We recently interviewed Phil Sasser, pastor and elder at Sovereign Grace Church in Apex, NC. Phil shared with us his views on church polity, specifically the need for establishing clear organization in the face of difficult situations like the removal of a pastor as a result of a scandal or other type of misconduct. While some of Phil’s responses are reflective of his denomination, there are many helpful principles that apply across denominations. Follow with us as Phil shares what he has learned after close to four decades in the pastorate.
Dealing with the challenge of transition after the removal of a pastor
What are some of the biggest challenges and temptations for the congregation after the removal of a pastor?
When thinking about the dismissal of a pastor, it brings with it this idea that there’s been some sort of discipline involved, or some type of misconduct. And that becomes disorienting, destabilizing in some ways. Some of the most common ways that the dismissal impacts members are things like confusion, discouragement, or possible disillusionment.
Members may also be tempted to become suspicious of their leaders or become cynical about leadership in general. If the pastor was dismissed because of a serious sin, people can even become discouraged in their own Christian walk. Lastly, we might see people drift away from the church because of what’s happened.
So what do we do? How do church leaders handle this transition?
After thirty-nine years of pastoring, I’ve had to walk through a number of these situations where a pastor is removed because of his actions. One of the first things that we’ve done is meet with people, help them understand, and simply listen to them. That takes a lot of patience and a lot of attention to individual church members and families, specifically to those who are close to the person leaving.
I’ve also been asked to assist other churches as they walk through the removal of a leader. Most of our time in that situation was spent meeting with almost everybody in the church; anyone who wanted to meet, we talked with that person and cared for him or her. And we spent time getting to know the leadership team and particularly the man in question.
Mostly it takes a lot of listening, a lot of caring, and a lot of patience, while trying to guard ourselves against things like gossip or slander. You have to work hard at just being understanding. We love the people, we love the leaders involved, but caring for them takes a lot of time.
Why is it important to meet with individual church members and be patient in that process?
Additionally, each person is going to have his or her own individual concerns; not everyone is concerned about the same issues. Some people are concerned about what actually happened, while others are more concerned with the leader himself. And yet others may be concerned that more is happening within the leadership that they aren’t aware of. So there are various concerns, and it is difficult to be exhaustive in a family meeting.
To give good pastoral care, you have to be hands-on with members in the church and care for them individually, because they are individuals with different concerns from everyone else. Hearing each individual’s concerns and then being able to respond one by one is why we take so much time and have so many personal, private meetings.
As a leadership, we have to remember that we’ve already had time to process what has happened. But as we share this individually with members, it helps to remember that they didn’t know about what was happening; this is all new to them. And it oftentimes takes a long time to mentally and emotionally and spiritually wrap their minds around what’s taking place. We as elders had days, weeks, or months to process, but these members haven’t. They don’t have all the history. So it requires patience.
You cannot move on until the church is ready to move on. But we have to fight the temptation to move on before it is time to do so, or fight the temptation to distract the church with new initiatives or new ministries. People need time to be able to process it themselves and come to a place where they are at peace. Then it’s time to move on.
How do you deal with criticism from church members about the way you’re handling the situation?
We have to start by remembering that there are different types of criticism. And some of it may be warranted. If it isn’t, though, you have to be patient to deal carefully with that. If leaders have made mistakes in the process, if it is a valid criticism from church members, then the leaders need to be willing to own up to that and repent if it is something sinful. However, if the church members are offering unwarranted criticism, you have to be patient and help the members understand why you did what you did, why it was the best or most acceptable course of action.
Oftentimes, especially if the church member was close to the leader in question, there’s an emotional impact as well, so we really have to be patient. We endure a lot simply because it is painful for that person, and people don’t always deal with their pain the right way. So we can’t be easily offended also; we have to have tough skin and answer questions that may even seem unreasonable. We try to exhibit 1 Corinthians 13 love toward them, being patient, forbearing, and slow to respond. You still have to have good leadership and not be intimidated from leading, but you also have to be careful, patient, and loving in these situations. Ultimately, that’s what serves the church and its members.
The importance of clear church polity in the midst of a scandal
Why is it important to have clear church polity in place?
To begin with, the Bible speaks to the matter, so our responsibility as Christ’s church is to follow the clear teaching of Scripture the best we can. For instance, there are clear qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. To remove an elder, we must have clear, biblical warrant to do so. The Bible also speaks to how to handle accusations against elders. Paul writes about this in 1 Timothy 5.
Even aside from these commands, though, the entire Bible speaks to matters of justice and process, the New Testament in particular. So we must have a clear policy and process that follows the Scriptures in commands, principles, and examples. There may be many forms of process, but it is wise to think about these procedures before you need them. To make something up on the spur of the moment doesn’t seem to be wise. You might make mistakes procedurally, so giving it some thought beforehand helps avoid this.
To make up a process when a situation like removing a pastor arises might lead people to question the fairness of the process, or to doubt the leadership during that process. But we have to make sure that there is a fair hearing, that rules for each party were observed and upheld. This helps the congregation that doesn’t know all the details know that there is a process that was followed, and it is a fair process. So while they may not have all the answers, they have faith that fairness and justice will be done. It helps them resist the temptation to be suspicious.
What are the consequences of not having clear church polity in place before a situation arises?
