“Our Sunday offerings have dropped off dramatically.” As church members are unable to work due to the COVID-19 closures of their workplaces and schools, the financial support of church ministries and staff are also being affected. In the past week, many pastors are reporting that weekly gifts have decreased. Although some churches have reserve funds to help cover expenses through the crisis, others are facing the prospect of reducing pastoral compensation or laying off staff.
On Friday, March 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H. R. 748) into law, making immediate financial assistance available to taxpayers, small businesses, churches, and nonprofits across the United States.
Major provisions of this bill affecting churches and nonprofits include stimulus payments to qualifying taxpayers; changes to some of the limits on charitable contributions (designed to encourage more charitable giving to churches and nonprofits); and unemployment benefits for pastors and ministry staff who lose their jobs. But there’s more.
Churches struggling to pay their pastors and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic need to be aware of the payroll protection provisions of the CARES Act. Churches can now apply for a small business loan from a local lender designed to help employers maintain employment levels and compensation at pre-coronavirus levels.
What does this mean for the church?
- In order to meet payroll obligations and essential operational expenses, churches can borrow up to two and one-half times their average monthly payroll.
- The low-interest loans are then repaid over a ten-year period, beginning 12 months after the loan origination date.
- If a church maintains their staffing levels and compensation during the crisis, the loan can be 100% forgiven. In which case, the loan essentially becomes a grant or a “gift” from the federal government.
If you are a pastor or church leader, it is likely that you have already heard of the payroll protection loans. Many of us have received multiple messages “explaining” the loans and the requirements for obtaining loan forgiveness.
How can you lead your church through the growing financial challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic? Where should you begin? What steps should a church consider before obtaining a payroll protection loan under the CARES Act of 2020?
(1) Encourage Dependence on the Lord
The church should sound a clear message during this crisis: Our Father can be trusted! I am not suggesting that a church receiving assistance from the federal government is unethical or unfaithful. Not at all!
Our Father overrules all the nations of the world. All governmental authorities exist to confront evil (e.g. a deadly virus) and to do good for their people (Romans 13:3-4). As taxpayers in the United States, you and I are the reason financial assistance can be offered by our government. But no matter what country you live in, our God reigns! If He is directing aid to the church through secular sources, we can genuinely thank Him for His provision.
However, one of the recurring downfalls of God’s people in the Old Testament was their failure to trust God during times of national crisis. Driven by a desperate sense of self-preservation, leaders were especially vulnerable to unholy alliances with pagan deities and military forces. During the current national crisis, be certain that the Lord is calling His people to trust Him (and nothing else) for direction and power.
In the New Testament, Jesus taught His people not to worry about food, clothing, and shelter (Matthew 6:25-26). God gives a supernatural peace to the person who trusts Him in prayer with their needs (Philippians 4:6-7). The reason we can abandon ourselves and our needs into His hands is because of the great concern and care He has for us (1 Peter 5:7)!
I believe this is a critical question: who are we going to trust to take care of us?
During this coronavirus crisis, we have a time-sensitive opportunity to lead His people to fully surrender to His care and wisdom as families and as the people of God.
(2) Gather Accurate Information
Your participating local lenders are going to be your best source of information regarding the application requirements and terms of the new payroll protection loans for churches and nonprofits. As you reach out to them for guidance, bear in mind that they are doing business during a life‑threatening pandemic. Many financial institutions have closed public access to their buildings, allowing customers to enter by appointment only. Whether by phone, email, or in person, minister to them personally before you connect with them professionally, offering to pray for their needs, families, and work associates. Then explore the following questions:
- When can we apply for a payroll protection loan under the new CARES Act? Can you send the application by email? Can we apply online?
- What information and documents will you need from a church or nonprofit in the application process?
- How much can we borrow? What are the repayment terms of the loan?
- Are there limitations on how the loan can be applied to our expenses?
- Can you explain what we need to do to assure loan forgiveness?
In addition, conduct personal research into the CARES Act using online websites and webinars. Use well‑known and trusted sources. Consider the following:
Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA)
GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention
Church Law & Tax – Richard Hammar
(3) Walk with Your Church Leaders through this Decision
Engage and inform your leaders regarding the benefits available through the CARES Act. Pray with them about the decision to borrow the funds. Draw on their expertise and rely on their practical wisdom as you weigh the application process.
Since a loan commits the entire church to a financial obligation, it is important to observe the pre-pandemic, decision-making processes of your church. If your bylaws and guiding documents require congregational approval at a time when churches are unable to conduct onsite business meetings, you may need to alter your normal decision-making practices. What should you do?
Inform and involve as many of your leaders as possible. Communicate what you are doing and why to the entire church. Conform to your normal decision-making process as much as you can, maintaining the “spirit” of the guiding documents.
A Final Word: Focus on Sustaining Ministry with the Funds He Provides
For most of us, our church buildings are sitting unused during the crisis. Our auditorium seats are empty. Our offering plates are not being passed on Sunday. But our ministry was never meant to be limited to a once-a-week worship service. During this season of physical separation, we can still proclaim the gospel, pour out mercy on our communities, and do ministry in a way that changes lives. The Lord will supply everything we need to do all that He has called us to do.
While I was in college, a youth minister asked me to “fill in” for him and host a party for the students at his church. One of the games involved “bobbing” for apples. As the evening unfolded, students were laughing and playing hard, until one student opened his mouth too wide to grab an apple out of the water—and his jaw locked open. Rushed to a nearby emergency room, the student was finally able to get his mouth closed. Although we were able to laugh about it later, at the time it was a frightening experience for the student and everyone around him.
