- Relational Wisdom | Ken Sande | Biblical Emotional Intelligence | Peacemaking | Institute Christian Conciliation | Reconciliation - https://rw360.org -

Accountability: The Mark of a Wise and Protected Leader

Josh was slowly crumbling under a steady barrage of criticism. For a few weeks after he began as pastor, the people at his new church seemed friendly and supportive. But Josh soon discovered that many of them were perpetually dissatisfied. They constantly questioned his leadership and complained about weak sermons, unmet needs, or a lack of vision and growth.

The elders did little to help the situation. They failed to confront gossip and slander, and seemed to accept accusations against their pastor as being true until he proved his innocence. He spent hours each week responding to complaints, and then the cycle started all over again. Josh might have lasted longer, but he saw how bitter his wife had become toward the church, and he handed in his resignation.

Glenn’s church had the opposite problem. His elders supported him so unquestioningly that they could not admit any wrongdoing on Glenn’s part. They stifled questions and concerns about his leadership and minimized his mistakes. They sent a clear message that any disagreement with Glenn damaged the unity of the church.

When a woman accused Glenn of inappropriate conduct during counseling, the elders assumed she had imagined it. When another woman made a similar complaint, the three elders who were closest to Glenn volunteered to investigate. After a few conversations with Glenn and the woman, they accepted his version of events and asked her to leave the church. It was not until Glenn was caught in a motel room with a third woman that the elders finally admitted that their pastor had a problem.

Chris, on the other hand, is blessed to serve a church where the leaders understand his weaknesses and are committed to helping him develop and use his gifts to the fullest. They evaluate and affirm his ministry regularly, and they do not hesitate to respectfully point out areas where Chris has erred or needs to grow. They have taught the congregation how to express questions and concerns respectfully, which helps to prevent a buildup of disagreements.

When Chris was accused of failing to fulfill an important pastoral responsibility, the elders thoroughly investigated the matter. When they concluded that the complaint was legitimate, Chris accepted their judgment and willingly confessed to the family that he had failed. Instead of losing respect, both Chris and the elders gained credibility as the congregation witnessed their commitment to genuine accountability.

I was personally involved in each of these three situations, and I have seen these patterns repeated again and again in other churches and ministries around the world. Every year hundreds of churches and ministries are thrown into turmoil when someone criticizes or raises serious questions about the conduct of a pastor or ministry executive. All too many of these situations end in resignation, dishonor, or division—usually because leadership teams commit one of two major errors.

Under-protecting a Leader

The first error is to under-protect the leader who is questioned or accused of wrongdoing. Under-protecting a leader may involve allowing gossip and rumors to spread unchecked, jumping to conclusions about a leader’s guilt, or failing to give him a meaningful opportunity to defend himself. It may also involve expecting or allowing a leader to spend significant amounts of time responding to trivial or unsubstantiated criticisms, often about style rather than substance, voiced by a few dissatisfied people.

These patterns can lead to a “culture of criticism” that will wear down most leaders. When leaders are subjected to ongoing criticism, their credibility is needlessly eroded; this can diminish trust, commitment, and enthusiasm throughout their church or ministry. A leader who spends many hours responding to petty complaints or mere differences in style will usually lose effectiveness and productivity. And if they are eventually forced out by continual complaints or because they were not given a fair chance to defend themselves, their supporters will often launch a campaign to punish the remaining leadership team.

Over-protecting a Leader

The second error that many churches and ministries make is to over-protect their leaders. They develop a self-confidence and blind loyalty that compels them to become defensive and automatically “circle the wagons” when a leader is questioned or accused of wrongdoing. They assume the challenge must be unfounded and immediately look for ways to minimize it or explain it away. They may rely on second-hand information or simply accept the leader’s interpretation of his accuser’s words and motives. And sometimes in an effort to justify or protect the leader, they attempt to silence, find fault with, or otherwise discredit or penalize the person who brought the accusation. As Jesus would put it, rather than humbly seeking to discern the “planks” in their leader’s or their own eyes, these leadership teams jump immediately to pointing out the “specks” in the eyes of others (Matt. 7:3-5).

