How our church first started and grew. The questions in bold are questions we should have asked but didn't. Had I allowed myself to ask them, the outcome may have been very different.
Perhaps you can see how the seeds of an abusive system were sown right from the outset.
You may consider that we were inexperienced or naive. Nevertheless at one stage the church, of about 60, included 12 members with University degrees, two of whom were from Oxford, a solicitor, an accountant, a corporate lawyer and five teachers (one a deputy head)!
Our church started in 1988. It was the era of the charismatic house church, with it's idealism and expectation of 'great things from God' just around the corner. The house churches, we believed, were 'the way forward'. We were convinced that God had finished with dead, traditional, lifeless, institutionalised churches. House churches were where it was all happening. We were part of the 'new move of God'.
- Did this church have an elitist attitude? Did members feel there was no church like theirs - a group with a 'prophetic mandate' and calling to the other churches and our town?
We thanked God that we were not like the cult next door, with it's suited men, headscarved women, restrictive lifestyles and legalistic interpretation of Scripture. We had the Spirit!
- Did we give ourselves a false sense of security in our comparison with others?
Our church was an offshoot of one of these new churches. It was started and led by a man who was an Elder in that church, of which we were also a part. He was a man of remarkable gifts in caring for others. In that leadership team, he had become a firm favourite with members and some had formed strong attachments with him. Naturally when he left, they still wanted to be with him. My wife and I were two of them. He had taken us 'under his wing'.
- What was the reason this man left the leadership team? How did he relate to others in ministry? Did he have a need for strong subordinate attachments and knew how to develop them?
In the new environment, there were to be no elders - at least not yet. We didn't want to concern ourselves with titles and names. After all, we trusted him. He loved us like a father. Titles were considered a 'manifestation of pride' and too institutional. We were a family, after all!
- Was there a church in the New Testament that only had one leader, unaccountable to others? To whom was this man accountable? Who had commissioned, authorised, ordained or trained him? What did Jesus mean when He said, "Call no man Father"?
Meetings in our new church were informal, characterized by heartfelt, passionate and creative praise. New songs were written. Members had great freedom to express themselves to God in whatever way they felt appropriate. The pastor preached regularly each Sunday and much was made of the importance of forgiveness. He was not a natural teacher, but had a way of sharing his heart informally, which emphasized experience with God rather than exposition of Scripture. We forgave his clumsy way with language because English was not his native tongue. Messages were preached based on texts from the 'Living Bible' which he found easier to read.
- If the pastor was strong in preaching, were others in the church gifted in teaching? Were they encouraged to teach regularly? Did he ask others in the church for feedback on his teaching?
He did not read books by other Christian writers. After all, he didn't want revelation second hand, he wanted it 'straight from the horse's mouth'; a 'one-book' man! He was proud that he had little education. After all, 'God chooses the foolish things of this world...'
- What training did he receive in correct reading and interpretation of the Bible?
Much emphasis was given to 'loving each other'. We taught each other to make phone calls, provide gifts, send encouraging texts, show hospitality. We understood the devastating nature of gossip and criticism, so spoke only positive up-building things to and about each other. Visitors remarked on the amazing love in our midst and that we had something very special. Instinctively, none of us discussed the sermon after a meeting.
- Did we unwittingly create an environment in which nothing could be questioned, nothing challenged?
- Was this 'showering with attention' so intense it could not be sustained? How much like 'love-bombing' was it?
Loving God and each other included commitment of our finances. We encouraged each other to tithe and give generous offerings. The pastor was self employed and did not drain church finances.
Miraculously, having hired a school hall at great cost for several years, we were given a church building, free of charge and free of rent! Our own building!
Over the years, the church initiated and supported many valuable projects. Alcoholics were helped. The homeless found hospitality, Families in difficult situations were given comfort and supplied with food and clothing. Truanting teenagers found acceptance. The church was held in high regard by the local community. Newcomers were showered with gifts, love and attention.
Eventually we sought charitable status. A board of trustees was set up in order to comply with the law. We were reluctant - we didn't need a trust board, because our relationships were already built on trust! In order to avoid conflict of interest and remain within the law, however, it was recognised that the pastor could not be on the trust board, although clearly he was in overall authority - as a pastor should be. He attended all the meetings and we were careful in our honour and submission.
- Was an opportunity for accountability missed here? Is 'trust' a reason not to put accountability systems in place?
The trust board consisted of one of the pastor's sons, two single women, who had left the previous church with the pastor and myself as chairman. Trust meetings addressed practical matters concerning the fabric of the building and legal matters. It agreed to begin modest payments to the pastor and a part time salary.
- Were there voices here strong enough for dissent, if ever it was needed? What was the trust board's scope? Should it have included monitoring of doctrine, preaching and practice? Why was it confined only to mundane, practical matters?
Church accounts were above board, handled honourably and published annually.
- Should our policy have included holding the pastor to account for his use of salaried time?