Years later I was working on a policy for a growing congregation that would govern the use of the church facilities by outside groups during the week. Several business leaders and an attorney in the church did not want to adopt or implement such a policy. They were not opposed to evangelism, especially since the church was actively reaching unchurched individuals and families. They were deeply concerned about the potential exposure of the church to legal risks and liability to participants during events that were not being officially sponsored by the church. Their solution was to eliminate the risk by barring use of church property by outside groups.
Both of these stories illustrate two extreme responses to the subject of church liability or risk management. The youth minister I assisted was unaware and unconcerned for the risks associated with holding a youth event at the church, even if the injury that occurred was unusual or rare. Fortunately, no legal action followed. In the second example, the leadership exhibited a level of concern over the church’s liability that affected the ministry of the church within the local community. What both churches needed to do was develop and implement a liability strategy for managing risks.
What is Risk Management?
Risk management describes the effort to ensure the safety and well-being of individuals, groups, and property for whom the church is legally responsible. A “risk” represents that aspect of church-related participation, employment, volunteer service, properties, or activities that have the potential to create a moral or financial loss to the church. The process of risk management involves the identification of risks and the intentional effort to reduce those risks.
The Danger of Ignorance and Neglect
In the absence of risk management, the church as an organization could face serious financial and legal liability. If a lawsuit is filed against the church, the legal costs associated with hiring an attorney, paying court costs, and discharging a jury-awarded financial settlement can quickly outstrip the resources of a church. Litigation has increased dramatically in recent years, with the sexual abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Church being the most heavily publicized. Your church has no immunity from similar legal challenges; anyone can sue your church.
Without a risk management strategy, your church’s mission and witness is in danger of being damaged. The church is on a mission to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a lost and watching world. Negative reports arising from the ignorance or neglect of easily identified risks will damage a church’s reputation and evangelistic impact. A single failure to conduct a criminal background check of a volunteer worker leading to the molestation of a small child can damage a church’s ability to reach families for years.
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who takes care of the sheep. In His care, the sheep are protected against thieves, robbers, and wolves who come “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy’ (John 10:10)—a clear form of risk management to minimize danger to the flock. Pastors and church leaders should exhibit a similar vigilance for the spiritual and physical well-being of their human “flock” entrusted to their care. A failure to manage the risks that could affect the church is more than an act of ignorance: it is a dereliction of duty associated with the pastoral task.
A Strategy for Managing Risk in the Local Church
Risk management is a process of identifying the risks and then determining the best way to handle those risks in a moral and legally-responsible manner. It is a genuine and intentional effort to care for the people, assets and property associated with the church as an organization, preventing all forms of injury and loss. Due to the sheer number of possibilities and dynamic nature of risks that threaten a church, the process of risk management never ends. How can a church develop an effective and workable strategy for managing risk?
Assign responsibility. Whether it is a staff member or a ministry team, someone in the church needs to take the lead in developing the strategy. The church should make a clear assignment of responsibility and empower that person or group with sufficient authority to recommend changes or make decisions addressing safety concerns, inadequate insurance coverage, or church policies. Although the responsibility may be rotated periodically, the function and activity of risk management should have a permanent place in the leadership structure of the church.
Conduct a periodic risk assessment. The risk management leadership should thoroughly identify all risks. The survey of known risks should include a review of existing insurance coverage, potentially hazardous or unsafe conditions on the church property, church policies and practices concerning employees and volunteers, and financial policies and procedures (see below a sample list in the section “A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability”). The survey should be repeated on a periodic basis to identify new risks that may surface due to changes in the condition of the property, legal requirements, community environment, or direction in ministry. Risk management leadership can create a series of checklists to facilitate a routine risk assessment.
Determine how each risk will be managed. Risk management leadership needs to evaluate each of the identified risks for potential impact on the church. Motivated by pastoral and organizational concern to protect the church, risk management leadership can choose from four basic options to manage an identified risk.
- Avoid the risk. Risk management leadership can decide to eliminate the condition or activity that creates the risk. Leadership could cancel a ski trip, the use of the property by an outside group, or the use of church vehicles in an effort to eliminate risk.
- Share the risk. Risk management leadership can require individuals or groups to show proof of insurance before participating in a church-related event or using church property. In effect, the risk is “shared” between the church and the insurance company.
- Transfer the risk. Risk management leadership can purchase various forms of church insurance to cover the risk. Provided the coverage is sufficient, the insurance company assumes liability for the risk.
- Reduce the risk. Risk management leadership can minimize the risk through proactive actions including property improvements and changes in church policies and procedures. Often referred to as loss prevention, the goal is to reduce the likelihood of a risk creating a hazard or liability for the church (e.g., replacing lights in a darkened hallway). Loss control is the effort to minimize the damage caused by a risk. An example of loss control would be the development of a strategy for correctly handling an accusation of child molestation against a church employee or volunteer in a timely manner.
Gather resources. The risk management leadership in the church should stay well-informed and updated on the subject of risk management. The leadership should purchase and review books, periodicals, and multimedia resources addressing various topics in risk management. The single best resource the church has is their insurance provider. Most insurance companies can provide the church with risk management materials and guides to assist in the development of a risk management strategy. In many cases, the insurance company will send an agent to help conduct an inspection of the church property for hazards and unsafe conditions.