This excessively protective pattern can create a “culture of denial,” where differences and problems are automatically minimized or concealed. When there is some truth in a complaint, over-protection prevents a leader from addressing a problem in its early stages, when small changes on his part might easily lay the matter to rest. If a serious complaint is true, circling the wagons can have even worse consequences. It will delay needed changes, aggravate or multiply harm to others, and diminish the credibility of the people who should have been holding the leader accountable in the first place.

Even if accusations against a leader are largely unfounded, over-protection can still cause significant damage. When sincere concerns and complaints are automatically rejected, members will feel that their voices don’t matter and give up on expressing concerns. When an investigating team fails to address complaints in a clearly objective manner, a cloud of doubt will often be left hanging over both the leader and the ministry itself. These doubts accumulate over time and steadily diminish the leader’s reputation both inside and outside the church or ministry. In addition, if an organization develops a reputation for deflecting questions and making superficial investigations, it may lack credibility when more serious issues must be addressed in the future.

Resolving Differences in a Culture of Peace

Both of these errors—under-protection and over-protection—can be avoided if churches and ministries replace a culture of criticism or denial with a culture of peace, where both leaders and members are equipped and encouraged to discuss differences and resolve leadership complaints as well as other conflicts in a biblical manner. There are several concepts that are especially important when preparing people to deal constructively with differences or concerns about leadership.

Supporting Leaders

As the apostle Paul revealed in his letters, Christian leaders are often exposed to criticism, complaints, and conflict. There are several ways that churches and ministries can support their leaders as they deal with this occupational hazard.

Supporting Staff and Congregation

Many complaints against leaders are magnified or mishandled because people do not know how to express their concerns in a constructive way. Churches and ministries can provide needed encouragement, guidance, and support to their people in several ways:

Resolving Formal Complaints

When a complaint against a leader cannot be resolved through informal measures, and the matter is too serious to overlook, it will be necessary to implement a formal investigation and resolution process. This process is likely to end constructively if it provides everyone involved with the “3 P’s of Satisfaction”:

Even when people do not agree with the final outcome (product) of a complaint process, they will usually accept the result if the investigative team provided them with both process and personal satisfaction. I cannot emphasize this point too much: Give people process satisfaction and personal satisfaction, and they will usually be content, even if they disagree with your substantive decision. If, on the other hand, a church or ministry fails to give these two levels of satisfaction, their leaders will often be forced to spend many hours responding to a proliferation of complaints against them.

Each situation will have its own unique challenges and requirements, but there are several general principles that help to ensure overall satisfaction with a formal complaint process.

When these principles are consistently practiced, most complaints against leaders can be resolved in a redemptive manner. In the process, people can be encouraged to express their concerns productively. Leaders can be protected from false accusations and encouraged to grow where needed. The reputation of the church or ministry can be preserved. And most importantly, God’s name will be honored as his people respond to one another as Christ would, with justice, integrity, and righteousness.

If you need advice on how to apply these principles in a particularly difficult situation, please contact Relational Wisdom 360 and ask for assistance from the Christian Conciliation Service [9].

– Ken Sande

See a companion article: Approachability: The Passport to Real Ministry and Leadership [3]

[1] For examples of when it is appropriate to involve others immediately, see The Peacemaker [10], pp. 146-147

[2] Names of qualified conciliators may be requested from RW360 [11] as well as from many denominational offices that have trained conciliator teams through our programs.

[3] For example, the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith provides that “In cases of difficulties or differences, either in point of doctrine or administration, wherein either the churches in general are concerned, or any one church, in their peace, union, and edification; or any member or members of any church are injured, in or by any proceedings in censures not agreeable to truth and order: it is according to the mind of Christ, that many churches holding communion together, do, by their messengers, meet to consider, and give their advice in or about that matter in difference, to be reported to all the churches concerned; howbeit these messengers assembled, are not entrusted with any church-power properly so called; or with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves, to exercise any censures either over any churches or persons; or to impose their determination on the churches or officers” (Chapter 26, section 15).

[4] Sample wording for a clause: “If we have a legal dispute with or within our church and cannot resolve it internally through the steps given above, we will obey God’s command not to go into the civil court (1 Cor. 6:1-8). Instead, we will submit the matter to mediation and, if necessary, legally binding arbitration, in accordance with the Rules of Procedure for Christian Conciliation of the Christian Conciliation Service, a division of Relational Wisdom 360.” For more information on conciliation clauses, click here [12].

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