Most clergy have learned the hard way that plans can backfire and people misbehave, and both situations can dump problems on their desks.
Even the best-intentioned small group can turn sour and hurt someone. A house church can go rogue and start stirring trouble. A trusted leader can lose his or her way, cause a project to fail and then blame the pastor for it. An online teaching can be misunderstood.
Folks, after all, are folks. Encouraging them to function freely away from the somewhat controlled environment of Sunday morning can entail some risk.
Here are some strategies for turning risk to reward:
Without threatening their freedom, pastors can track what leaders and groups are doing. They can do informal polling, listen for signs of distress, ask other church leaders what they hear. Don’t wait until problems are bubbling. Seek a proactive network of feedback, rather than rely on complaints and rumors.
Second, training. Key leaders, especially those who serve, in effect, as pastors of small groups and house churches and entrepreneurs of projects, need to receive thorough training in group dynamics, conflict management, dealing with misconduct and maintaining healthy group norms. Their training for secular careers doesn’t prepare them for the unique dynamics of congregational life.
Third, accountability. All congregational leaders should consider themselves accountable to the pastor in leader functions of programmatic and congregational ministry. This is one element of the “strong-pastor system” that I recommend. The pastor doesn’t hover or control, but at the end of the day, the buck stops on the pastor’s desk, so the pastor must hold reins of pastoral accountability.
A strong-pastor system will run counter to the de facto polity of some congregations, where members want to hold the pastor accountable but not submit to the pastor’s authority themselves. Such misguided accountability flows paralyze congregations.
Fourth, talk openly about the need for trust. Rather than assume people know trust from experience, teach them. You will unearth countless instances in their lives of trust that has been violated.
Fifth, act promptly when a leader or group goes astray. Don’t wait for complaints to mount. Act at an early stage, perhaps by offering assistance to a leader who is struggling, but be sure to act. Word will go around: this is a safe environment.
The pastor’s internal battle is no less difficult. While we might wish we could confer trust only after it has been earned, moving to a less centralized and more diverse church culture means the pastor will need to trust preemptively. That will mean letting go of bitter experiences in the past when trust was abused. Learning from them, especially how to recognize warning signs, but not clinging to the wounds and suffocating the efforts of others today.
In the end, the risk is worth it. A congregation that is functioning in a decentralized but organized and accountable way to offer diverse ministries can do much good and touch many people.