Document and record all decisions and activities. The risk management strategy can be called many things (e.g., church safety and liability plan) but it should be documented and made available to the church. More than a document sitting in a file folder at the church, the risk management strategy should be carefully implemented. The risk management team should also review and update the strategy on a periodic basis to keep it current.
A List of Twenty Actions to Ensure Safety and Reduce Liability
- Assign the responsibility for risk management to a staff member or ministry team. Unless someone owns the responsibility to administer risk management, it will not receive the level of attention that is needed to develop an adequate church liability strategy. The leadership should make every effort to identify all risks and determine how to manage each risk to reduce or eliminate its potential impact on the church.
- Evaluate the insurance coverage of the church to determine whether all insurable risks are adequately covered. The church cannot afford to be underinsured against a costly legal obligation stemming from an uninsured risk. The risk management leadership should review and seek to understand the existing insurance coverage of the church, enlisting the aid of their insurance agent. Church insurance should include six categories of coverage: property, liability, workers compensation, employers liability, automobile, and excess or umbrella insurance.
- Perform an inspection of the church buildings and grounds for unsafe or hazardous conditions. Church members and guests should not be exposed to the risk of injury or harm due to the poor condition of church property (e.g., faulty equipment, inadequate lighting, or slick floors). The risk management leadership should conduct a safety and security inspection of their facility and grounds, identifying risks and hazards that need to be corrected or repaired. Inspection considerations and/or checklists can usually be secured from the church’s insurance carrier or downloaded from a credible internet source such as the GuideOne Center for Risk Management or Guidestone’s Safety Toolkit.
- Control access to facilities, church equipment, and material resources. The risk management leadership should set policies governing the access to and use of church property. Buildings, offices, and equipment storage should be locked when not in use and key distribution should be limited to avoid theft or unauthorized activities. The church should develop policies concerning the usage of church property by church members or non-members.
- Review the procedures for the collection and handling of offerings. Church members participating in the collection of offerings are vulnerable to accusations of theft or embezzlement. The risk management leadership should carefully review how money is handled during the weekly Sunday collection. They may also want to consider contracting with an accounting firm to conduct a procedural audit of the collection process, recommending changes or improvements to the way offerings are handled on a weekly basis. At least two, unrelated adults should oversee the process from the moment of collection until the funds are safely deposited into the bank or church safe. No one should ever take the offerings home for safekeeping or counting. A team of individuals should count the funds in a room where all cash, checks, and envelopes will remain in sight of the entire team. All counts should be double-checked and documented on a signed form listing all currency and checks prior to completing the bank deposit slip. Counting team members should be rotated on a regular basis.
- Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding the IRS rules governing charitable contributions. Not all contributions are tax deductible. If the church provides written substantiation of a gift that does not meet the established criteria of a tax deduction, the donor could be subject to costly penalties. Established in Internal Revenue Service Publication 526 (http://www.irs.gov/publications/p526/index.html), charitable contributions must meet an established set of criteria in order to be tax deductible. Church treasurers need to be familiar with these rules in order to advise donors and assist them in providing written substantiation of their gifts to the church.
- Provide training for the church treasurer and finance committee regarding employment tax requirements of the church as an employer. Churches need to ensure that all required forms, documentation, and payments associated with an employee’s taxes are being completed and filed in a timely manner. In addition, the church should be well informed concerning the use of housing allowances by ordained clergy, the value of an accountable reimbursement plan to manage professional expenses, and the proper administration of withholding taxes.
- Review non-exempt employee work hours to ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting all church employees. Churches must provide overtime pay for employees who are not exempt from overtime requirements under the FLSA (e.g., church secretaries and custodial staff).
- Develop a standard interview form, employment application, and comprehensive process for use when hiring church employees. Supervisors and personnel committees involved in the hire or termination of employees need to be aware of the legal standards placed upon employers. Certain questions may not be asked during an interview or requested on a job application. Interview forms and hiring/termination procedures should be developed in consultation with the counsel of a qualified human resource manager or an attorney.
- Ensure compliance with new hire reporting and immigration laws. Every state requires employers to report all new hires as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The reports are used primarily for tracking parents who owe back child support and for reducing fraud under various social programs, including unemployment benefits. In addition, all employers are required to have new employees complete an Employment Eligibility Form I-9 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The forms are to be kept on file and maintained by the employer. Severe fines and penalties can be applied to the church that fails to comply with these non-IRS documentation requirements.
- Display all required state and federal employee notices for employees. Employers are required to post notices from a variety of federal and state agencies in locations that are accessible and visible to all employees. Failure to post the required notices can result in significant fines and penalties. Although there are human resource suppliers willing to sell the posters to the church, all of the required notices can be obtained without cost through the websites and offices of the U. S. Department of Labor and the labor department of the state in which the church is located.
- Safeguard church financial, membership, and employment records. Church vital records should be protected from unauthorized access or loss. Fireproof safes and file cabinets should be used for hard copies of documents. Offsite and redundant storage should be used to backup all digital records. The risk management leadership should develop a records retention policy governing what records should be preserved and for what duration.
- Develop a policy and process for screening employees and volunteers for past criminal behavior. Criminal background checks should be required for all staff and volunteers who work with children and youth. In addition, references concerning past employment or volunteer service should be checked thoroughly.
- Establish a church policy to reduce risks associated with mission trips. With the growing popularity of church mission trips, a number of risks ranging from accidental injury to unforeseen natural disasters can occur. The church should have an adequate policy in place that requires participants to acquire “out of the country” health and accident insurance and to adequately inform participants of the hazards associated with the trip.