Without clear polity, you’re much more likely to make mistakes. And when you make mistakes in a process like this, particularly with the removal of a pastor due to misconduct, people’s reputations may be damaged unnecessarily, and trust becomes eroded in the congregation.
Church members should be comforted knowing that their church polity is well thought out and functions well; if they aren’t, they’re left questioning if those people making decisions are doing it fairly. I’ve seen people so disillusioned by how problems were handled, especially in the removal of pastors, that they leave the church. And if they don’t leave the church, they can be tempted to doubt the leaders or become cynical about the church. It can certainly impact the health of a church. I’ve seen churches divide along lines of personal allegiance to one leader or another.
While polity isn’t the complete answer to that, it is a significant part of the answer, having good processes that are clearly known by members as well as who leads that process when issues come up. Within our church, people know that when something happens, we aren’t just accountable to our church, we’re accountable to other pastors within our region. So even if we mess up here, even the church has a place of appeal to the regional leaders and to the regional assembly. That brings comfort to the church; they know that there are many eyes on the situation.
While not all churches will have the same polity we do, having a clear polity helps church members trust the process. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be perfect in the administration of justice, but it certainly is a help.
The importance of ecclesiastical union
In dealing with the removal of a pastor, how is it helpful to work cooperatively with sister churches?
Well, even in the New Testament we see that churches were not independent churches, but there was unity in doctrine, mission, and governance. So we see an interdependence of churches. We see in the New Testament that elders were not elected by the congregation, but appointed by other leaders like Timothy and Titus, who understood biblical qualifications and were charged with that responsibility.
We also see in Acts 15 when difficulty arose from a form of false teaching that came to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas and other leaders in the region came together to discuss it. They had concern for one another. And when the Holy Spirit gave them wisdom for the decision, they sent out a decree that was binding for all of the churches.
My point here is that the churches in the New Testament didn’t see themselves as authoritatively independent. They were mutually dependent, interdependent really, and that was a help to them. Churches and church leaders can sometimes be hopelessly deadlocked in controversy or conflict, and in those instances leaders from other churches can be of great assistance. They can offer counsel or advice, or in some cases can rule on substance of issues with a binding authority. If it’s a doctrinal issue, they can help the church through that. In the case of a dismissal of a pastor, sister churches can provide pastors, teachers, and counselors until another pastor can be brought in.
In our denomination, Sovereign Grace Churches, we have a regional assembly of elders, like a presbytery, who together have real responsibility to care for the churches in our region in times of difficulty. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it is a great help and advantage to us. Acts 20 tells us things are going to happen, people are going to go astray. And if it has happened in the New Testament, it’s going to happen in our lives as well, so we should be prepared for those things to happen.
Churches in the New Testament didn’t see themselves as authoritatively independent.
You mention that you have a regional assembly of elders who have binding authority, which seems to go beyond typical “associations.” Do you see any limitations to associations in favor of ecclesiastical unions?
I do. Independent churches have all sorts of ways that they try to form these kinds of associations together. The problem with associations is that they don’t have a real authority. So their associations just become sources of advice that elders and churches can accept or reject. In contrast, real ecclesiastical union with mutual submission to both a statement of faith and a book of church order means that the assembly has real authority and in certain situations can be very helpful to a church.
How do you respond to those who may downplay the significance of clear church polity or ecclesiastical unions?
I would say that we are obligated to the teachings, principles, and examples of Scripture. It gives us structure and guards the integrity of ministry. While there may be some variety in church polity, and some forms are more biblical than others, not having clear church polity exposes the church to suffer confusion in a time of crisis. Polity doesn’t matter until it matters, and then it really matters.
But many people aren’t even sure what their church bylaws say, but this creates a lot of risk. In matters of removing a pastor, people’s jobs, their income, all sorts of things are at risk. And if you don’t have good polity in place, it can be very destabilizing in the midst of a crisis. In the end, it needs to be clear who has the say of who gets fired, who’s removed, or who is hired to replace them.
Polity doesn’t matter until it matters, and then it really matters.
What advice do you have for pastors and leaders as they prepare to walk through difficulties within church leadership?
My overarching advice would be to think biblically before you act or speak. So much is said in the pressure of the moment that may be regretted later on. Also, if a church is going through something like this for the first time, get wise counsel from pastors who have been there before you. There is probably nothing that a church will face that hasn’t been faced before. Just read church history. Talking to someone who has faced it before will help, especially since crisis tends to bring with it lots of competing voices.
I would also say to communicate clearly with members of your congregation. In the absence of information and communication there’s a real temptation for people to speculate on what’s happening. So there should be an appropriate and timely communication about what the process of transition is, and what the plan for replacement is, and then frequent updates as to where the church is, the leadership is, and its process. The church’s constitution and bylaws will affect that communication, but the congregation should be informed in an appropriate way.
Leading, thinking biblically, getting wise counsel, and communicating clearly and appropriately with the congregation are the best ways to approach these types of difficult situations.
For more information on this topic, take a look at 6 Pastoral Lessons Learned from a Sex Abuse Scandal by Dr. Jim Newheiser. This article talks about how to deal with a pastor who sexually abused people, and how to move forward as a church. Also, see 4 Ways to Prevent Hurting People from Giving Up on God by Sam Hodges. Here Sam brings together insight from Phil Sasser and others on how people are disillusioned after a pastor falls and how to shepherd a church afterward.