The Genetic Flaw That is Killing My People

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I’m no geneticist but I’ve worked enough with DNA to know about genetic flaws and how some of them are ticking time bombs just waiting to take down an otherwise healthy individual. While Alzheimer’s has multiple causes, Early Onset Alzheimer’s has one: a gene that is dormant until, suddenly, when its host is between the ages of 40-55, a fast paced version of the disease overtakes them. In 3-5yrs they will be dead. The only reason this gene still exists is that it does not strike until the prime reproductive years of its host have passed. In other words, they’ve had their children — half of whom will carry the gene — before it makes its move.

My people, the church I love, have a genetic flaw that kills, not at birth, but later on once a congregation has been established. Some fault for this flaw’s inclusion in our DNA has to come from my tribe’s founders, a crew of mainly Scots and Scots-Irish who brought their cultural assumptions with them to America. In Scotland, the elders of the kirk (church) march solemnly into St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh every year for the Kirk Session. Inside, cloistered from all others, they make the decisions that will rule the Church of Scotland for the next year. While there were a variety of ideas about the office of shepherd — or elder — among the early leaders in the Stone Campbell Movement, the “ruling board” mentality won out. And it is a genetic flaw that waits until the absolute worst time to shut down growth, freedom, and the lives and fortunes of its ministers.

I’ve had three friends fired in the last 16 days. None were given a cause. For two of them, it came out of the blue. They entered a meeting believing all was well. They ended it with a letter, a stern warning not to discuss anything with anybody, a bit of blackmail…and facing the task of telling their family they were going to have to move…somewhere. I used the word “blackmail” because I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in many of these firings over the last few years. It is almost as if our genetic flaw is mutating and becoming even worse. A clause is inserted into the notice of termination: insurance coverage and salary will continue for a period of time but only if the fired minister never tells any member anything about their firing, problems with elders, etc. They are to go mute or, worse, lie and say they had decided to resign and move on (I’ve seen this order to lie in three letters over the last year). If they don’t comply, well, their family will not eat and their insurance coverage will disappear. And this is Christian? This comes from leaders of Christians?

Our genetic flaw elevates men of business or those who’ve had success in other secular realms and then appoints them rulers over the spiritual lives of a church. It also gives them power over the minister and the direction of the church. This power deferential is real and has to be acknowledged. A dear man of God and a friend of mine named Gary was once my shepherd. He made the comment that the elders and the ministers were friends. I replied, “We are friends, but there is something always hovering over that friendship. One of these friends can fire the other. But the other friend has no ability to respond in kind.” Adding to this tense and awkward situation is: those with the least theological education and with the least experience in building and leading churches have absolute power over the one with the most education and experience in the room.

I’ve heard for 30yrs that our church has a serious preacher shortage. We tried plugging that hole with schools of preaching but most of those (and the quality and philosophy of these varied widely) have closed and most of their graduates are not in the ministry today. Look at online and print ads for ministers and you find that most churches are small, ruled by elders, and unable to pay a decent wage, especially to a man who has a young family and who has invested years and a lot of money getting a theological education. Most of the ads are looking for a franchise preacher who will preach the franchise doctrine to please those who like the franchise. The code word for that kind of man is “sound.” By “sound” they mean “traditional, controllable, and who will never rock the boat or have an original thought.” And with the rapid firing of so many ministers comes the loss of those men to ministry. They and their families have had enough. They quit our church or they quit ministry. Most often, they quit both.

I spent a good deal of the last 20yrs flying all over the country working with elder/shepherd groups that asked me to come help their church reboot, find and verbalize a vision, or otherwise change their congregation’s trajectory. Looking back, most of those churches made some improvement. Some didn’t. More than one invited me in, paid me well, and had me at their table only so they could push back, ignore what I suggested, and, by so doing, justify inaction while saying they had tried. This left men who were poor leaders in their positions of power, unthreatened and (functionally) unopposed. They were like a married person who agrees to counseling so that they can claim they tried (and “prove” that counseling didn’t work).

I have tried to go through my memory and emails to count but I was unable to nail down my numbers. My best guess is that I have seen 18 good men fired in the last 12 months. I know of more than twice that number of minister/friends who are trapped in churches where the elders constantly criticize them and play control games with them and each other. Those men are hostages to a paycheck, unable to quit while dying on the inside. And I know four good men — GOOD men — who cannot find a pulpit because they are thinkers and doers and elders are afraid of them (I honestly cannot think of any other reason they have not been chosen for a pulpit).

This has got to stop. There is a grand total of one elders’ meeting in scripture…and I am being generous in calling it an elders’ meeting. It is in Acts 15 and the leaders said it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and them not to make things harder than they had to be. They never addressed the quarrel brought to them in their letter. Instead, they told both groups to stay pure and not act like pagans. They didn’t demand obedience or uniformity. And while we are counting, there is a grand total of one line of instruction on how to pick and place men into the position of elder: the minister (Titus) was told to pick and place them. How many “we do things the Bible way” churches do you know of that follow that particular example?

We are not perfect at Fourth Avenue (for I am here and that makes it de facto an imperfect church) but we have a better shepherd/minister relationship than most. They ask me what the Bible says about things and invite me to teach them. I acknowledge their superior skills in pastoral care and prayer (no false humility here — they are miles better than me). They are shepherds full of love and sacrifice. I am a pastor who is half gunfighter. We get along famously because we respect each other’s gifts and do not consider our own to be superior to those of the others.

It’s almost as if we had decided to let love be our law, Jesus our Lord, and answering his prayer for unity our goal. It is almost as if we considered this congregation to be the family of God and we were determined to treat each person accordingly…including me, the minister. “Behold how good and pleasant it is…” indeed.

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