- Train ushers and greeters to be security-conscious and prepared to respond to emergencies associated with a medical need, accidents, potential intruders, or natural disasters. Churches are vulnerable to a variety of unforeseen emergency conditions on Sundays when the most people are on campus and the church is most accessible to the general public. Ushers and greeters should be properly trained and prepared to respond to emergency conditions as they arise. They should also be alert to unsafe conditions or hazards in and around the church buildings.
- Establish policies to ensure adequate and proper supervision of youth and children during all church activities and events. Churches are susceptible to charges of improper or inadequate supervision should a child be abused or injured as part of a church sponsored activity or event. Employees and workers should be required to submit to a criminal background check prior to enlistment or employment by the church to supervise children. Many states and municipalities have specified the minimum ratio of workers to participants when working with minors.
- Develop procedures for handling accusations of criminal or sexual misconduct against a staff member or church member. Unfounded accusations can severely damage the reputation of a wrongly accused church member or employee. At the same time, accusations must be handled with a serious and deliberate response in order to protect the alleged victim(s) of criminal or sexual misconduct. Until guilt or innocence is established, the church must act to protect all parties involved with responsible action.
- Define an emergency response and communication plan to be implemented when actual criminal or sexual misconduct is discovered. Churches that are slow to react or uncertain in their response can easily mishandle and exacerbate an already difficult situation for affected families and church members.
- Develop a policy and a strategy for the conduct of pastoral counseling. Pastors and staff face a degree of risk whenever they respond to requests for counseling from church members or non-members of the church. Best practices should be established and observed to ensure that counseling is conducted in a manner that protects the minister and the client. Clients should be required to read and sign an agreement clarifying the limits and extent of the counseling services being provided by the church. Specifically, the policy and the client agreement should clarify the limits of clergy-penitent privilege, as well as the parameters of confidentiality. Pastors and church leaders should be aware of the mandatory reporting laws in their state mandating they report certain crimes, including the suspected abuse of a minor or senior adult.
- Review, update, and observe the guiding documents of the church. The guiding documents of a church may include the articles of incorporation, a constitution, and a set of bylaws. If a church fails to observe the requirements of their guiding documents, particularly as they apply to the conduct of business and decision making, the church may be subject to legal challenges from members.
“You can build a great church or you can build a great people. I’m not sure you can do both.” The older pastor looked at the neophyte steadily as the statement settled into the young minister’s thoughts. The older pastor’s point was well taken.
Recalling that experience decades later, I recognize how easy it is for church leaders and pastors to become preoccupied with what they can do to make the church grow numerically. Indeed, churches ought to be attracting and reaching people with the gospel! Church gatherings should be well conceived and led with excellence. Pastors should abhor mediocre, boring, and repetitive programming. However, in a way that they cannot quite identify or describe, many church leaders intuitively sense something is missing. The missing emphasis lies in a lack of attention on the health of the church.
Does church health matter? Although dozens of metaphors exist in the New Testament describing the church, the image most applicable to developing a philosophy of church health is a “body” or organism. In the same way a doctor assesses a human physical body, leaders can conclude that the church as the Body of Christ is either healthy or unhealthy. The New Testament writers use the word “church” (ἐκκλησία) to describe both the universal church and the local church, as well as any distribution of believers in a region. Therefore, to describe the health of a congregational “body” is to evaluate a group of people against a biblical template of what they should be and do together.
The church is one body made up of individual members, in whom the divine life of Christ dwells. As an organism, the church is the Body of Christ and he is the head (Col. 1:18). A living organism can have only one head, and the function of the head is to give direction to every individual part of the body (Eph. 1:22). In an organism, each individual part is intimately connected to the head, and the head sends and receives impulses and messages directly to it.
In a healthy church that is properly related to Jesus as the head, the body is guided by the mission and thinking of Jesus. He taught that when He is building the church, the gates of hell will fail against the forward movement of His people (Mt. 16:18). Understood in this way, the organized church is fueled by its health (or dysfunction) as a spiritual organism, an expression of a real and vital connection to Christ. Furthermore, because of this mystical union with Jesus, every church member shares a mystical, organic bond with every other member of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5).
Consequently, the spiritual health of a church is an essential prerequisite to any activity by the church. Being truly precedes doing. The life of the church as an organism will animate the church as an organization. Apart from the headship and presence of Jesus, the church of Jesus becomes a listless, human-powered organization intent on perpetuating its own existence.
Do leaders need to be concerned with church health? The word “elder” implies maturity and is the primary term used in the New Testament to identify a church leader (Acts 20:17, 28-31). Used interchangeably with the word “overseer” or the function of “oversight” (Titus 1:5-7), the “elder” provided essential leadership and teaching functions in the early church. The word “pastor” appears as a hyphenated noun with the word “teacher” in Eph. 4:11. Throughout the remainder of the New Testament, “pastor” describes the shepherding function of the “elder” (1 Pet. 5:1-2). Regardless of the preferred title, elders, overseers, and pastor-teachers play at least three vital roles in fostering and maintaining the health of the church.
- Equipping. In Paul’s description of church health in Eph. 4:11-13, leaders are equipping the saints to grow and serve together with the goal of reflecting Christ as a group. Accomplished primarily through teaching, equipping pastors seek to lead the entire church to maturity through the spiritual growth of every believer (Col. 1:28). Far more than the dissemination of information, the equipping role of the pastor fosters church health as each member of the Body becomes like Christ.
