the LCMS) are administrators, but subject to yearly conventions, and congregations have lots of power.

Kyle Baldwin said...


I really appreciate your posts. I wish I could post this way, but because I use my blog "Theological Thought's primarily for spiritual introspection designed with members in mind I am limited in what I can say.

Anyway I would like to comment on this post. I agree with your assertions on the benefits of the Adventist structure. However I would like to point out some of the limitations or the possible areas for growth.

First of all the Adventist church has not incorporated the principle in Acts 6 where some are designated specifically for administration. This causes problems because pastors who are not qualified to be administrators often mismanage the financial and structural decisions of the church. In addition pastors often look at conference, union, or division leadership as opportunity to climb the corporate ladder where they will have more stability and control over their circumstances. This is exacerbated by the fact local pastors are often moved every few years or given different assignments. There really should be dual tracks with pastors governed by pastors who would like to become more effective ministers of the gospel.

My second point is that while compensation is ostensibly spread evenly across the board the pastors seem to be competing with a host other institutions. Do I think that a pastor should make a tremendous amount of money? I do not. But I am concerned when I hear conferences say that they cannot hire more pastors because the schools are taking the bulk of the finances. I've heard it said that the Adventist Church is really an educational institution masquerading as a church.

Well, these are just some of my thoughts. I don't think we should move to one of the other models but I think that we should incorporate some of the principles I mentioned.


Grace and Peace

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks for the clarification, Bill. I am certainly no expert on Church polity so I'm glad you could straighten me out.

And thanks, Charles, for your thoughts, as always. I realize that I was using really broad strokes and that is a weakness in my reflections. But I hope you got the point of what I was trying to say. And I also was trying to be very careful to point out that I wasn't trying to do any "back-slapping," saying rather that I feel "blessed" (instead of proud) that we have such a system.

I fully recognize and believe that we have our "power players" within this church. Believe me, I know that. And Kyle, I also see that there is a "ladder climbing" that goes on among us as well. All of these things are very apparent.

However, in theory I believe that we have the "checks and balances" in place to circumvent such unfortunate things. This is not to say that it always does, but theoretically it can!

And let me finally respond to your other point, Charles. I hear what you are saying about pastors having multiple churches. It is not easy. I think some people would be very quick to point to Africa and South America, however, where pastors have 10, 15, 20 churches, and the church seems to be growing.

I will say, though, that it can be frustrating for me to have at least one board meeting every week, three prayer meetings, and then member visitation. It seems to leave very little time to get involved in the community. But I don't think, even with such circumstances, that this really prevents a pastor from getting involved with the community. Truthfully, I think that if a pastor really wants to involve himself in the community, then he really can.

Instead, many of us spend all our time in our offices, trying to figure out how to "make the church grow," or trying to figure out how to make our church services "more seeker-friendly," or doing all sorts of administrative things - or even blogging! Many of our "non-negotiable" responsibilities (ie., Prayer Meeting) happen at night, and we are really free to set our own schedules for much of the rest of the day. At least this is my experience.

Yes, it is frustrating because my evenings are not all that free - which is really the optimal time to get involved in the community(I'm working on trying to remedy this). But things also happen in the morning, as well! The story that spawned this particular post was the result of me, meeting together for breakfast at a diner at 7:00 AM with a group of men outside my faith. This is not to say that I'm doing a great job of getting out in the community, but that it can work! Last winter, I was also going and playing hockey during lunchtime once or twice a week and meeting a lot of people. I can't go anymore for now because I jacked my knee up again, but if a pastor is intentional about his schedule, and involving himself in the community, he can make it work.

Hope this answers things for you a little bit! Bottom line: even with less-than-ideal circumstances, a pastor of a multi-church district can and should be able to involve himself in the community if he really wants to. At least I think so.

Lastly, Kyle: I appreciate your comments. Keep up the good work on your blog. I probably agree with much of what you are saying. Just one tip for your blog: can you utilize paragraphs so your posts aren't just one, giant paragraph??? Thanks, buddy!

Charles said...

Hey Shawn, thanks for the response. Perhaps I was brushing with broad strokes too! OK, I was. And I know you weren't back-slapping. I trust that from all the posts I have read...

As I sat and pondered your response, the following thoughts came to me, and I was humbled:

"Charles, even pastors need pastoring at times. They need family time and personal time too! Instead of fussin' about what pastors aren't doing, why don't you think of ways to encourage your pastor, and more specifically, think of ways you can help him/her reach the community ('body' or otherwise)!! After all, Charles, you are commissioned too, not just your pastor..."

