As we finish up this academic year, we are going to be sharing some of our most viewed posts in the last year. Here is our second most-viewed post this year...
In Psalm 73 the writer Asaph reflects on how his spirit is oppressed by the apparent godlessness, success and ease of the wicked. His heart was grieved and his spirit embittered. What, he asked himself, had been the point of him keeping his heart pure when they hadn't - and had flourished while he had not?
Praise God for such realism.
Asaph still clings to God, trusting his goodness and sufficiency. However, it is not shallow and sugar-coated religion, but rather real faith in action in real and distressing situations.
The verse that sprang out at me is v15:
"If I had said "I will speak thus," I would have betrayed your children"
This is very hard indeed. What he appears to be saying is that while he is feeling very painful, true things, and even though the wicked are prospering, if he had said it at the time it would have damaged rather than helped the people of God. He doesn’t elaborate on the reasons and, clearly, he feels that now, at the time of writing the Psalm, he is OK to say it. But previously he felt constrained, and the constraining factor was not whether he would have been correct, but the good of God's people.
To apply this to Christian leadership, sometimes the good of God's people is served by not saying things that are true and could be said legitimately.
Anyone who has been in pastoral ministry for any length of time discovers that making these kinds of judgements is among the hardest things they ever have to do, especially if speaking would not merely be cathartic, but might exonerate them or protect them from some present or future accusation.
(I should note that I am talking about pastoral decision-making here, not about things that leaders have a statutory legal duty and responsibility to disclose).
I've been in a number of situations over the years where there was no choice but to take a difficult decision, which leaders could only defend at the cost of damaging other people or their church. I praise God for godly people who have chosen to absorb the misunderstanding and flack themselves, or have allowed their personal reputation and trust to take a hit, for the sake of others and of the church, rather than speaking.
Taking decisions that could legitimately be defended, but that can't be without damaging the church, is incredibly debilitating. It provokes rumblings and accusations of power-misuse. It might even cause factions or cause people to question people's suitability for ministry. It causes loss of sleep and fretting through the night. Ministries have ended, livelihoods have been damaged and mental health has been destroyed because leaders chose to not defend themselves in hard decisions when they could have done, and done so truthfully.
How should church leaders approach these kinds of issues?
Processes and plurality are crucial. When decisions cannot be defended, if it is clear to all that there has been a legitimate process, with legitimate scrutineers (either inside or outside the local situation), and that it has been handled not just by one person who takes the decision and then carries all the responsibility alone, then it may be easier to find ways through. Of course, it opens the possibility that a whole group of leaders are then distrusted rather than just one. They are deemed to be "circling the wagons" and moving to protect one of their own rather than being open and honest. Under such circumstances, wider groupings and denominations may have further mechanisms for investigation, but independent churches do not. They are dependent only on the cache of trust they have placed in their elders and in their processes and policies.
I remember a situation in which I decided not to tell my ministry team some things that were happening in the wider organisation, that they would have found distressing and debilitating. Subsequently, they found out from a third party and together asked me why I hadn't told them, and whether it was because I didn't trust them with the information. I told them that it had been to protect them from things that weren't actually their business and that wouldn't have helped them to know. However, seeing as they had heard some details, I had to fill them in on what was actually going on, rather than them relying on rumour and hearsay. When I did, they responded, "you're right, we would rather not have known that and it would have been better if we hadn't."
In another ministry situation, I was wrestling with whether to reveal information about a church leader's behaviour. I spoke to a third party who was in the know. They had decided that the likely negative consequences to the church of doing so outweighed the possible benefit, and that speaking - while correct and truthful - carried a significant risk of "leaving a church as a smoking crater".
And that is the agonising wisdom issue for leaders. What is it better for them to carry and absorb, and for the church or ministry to not know? What information should they not disclose for the sake of individuals or the church, in the knowledge that if it comes out later people will make incorrect assumptions about why they were silent? In the social media age, it is now normal to assume that silence indicates some kind of complicity in the misuse of power, rather than a prayerful and careful desire to not damage other people or a church. Of course, no leaders make perfect decisions all the time. Sometimes hindsight shows them to be wrong or only partially right, in ways they couldn't know at the time. Sometimes they have to judge, on balance, what a least-bad approach is when there are no obviously good options.
After much thought and prayer, I concluded that the other person was probably correct, but it was very much a judgement call "on balance".
I am very sympathetic to the wide range of difficult decisions church leaders have to take, some of which are in areas that are simply intractable. They have to make decisions that others will find distressing or deem to be wrong whatever decision is taken. The critical thing is that such decisions are made in trustworthy ways. Are they done plurally? Are they done with appropriate transparency to the appropriate structures and scrutineers in the church (especially elders or church wardens)? Are procedures and policies followed so that the church can trust that leaders haven’t made decisions to benefit themselves at the expense of others? These things create an environment of trust.
And, under it all, are leaders, like Asaph, wired to not speak when it would benefit them personally to do so, but in the process would damage and betray God's children? His response is to seek refuge in God, in God’s justice and in his ability to bring things to the right conclusion:
“When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny”
And refuge in God’s comfort, counsel and eternal security:
“Yet I am always with you; you hold me by your right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory”
The mark of shepherds is that, following the example of Jesus, we rather lay down our lives for the sheep than defend ourselves. But we don’t need to defend ourselves because God has us, even when we are at the end of ourselves:
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”