- Protecting. Paul admonished the elders of the church in Ephesus to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock . . . after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things. . .” (Acts 20:28‑30). Shepherds protect their sheep. Church leaders must expect threats to the doctrinal and relational integrity of the church. Drawing on the resources of the Holy Spirit, leaders can take the initiative to resolve problems, to provide a calming, non-anxious presence, and to speak the truth the church needs in order to arrest destructive forces both within and outside the fellowship.
- Modeling. In 1 Pet. 5:3, elders are to be examples to the flock. The mature character of the church leader directly affects the health of the church. This explains why the qualifications for elders and overseers focus on the character of the man, as opposed to his credentials and training (1 Tim. 3:1-12, Titus 1:5-9). Understood in this way, the qualifications for church leaders also describe the growth points for each member of the congregation. The character requirements for the pulpit are also expected in the pew!
So what should a healthy church look like?
(1) Healthy Churches Worship and Fellowship Together
Immediately following Pentecost, Luke describes the life of the early church in Acts 2:42-47:
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
The daily worship gathering of the church was a public and corporate focus on “the apostles’ doctrine.” The study of truth was central to the early Christians and served as a foundation for their shared life together (“fellowship” or κοινωνία). Mentioned twice in the passage, eating together indicated intimacy and acceptance in the ancient (and modern) Middle Eastern culture. They prayed together. They experienced a deep reverential fear, sensing and seeing God’s activity in their midst. God’s presence also generated joy and praise within the fellowship (Psalm 16:11). Outsiders liked these people. It is no wonder that new believers were coming into the church every day!
Healthy churches worship God. The form of corporate worship and fellowship may vary among cultures, but the essential elements of biblical teaching, heart-felt joy, and the presence of God will be evident.
(2) Healthy Churches Broadcast the Gospel
For churches that look to the scriptures for direction and guidance, the Great Commission statements of the New Testament clarify and define each church’s mission. In the Great Commission of Mt. 28:18-20, Jesus said,
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
The passage begins and ends with a promise. Jesus rules in the “unseen” and “seen” realms (Mt. 28:18). Jesus concludes with a promise to accompany his followers throughout their mission (Mt. 28:20). However, Matthew records only one main verb in the passage: to make disciples. The other three participles—going, baptizing, and teaching—modify and augment the primary activity of making disciples. Matthew leads the readers to understand that making disciples is the primary activity of a healthy church.
After describing how all of the secular and irreligious people were coming to hear Jesus, Luke records how Jesus responded to the resulting criticism from religious leaders. Jesus justified his socializing with “the wrong people” by telling this story: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (Lk. 15:4). Jesus is clearly interested in and concerned about every single lost person.
In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15). The church is charged to take the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl in their sphere of influence. Jesus is calling the church to saturate their world with the gospel. The early church appears to have understood and practiced saturation evangelism. Jewish authorities accused the apostles of having “filled Jerusalem” with the gospel message (Acts 5:28). Similarly, Paul spread the gospel for two years with the result that “all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Legitimate evangelism seeks to eliminate lostness by saturating the world with the gospel.
In its most basic form, evangelism is the sharing of “good news.” Through the delivery and explanation of the content of the gospel, the church “evangelizes” the world, regardless of the response from the hearers. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). When a disciple delivers the “message of the cross,” he or she is doing evangelism. Some people listening to the gospel message will be changed—others will reject it.
In Acts, Luke summarizes the “success” of the young church in terms of people being baptized and “added” to the church (e.g., Acts 2:41, 2:47 and 5:14). Paul was deeply burdened and desperate over the lostness of an entire generation of Jews (Rom. 9:3). Taken with God’s passionate pursuit of lost souls described in three different parables in Luke 15, the presence of new Christians in a church becomes a clear sign of health. The absence of a steady flow of new Christians should be a cause for concern and deep grief, generating a call to prayer for God’s renewing presence and power.
(3) Healthy Churches Seek the Presence of God
Everything in the church rises and falls on the presence of God. In his book God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (1994), Gordon Fee argues that the entire corpus of Paul’s teaching cannot be properly understood apart from his constant reliance upon and experience of the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Bible, God’s presence is the leading indicator of the spiritual health of the people of God. For example, Moses refuses to advance to the Promised Land apart from the accompanying presence of God (Ex. 33:15). Jesus directed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed” with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49). Markers of God’s presence in the Bible include a sense of awe (Rev. 1:17), a sense of his love (Eph. 3:17-19), a crushing awareness of personal sin (Isa. 6:1-5), and a deep desire to confess sin and make things right with others (Luke 3:8-14). Throughout the book of Acts, the church carried reports of God’s activity to one another (Acts 11:18).
The healthy church understands that the Holy Spirit is essential to their work. The earliest disciples understood that the accomplishment of their mission was dependent on the activity of the Holy Spirit. He represents and communicates the presence of God to his people. Jesus described the impact that the Holy Spirit’s arrival would have on the disciples following Pentecost: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The influence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life was an obvious and observable quality (Acts 6:3). The enabling power of the Spirit added a supernatural effectiveness to the witness of the disciples (Acts 6:10). More significantly, the Holy Spirit spoke to the disciples. Comprehending and obeying what the Spirit “said,” Philip witnessed to a man in the wilderness (Acts 8:29), Peter carried the gospel across racial lines (Acts 10:19), church leaders launched a new mission (Acts 13:2), and Paul took the gospel into Europe for the first time (Acts 16:6-7).
