Posted: March 13, 2016 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
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I remember well one of the first adult Sunday school classes I took at our former church.  It was being touted as a fantastic opportunity to take a class that was being taught by the high school’s head football coach.  Now, neither me nor my husband are big sports fans, but I was interested in learning as much as I could about walking in and living out my faith, so I signed up.

This particular town has a very successful football program (as well as most other sports in their school system), and so there is a great amount of “hero worship” when it comes to coaches.  I was initially amazed at the number of people who attended the class the head football coach was teaching.  But after only about three Sunday’s, the attendance began to fall off and by weeks four and five, less than a quarter of us were still attending.  

Although this coach was also a high school math teacher, it was obvious that teaching in a classroom setting was not his gift.  His class enrollment at the church was based solely on his fame as the high school football coach.  Once people realized that he was sorely lacking as a teacher, they no longer wasted their time attending his class.  

Over the years I noticed more and more that those who were declared “leadership material” were often sorley lacking in the skills (or gifts or talents, if you will) for their given “ministry.”  What they had instead was either social, financial, or political status.  The school superintendent’s wife became the office manager even though she had never worked a day in her life in an office.  A young man with the right last name and a degree in physical therapy but couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket was hired as a full-time worship leader.  Though elders and deacons were “elected,” rumor suggested strongly that they were hand-selected base on their giving potential and societal standing.

For a few years, the church promoted a spiritual gifts class.  The promise was that through the class people would identify their spiritual gifts and the church would then know who would be appropriate or best suited to fill various ministry positions in the church.  Interestingly enough, the results of those classes were never considered when filling positions.  Once, when the women’s ministry was losing members in droves, I asked how the small group leaders were selected and I was told they simply invited women who they thought would be good leaders (meaning women with position, money, etc.).  I asked if they had looked at the spiritual gifts of these women to see if they were a good fit.  I was met with a blank stare.  It was obvious that spiritual gifts were far down the line of requirements for ministry.

Nepotism became rampant with the senior pastor, his brother, his wife, and his children all on the church payroll.  The business manager, his wife, and his son, too, were employed by the church.  Several couples and their offspring have held various full and part-time positions over the years.

There were some who were shunned and forced out for getting divorced while others were welcomed, embraced, and given an elevated position after admittedly contributing to their marital break-up.  People of lesser-than means would give inordinate amounts of time and barely get a nod while someone who simply graced the church with their presence on Sunday mornings was made over and celebrated.  Often, the senior pastor made a bee-line to a local multi-millionaire family patriarch, while rushing past everyone else in the vicinity.  

One morning, the senior pastor raced past an elderly gentlemen the, flippantly asking him, “How are you?”  A few moments later, another gentleman approached the pastor and told him that he had ignored the man’s response. He had told the pastor that he wasn’t doing very well.  The pastor hadn’t even heard him. He wasn’t important enough.

Wouldn’t it be something if there actually were a place where people were allowed to serve based on their God-given gifts and abilities rather than their name, where they live, what they look like, how much money they make, their position, etc.?  I’ve never heard of a place like that.

  1. Dave says:

    I wonder if some of your experience was magnified from this being a large church. Having attended a small(ish) church for many years, the dynamic I saw there was that if you offered to serve in one area, then you often got asked to serve in many others, so that those who were willing to serve actually got overworked and stretched thin and became worn out.

    I would think in a large church where everybody doesn’t know everybody, that it would be particularly susceptible to opportunities only being given by leadership to those who were prominent for whatever reason (community standing, name recognition, amount of financial contributions, being friends/family of the people in leadership, etc.).

    Now, having said that, there was certainly a degree of that in a small church as well. While the church didn’t have the luxury of turning away people who were desiring to serve, and it needed to be an “all hands on deck” dynamic, it was still true that leadership power tended to be concentrated in the hands of a few “insiders.” And I have visited other small churches where it appeared that a small group of people, or a couple of families, seem to run everything.

    I will also observe that we had the same situation with periodically doing classes on spiritual gifts, culminating with people taking a spiritual gift inventory assessment, and it seemed to me that there needed to be a much stronger connection between the information gleaned through those classes and matching people up with open positions. If you’re going to do the spiritual gift evaluations, then why not have a more formal process which uses those evaluations to match people’s particular giftedness with positions of service and responsibility?

    (And, on a separate note, I definitely observed in our church the same dynamic you mention with there being inconsistency in the treatment of behaviors by leaders/insiders versus other people. Sins, whether real or perceived, that would merit strong criticism for most people were extended great grace and mercy, or even outright excused, when done by someone in the “inner circle.”)

    • Ellen says:

      All good comments and observations. Actually, I have attended churches of all sizes over the years and was a member of several. This particular post was with regard to the favoritism that, while rampant in every church I have attended, was especially heinous in the church that touted the spiritual gifts class as one that would match gifts with areas of service yet did nothing of the kind. A church in which spiritual gifts were applied and accepted would certainly be a special place, yes?

      • Dave says:

        Yes, and of course that is only going to happen if the leadership is quite intentional about doing so; unfortunately it doesn’t just happen naturally or by accident.

        Even if the leadership of a church is not deliberately trying to show favoritism, the reality is that if an opportunity for service arises they are likely to first think of someone that is doing or has done something similar, which is how people often end up overburdened in some churches since you keep going back to the same well time and time again to fill the needed roles. If you are actively encouraging people to work to identify their spiritual gifts, and if you intentionally try to match those results with opportunities as they arise, that would be far preferable, as you point out. That is what would actually fit the 1 Corinthians 12 description of the various members working together to be the body of Christ on earth!

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