I must confess, Shawn, that I can be duplicitous in many ways. God is working with me, and is extremely patient and gracious. I can talk the talk and even come up with good ideas, often which I feel are God given. However, when it comes to implementation, I shirk my responsibility, because it takes me out of my comfort zone. "After all," I muse, "there are others with much more spiritual gifts than me. And I need to spend time with my wife and kids."

I could go on, but you get the idea. Lastly, I am thankful that you are getting involved with your community. It inspires me. In the words of Paul,

"When I think of all this, I fall to my knees and pray to the Father, the Creator of everything in heaven and on earth. I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your heart as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God's love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God's people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. Glory to him in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations forever and ever! Amen."

Kyle Baldwin said...


Your point about the necessity for paragraph breaks have been duly noted and implemented.


Blake said...

I agree somewhat. Our structure keeps our church much more unified than it would be without it. And I (as a pastor) have been very blessed to have conference help for local issues that would have been a much greater mess without the conference's involvement. One thing I must say though...more $$ does need to stay at the local level. And the $ that does stay needs to be used to fuel ministries that grow the church. Every SDA church I've been a member of only keeps about 10-15% of their money locally to actually fund church ministry. Case in point - one church I was at has about 1.4 million in annual giving. About 1 million is tithe. Local giving is about $300,000, of which almost 60% goes to school subsidy. It is a large church and the remaining money barely keeps the place open and basic ministries funded. The bathrooms are atrocious (as in you sit on a toilet seat and it almost slides off cause it is broken). We all knew we needed to fix this and many other things but we didn't. Why? Don't have enough $$ (in a church that gives $1.4 million). Want to do evangelism? Good luck getting some money. The bottom line...Adventist are killing the goose that lays the golden egg (the local church) to fund institutions. This model is not working (just look at our "growth" rates in the US). We've got to invest in local church growth if we want to keep the American church alive. Most SDA churches are sitting on their hands and investing in almost nothing that actually grows the local church. We do need our conference structure, schools, etc. But we can't keep making local church ministries a red headed step child begging for crumbs behind schools and a 4 tiered hierarchy...all of which depend of the growth and health of the local church to stay alive. What is needed in this denomination is total commitment to Christ and His commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and serious accountability to the fulfillment of it.

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks, Blake! I think your points are well taken. Just yesterday, my dad was sharing a story with me about an experience he had with another denomination (that is more congregationally based). He had to talk with the "conference" president for this particular denomination, who oversaw all of New England. He was given directions to the conference office, and he was having a really hard time finding it. Finally, he realized that the address was for a house, and he discovered that the conference office consisted of a few rooms in the guy's basement!

This is drastically different than the way we run things! Of course, they are congregationally based, but there is probably a happy medium between what they have, and what we have.

One other note, Charles: not to ruffle your feathers, but the particular "iron first" to which you refer in Michigan has been "democratically" elected for years now. You may not agree with the policies, or the iron first by which he rules, but obviously the majority of the saints in Michigan do.

Timothy D. Lee said...

Shawn said (in a comment):

"the particular "iron first" to which you refer in Michigan has been "democratically" elected for years now. You may not agree with the policies, or the iron first by which he rules, but obviously the majority of the saints in Michigan do."

A majority of the saints who are delegates to constituency meetings approve the recommendation from the nominating committee. That may (or may not) be different from the majority of the church members approving.

I'm not claiming that a majority of the saints don't approve of the leadership (I don't have any information one way or the other), but delegates to constituency necessarily consist of less than 1/2 total membership.

I have yet to see a church say "let's select our delegates based on whether they're going to oppose the nomination (which comes from the nominating committee) for conference president."

Charles said...

Hey Shawn - you didn't ruffle my feathers, though I am fairly confident when someone starts out a phrase, "not to ruffle your feathers", they actually intend to ruffle! ;-) Kinda like, the "nothing personal" thing just before the mobster puts one between the eyes. LOL.

For the record, many of the saints in Michigan aren't happy with the iron fist (not first) leader(s). The problem that I have seen in many churches over the years is that the noisy and squeaky ultra orthodox conservatives get their way for the very descriptive reasons mentioned (noisy, squeaky). And these tend to be delegates as mentioned by Mr. Lee. They also tend to be the ones constantly writing the conference leadership about us "flamin liberals" who enjoy an occasional djembe drum during special music.

I just thank God He is bigger than all of this. I suppose He is waiting with longing desire for that very attribute in His kids.