The Holy Spirit is essential for individual transformation too. Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The flow of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of any heart begins when someone accepts and trusts the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates the heart (Psalm 51:10-11). The only hope for individual or corporate change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of the heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
(4) Healthy Churches Make Christlike Disciples
In Matthew’s expression of the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Jesus commanded the remaining eleven disciples to “make disciples of all the nations.” A healthy church makes disciples—but what is a disciple? When a person becomes a disciple of Jesus, it means that this person was not always a disciple. A life was changed and a disciple was “made.” The concept of making a disciple suggests a process that is spiritual, intentional, and relational.
Healthy churches have developed clear responses to three questions:
- What is a disciple? (Meaning)
- How do we make them? (Method)
- How do we know when we have made them? (Metric)
The essence of discipleship is “follow-ship.” Just as men and women followed Jesus during his earthly tenure on earth, disciples today need to envision themselves as following a living Jesus who goes before them every day. To follow Jesus is to embrace his mission and reflect his life—to live as he lived (1 Jn. 2:6). To follow Jesus is to experience personal transformation into his likeness, and that transformation occurs through his active presence in the believer’s life. Consider these examples:
- … Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
- … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… (Eph. 3:17)
- Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (2 Cor. 13:5)
- … it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me… (Gal. 2:20)
- My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you… (Gal. 4:19)
What does a church look like when Christ is being “formed” in the hearts of his people? Paul measured success in a church by the presence of faith, hope, and love (e.g., 2 Th. 1:2-3; Eph. 1:15-16; and Col. 1:3-5). Reflecting transformed lives and healthy relationships within the church, Paul looked for these inward qualities in the form of consistent, observable behaviors and attitudes. Paul understood that character “bubbles” come to the surface of a person’s life as a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (Gal. 5:22-23). Yielding to the inner prompting and gentle pressure of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), individuals collectively reveal the activity of God within a church by the way they treat one another (John 13:35). Not only does Paul rejoice as the gospel advances, but he is delighted when the church reflects the life and character of Jesus Christ (1 Th. 1:2-3).
(5) Healthy Churches Demonstrate Love for One Another and the World
Jesus exhibited great compassion for people (Mt. 9:36-38). Healthy churches understand that Christ-followers will demonstrate his compassion to others as well, sharing his heart for a broken and lost world. If his heart is “moved with compassion,” how can the heart of the church beat in any other way? Christ’s love extends beyond the church to the world. The consequence of an intimate, dependent relationship with Jesus is that the disciple begins to share Jesus’ concern. He will lead his disciples to care about the spiritual condition and well-being of every person that they meet. Like Paul and Moses (Rom. 9:3; Ex. 32:32), the disciple of Jesus will experience a burden for hurting and lost souls—a visceral response to human need. Over time, the thoughts and actions of the disciple will begin to align with the heart of Jesus. This is equally true within the church. Love for other believers is expressed in many different reciprocal behaviors—also known as the “one another” commands of the New Testament.
How does a church overcome its relational deficits and dysfunctions? Love is the key. For example, love that heals relationships appears in the way members are “extending grace to one another” (Rom. 15:7) In 1 Th. 2:3, Paul refers to the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Healthy churches are populated by people who are prepared to work—to exert themselves even when it hurts—in order to love others within the Body. Healthy churches are loving churches.
How can you use these metrics to open up a discussion in your church about church health? Taking them one at a time, consider leading 5-6 sessions in an informal setting, allowing plenty of time for participants to discuss and pose questions (e.g., How healthy are we in this area? Does the Lord have a way forward for us? What is the next step? What will we pray and trust Him to do? What are we willing to do? etc.).
Following months of false rumors and verbal attacks, the deacons and their pastor had arranged to meet with the man whose actions and words were deeply dividing their church. The ensuing discussion was frustrating to everyone involved. After several attempts to uncover and address the man’s core complaints, the pastor finally asked, “What would it take for us to satisfy your concerns and to put an end to this conflict?” Moving within inches of the pastors’ face, the man harshly replied, “I won’t be satisfied until you’re gone!”
Bullies, antagonists, and predators aggressively pursue their own self‑interests in the church, influencing others through various forms of misinformation, manipulation, or intimidation. Left unchecked, an active predator will entangle members and pastors in a never‑ending series of conflicts, leaving behind a trail of wounded souls and a damaged church.
Predators represent an ancient threat to the body of Christ. Speaking to church leaders in the first century, the apostle Paul warned, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will rise up even from your own number and distort the truth to lure the disciples into following them. Therefore be on the alert. . .” (Acts 20:29-30). How can deacons stay “on the alert,” protecting the church from predators?
Build Strong Fences
Make it tough for potential predators to establish a base of operation within the church. Just as strong fences can hinder or prevent wolves from gaining access to a defenseless herd or flock, wise preventive measures discourage church predators. The more effort you devote now towards constructing “fences” in your church, the less energy you will spend warding off predators in the future. What are those “fences”?
Loving Relationships. When deacons allow the Holy Spirit to produce Christ’s love in them, they will prioritize relationships whenever conflicts threaten the fellowship (Galatians 5:22-23). Although predators thrive in “loveless” churches, they find it difficult to work with people who have learned that loving one another through a disagreement is more important than winning a debate.
Local Mission. Predators maneuver easily in self-absorbed congregations (James 4:1-2). But what is the local, God-given mission of your church? In Jeremiah 29:7, the prophet told God’s people in exile to “pursue the well-being of the city. . . for when it thrives, you will thrive.” Deacons who encourage church members to selflessly “exit the building” in order to bless the people in their local community are helping to build a strong fence against predators.
