by Lisa A. Runquist
WORKS, November 1991, Vol. I, No. 6.
Pastor Smith’s inner-city congregation had dwindled. Most members were elderly; the young people had moved away and attended churches closer to home. So, the church board agreed that the church needed to focus its ministry to include people now in the area, most of whom spoke no English.
The board hired Juan Cortez and Ahmed Ahmed to work in the church’s inner-city ministry. Although neither had formal training in the teachings of the church, both were believers and appeared to be sincere.
The Church gave Juan or Ahmed no training or directions on how to proceed. Yet, both ministries took off. The church began services in other languages and added new attendees to its membership rolls.
Over the next two years, the church board received regular reports from Juan and Ahmed on the number of new members. Because the ministries were separate, the board did not concern itself with the services, what the people were being taught, or what else was being done.
Then a new board member asked for more information and the board discovered that in addition to services at the church, these groups had outside bible services, were sending their people (including children) door to door to witness, were having potluck dinners and were taking children on outings, some poorly supervised. It was unclear if these activities were covered by the church’s liability insurance.
Although Juan and Ahmed were paid directly by the church, they had collections at services and were depositing the money in a separate bank account. There was some indication that they also paid themselves bonuses and paid other individuals who rendered services. As far as the board could determine, no taxes were being withheld, and no reports were filed.
Further, one group met regularly with another church which had teachings contrary to teachings of the mother church. To make matters worse, the number of non-English speaking members now outnumbered the English speaking members by two to one.
Pastor Smith consulted his attorney. He then told Juan and Ahmed that things had to change, anything done in the name of the church had to be done under the authority of and with the permission of the church board so the church’s liability could be limited, all monies had to go into a church bank account, taxes had to be withheld, and payments had to be reported. Most importantly, he emphasized that the church had always believed certain doctrines, and that all teachings had to conform to them. If these changes were not made, they would have to separate from the mother church.
But, Juan and Ahmed responded that Pastor Smith was against them because of their nationalities. They refused to change their activities. They also reminded him that he no longer was in the majority.
What should Pastor Smith and his church have done differently? And what do they do now?
First, a church should have only one congregation. There may be reasons to have more than one service, but steps should have been taken so that all of the congregants could get to know each other. The non- English speaking congregants should have been encouraged to participate in the church’s regular activities, even if this meant special provisions for them.
Second, the church should have found individuals who were trained in their faith, or at least provided to train both the leaders and the new congregants. None should have become members of the church until they had completed the normal membership process.
Third, the church board should have taken an active role in supervising all the activities of the church, including the activities of the non-English speaking congregations.
Fourth, specific directions should have been given to Juan and Ahmed as to what they were to do, and how they were to do it.
Fifth, if the church was unable or unwilling to make a commitment to making the new congregants functioning members of the church and to oversee and direct them, but wanted simply to help a new congregation to get started, it should have done so as an outreach ministry. This way, the new entities could conduct and be responsible for their own activities, but not have a say in the mother church.
The names here have been changed to protect those involved, and the facts were taken from several different situations. But I’ve seen a number of situations like this one.
Pastor Smith’s church? Depending upon its articles, bylaws and practice, a solution might be found. But his situation may have degenerated to the point where a lawsuit is unavoidable – unless the parties are willing to submit to Christian Conciliation. My advice is to get the best attorney he can find and try to negotiate a favorable settlement.