Some churches have business meetings every month. Some have them once a year. My home church has probably the most common practice, gathering once a quarter to hear reports and consider major actions not already approved in our annual budget and ministry plan.
An extra meeting at church every three months really isn’t that much to ask. Yet when our church’s most recent business meeting rolled around, it was on a stormy summer evening when I had a hundred other things to do. Knowing of no controversies or big decisions, I found it tempting to stay home. After all, a friend of mine once jokingly referred to church business meetings as the Baptist version of purgatory.
But my wife and I have committed to participating whenever we can, not just in our church’s ministries, but in our church’s business. The motto, “To Protect and to Serve,” used by many police departments, also describes our responsibilities as devoted, mature church members. We should both serve through our church, and also protect the integrity and resources of our church.
In recent days, I have seen sad evidence of churches whose members did not guard their business well. In each case, an unscrupulous man used the role of pastor, not to guard and shepherd the flock, but to fleece it.
The pattern was generally the same each time. The churches were small and vulnerable, with few strong leaders. Often in a state of discouragement or desperation, they called men as pastors who promised a better future. Like too many churches, they also hired more with hope than with carefully researched background, references, and secondary references.
After a brief honeymoon period, these men began taking more and more control of finances, property, decision processes, and leadership selection. Anyone who questioned their authority was quickly marginalized, or accused of something, or asked to leave. Soon the small church was even smaller, left primarily with members who didn’t have the ability or the will to oppose. Then whatever finances or property the church possessed was gradually or quickly depleted, or outright taken, by the man the church had trusted to be their shepherd.
It’s often not until then that a handful of the remaining members realize what has happened to their church. They look around for church leaders to help, but most of those folks left shaking their heads when the so-called pastor began his abuses.
And it’s often then that one of the IBSA staff or I will receive a call. And yet, because each Baptist church is autonomous, members with standing in that church, operating within its approved governance and documents, are needed to challenge the abuse that is happening.
Fortunately, most churches do have a core of devoted, discerning leaders who detect this kind of abuse in its early stages, and who guard their church with spiritual courage, and with an understanding of its governance and legal protections. And when there is strong associational leadership in place, these church leaders also have a nearby and willing advocate.
These leaders know to place language, not only in the church’s bylaws but in the deed to its property, that stipulate what happens to the property if it ever ceases to be a Baptist church. They know to put appropriate financial controls and accountability in place that prevent any individual, or any small group, from having inappropriate access to funds. And they are willing to confront even the man who calls himself pastor, when he is brazenly and selfishly exploiting the church from within.
The overwhelming majority of churches I know are served by humble, loving, self-sacrificing pastors and leaders. But especially if your church is small or vulnerable, you may one day be the one called upon by your church not only to serve, but to protect.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.