Individual Ministry. God has given your church all of the people it needs to accomplish its mission (1 Corinthians 12:18). Pastors are called to equip the members to fulfill their call to ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Consequently, deacons should be encouraging every member to become a minister! Predators are drawn to churches where pastors and a handful of members do most of the work. Hungry for control and power, predators will seek out important positions for themselves, or challenge anyone that gets in their way!
Spiritual Maturity. The heart of the Great Commission is to make disciples. A disciple is more than a church attender. A disciple is someone who is being transformed into the likeness of Jesus by following Him in a daily, intimate relationship (Colossians 1:28; Galatians 4:19). Spiritual maturity is seeking to please the Lord in every area of life, especially in relationships with others. In a church where deacons are encouraging people to love and follow Jesus, predators struggle to mask their selfish motives and immature behaviors.
Guiding Documents. If your church has a set of bylaws and policies, observe them carefully, being sure that they adequately and accurately reflect the way your church conducts its business. Predators love to use obsolete or ignored documents to create confusion and to get their way during a church conflict. Updated documents will clarify how decisions are made and who has the right to make them.
Leadership Training. Although most pastors spend years in formal ministry studies, deacons often receive little or no preparation for their work. Contact your pastor, associational missionary, or one of your state convention employees for information concerning training opportunities designed to equip you to handle conflict in the church. Consider starting a study group with other deacons, reading scriptures and discussing books to help you grow as spiritual leaders. When a predator begins to disrupt the church, you will be prepared to respond with biblical truth and practical wisdom.
Stand Against the Predators
What if the “fences” are inadequate to stop the advance of a predator? You need a good guard dog! Used for centuries in Europe and Asia to protect sheep and goats from wolves and bears, “livestock protection dogs” are now being bred for use in the United States. Similarly, the church needs spiritually mature men who will place themselves in the path of a predator. When a predator attacks the church, how can deacons stand with their pastor and guard the flock of God?
Pray Together. Remember that all battles belong to the Lord (1 Samuel 17:47). While the predator might consider you an enemy, you know that the real battle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). Set aside time as leaders to seek the Lord together, trusting Him with your need for wisdom and guidance (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Gather Facts. Predators can control some church leaders through intimidation. But if that fails, they will spread gossip and slander to influence the church’s perception of their leaders. Predators will filter and misrepresent their information in order to provoke negative emotions within church members. To establish the truth, deacons need to concentrate on gathering facts before taking decisive action (Proverbs 25:2).
Challenge the Sinful Behavior. When Paul encountered a deeply troubled and argumentative soul, he suspected the behavior might be due to demonic influence. Consequently, Paul encouraged Timothy to keep “instructing his opponents with gentleness” in the hope that they might repent of their words and actions (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Because predators will interpret gentleness and patience as weakness in a leader, pastors and deacons need to work together to communicate their unity and resolve.
Initiate Church Discipline. When should a deacon body pursue church discipline of a predator who continues to cause turmoil and division? Paul taught church leaders to issue two formal warnings to an individual creating division in a church. If the predator refused to repent and change, Paul directed church leaders to end the discussion and the relationship (Titus 3:10-11; Romans 16:17-18). If your church has adopted a process for church discipline, observe it carefully.
Dealing with church predators is extremely draining. Deacons might fear losing the respect of their family and friends by getting involved in the conflict. However, they are more likely to win their respect by standing against those seeking to undermine the ministry of the church. Paul promised that deacons who serve well will “acquire a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13). Serve well!
For further reading:
Sheffield, Robert, and James E. White. Equipping Deacons to Confront Conflict. Nashville TN: LifeWay Christian Resources, 1986.
(Written to encourage deacons, this article was originally published as “Protecting Your Church from Predators” in the Fall 2017 issue of Deacon Magazine, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.)
As you read this, there is a pastor near you who is “on call” every day of the week. He pours his heart into his sermon preparation, but no one seems to notice. He visits the sick, but someone is telling him he doesn’t visit enough. Someone else is asking him what he does with all of his “free time” during the week. The church isn’t growing. He feels like he is failing in every area of his work. There’s a deep sadness rising in his soul. The joy is gone, and he thinks frequently about quitting. He is losing the heart of his kids. He rarely gets to spend time with his wife.
Too many pastors are living this story every week. Your pastor is in danger. Here are seven ways you can help protect him.
- Cover your pastor with prayer. When teaching on spiritual warfare, Paul urges us to bathe all we do in prayer, and to intercede for “all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Everyone needs someone praying for them, and your pastor is no exception. He is a primary target of the enemy, who wants to exploit every weakness and magnify every failure.
Include him in your prayers at home and as the Lord brings him to mind during your day. Call or text him, letting him know when you have lifted him up. Your pastor prays with others almost daily, but how many people stop to place a hand on his shoulder and pray for him? Drop by or schedule a brief visit during the week for the sole purpose of praying for him directly.
- Share with your pastor how God is using him. In addition to the time-consuming activities of visiting, counseling, and planning, your pastor spends countless hours preparing to preach and teach God’s Word each week. As members leave the building on Sunday, it’s easy for him to wonder “is God using me?” Pastors need encouragement.
While it’s true that happy people don’t complain, they should speak up! Let your pastor know how God is using him in your life. Text him at the end of a long Sunday and tell him what you saw God doing through him. Discuss his messages with him, taking time to share what God is teaching you through his preaching. Your specific and personal words of encouragement will be deeply felt and long remembered by your pastor.
- Attempt to meet needs and solve problems before you report them. What do you do when a member comes to you with a ministry need? It would be a mistake to think that you are “helping” your pastor by simply telling him what you have heard. He probably has plenty on his plate already!
Since pastors are called to equip God’s people to do ministry (Eph. 4:11-12), deacons should be the first to model a mature believer’s response to the needs and problems that surface in the church. Relying on the Holy Spirit and drawing on God’s Word, explore how God might use you to take the first steps towards a ministry solution.
- Minimize murmuring to the maximum. Years ago the deacons in our church embraced the task of “minimizing murmuring to the maximum.” The slogan expressed their desire to meet needs and handle complaints in a way that helped the church remain spiritually vibrant and relationally strong.
By routinely correcting misunderstandings, answering questions, and quelling rumors, you can lead members to a deeper willingness to trust the heart of their pastor. When a member remains dissatisfied, offer to accompany him to a meeting with your pastor. Your presence can have a positive and calming effect on the conversation.
- Stand with him when he encounters destructive criticism. When the widows complained to the Apostles in Acts 6 that they were not being treated fairly in the church’s relief ministry, they were not attacking the leadership: they were voicing an unmet need. Understood in this way, complaints can become pathways to the creation of new ministries in the church. Similarly, criticism can be constructive, leading to positive changes and needed improvements. Deacons do not need to fear conflict, but because it is inevitable among sinful human beings, deacons should “go to school” on the biblical process of peacemaking (see the recommended resources at the end of this article).
Not all conflicts are the same. Your pastor is not perfect, he makes mistakes, and he is growing in Christ – just like everyone else in the church. Consequently, if someone wants to find fault in a pastor, he will always be successful! When an individual’s complaints and criticisms turn into personal attacks and hostile accusations, you need to stand with your pastor, providing visible and verbal support. Church bullies cannot be ignored. If you refuse to engage and confront the inappropriate and sinful behavior of an antagonist, the conflict can quickly escalate with catastrophic damage to your pastor, his family, and the church.
- Help him recharge and avoid burnout. When a pastor becomes chronically tired, discouraged, or overwhelmed by the incessant demands of ministry, he can suffer from burnout, losing his motivation and becoming susceptible to intense levels of temptation. Members are usually unaware of the stresses associated with pastoral ministry until it’s too late.
Deacons need to help a pastor protect his use of time and avoid the abuse of his body. How? Don’t expect him to attend every church function. Ask him whether he’s taking a day off. Take an interest in his family, watching for opportunities to affirm and support his efforts to be a good father and husband. Be sure that he schedules and uses his vacation time. Lead the church to bless the pastor and his wife with an evening out (providing a gift card and free babysitting) or a weekend getaway.
- Do ministry together. What is your ministry as a deacon? What is it that God has called the deacons of your church to actually do? In too many churches, the “ministry” of the average deacon has been reduced to sitting through a monthly meeting. God has called you to much more. Like “The Seven” who stepped up to meet the needs of the widows in Acts 6, pray about taking on an area of ministry that would alleviate personal demands on the pastor, while addressing a needed area of ministry in your church.
As an individual deacon, one of the most encouraging things you can do for your pastor is to go with him as he does pastoral visitation, travels to a speaking engagement, or attends a denominational meeting. Together you will have a greater ministry impact on the people you see. Your presence will go a long way towards alleviating boredom, fatigue, and loneliness. Your relationship with one another will deepen, becoming more authentic and genuine.
Great pastors of healthy, growing churches never get “there” by themselves. God always uses a team of men to support, encourage, and protect that pastor. Are you part of a team like that? Are you one of those men?
For further reading:
Sande, Ken. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
Sheffield, Robert, and James E. White. Equipping Deacons to Confront Conflict. Nashville TN: LifeWay Christian Resources, 1986.
Do you know that the greatest challenge of leading at home or at church is to win the heart? With a position, you can lead a few people for awhile, but with a tender compassion for people, you can influence this generation and the next. This idea is rooted in the New Testament qualifications for a church leader:
“(a real leader should have) his children in submission with all reverence” I Timothy 3:4
Translators sometimes apply “reverence” to the father’s manner of leadership (rather than to the children’s manner of submission). I disagree. Anyone can get a child to do what they want. It’s not the father’s masterly behavior in view, but the children’s heartfelt compliance with their father’s direction. To secure someone’s “followship” — and their deep respect — is a very different kind of parenting and pastoring.
“My Daddy loves me and knows me and cares for me… when he asks me to do something, that’s all I need to know!” Winning the heart of children at home qualifies a man for pastoral leadership. If he knows how to win hearts at home, he will lead out of the strength of his relationships with people in the church house… and not out of his position.
Are you a person who knows how to win the heart of a child? I have six children, but I am no expert or model of a perfect father. Whatever I have done well as a Dad is entirely a result of my ongoing experience of the fatherhood of God.
You see — winning the heart — this is what God does with you and me every day! He is always:
- Giving to me (Matthew 7:7-11)
- Knowing me (Matthew 10:29-31)
- Leading me (Mark 14:36)
- Comforting me (II Cor. 1:3-4)
- Training me (Hebrews 12:7-11)
- Receiving me (Galatians 4:4-7)
The Father’s act to win our heart also lies at the core of our salvation! Charles Spurgeon describes the Father’s work this way,
…you are the very ones whom I pray Him to lead captive, in silken chains of blessed bondage, as trophies of the irresistible grace with which His almighty love wins the hearts of his greatest enemies, and transforms them into his faithful friends and willing servants for ever and ever.
I like that… leading souls at home, inside the church, and outside the church always involves winning the heart.