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4 elephants that can hurt your church

March 1, 2016 | by Brian Thorstad

Imagine the faces of the people in the Philippian church. One of their leaders was reading a letter from their church’s founder. Except for a couple of gentle hints about unity, most of it had been positive, affectionate and encouraging.  

Suddenly they heard the words, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche that they be of the same mind in the Lord…”  People gasped. Eyes opened wide.  Mouths fell open. You could have heard a pin drop.  

With just a few more words, their pastor had been commissioned to bring the two leading ladies to the mediation table and get their issues worked out. My guess is that they did it, for they weren’t left much choice if they were going to remain in their church, and there weren’t any alternative congregations in town to “hop” to.

What the Apostle Paul had done was to expose an elephant in the room, and more than likely, the exposure went a long way towards resolving the issue. The air was let out of the balloon. The festering wound was lanced. It was traumatic, but very effective. All it took was somebody with the courage to expose the elephant.

This reflects my own experience. When an elephant in the room is ignored it grows and grows, for it feeds on rumor, mystery, denial and secrecy. When it’s exposed its days are immediately numbered. People deal with it. They have to. Everyone is relieved.

I’ve come across four types of elephants which can seriously hurt your congregation if left unexposed.

Sin elephants

These are probably the most pernicious pachyderms around. Somebody is involved in serious, ongoing, public, disgraceful sin. Nobody is doing anything about it. The pastor preaches against such behavior, but nobody talks to the individual one on one. The church’s members and leaders alike are afraid to go against the spirit of the age and lovingly confront the individual. This elephant will kill your church if not dealt with quickly.

Conflict elephants

This is what they had in Philippi. Conflict is not necessarily bad of course. It can be an important step along the way toward greater unity and effectiveness, as it was in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 6. Exposed, dealt with wisely, addressed gently by a leader who provides a calm, non-anxious, assertive presence (like Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer), this elephant can be harnessed to good use, for the glory of God.

Issue elephants

While American evangelicals don’t seem to fight much about doctrine anymore, we still come up with plenty of lesser differences to squabble about. Our issues usually have something to do with values (what’s important here?) or ministry philosophy (how should we do it here?) or culture (what should the music sound like here?) or people(who do we like here?).  As with all elephants, trying to ignore any of these only helps them grow. Facing them head on with honesty and grace is the first step to resolving them.

Event issues

I’ve heard about lots of these. Pastor so and so has an affair, is asked to leave and the congregation is never told why he “resigned” from his ministry. A big change is implemented, half the church leaves and the matter is never addressed from the pulpit. 

Elephants can drain the trust and life and joy out of a church.  They breed dishonesty. It’s not that we cannot recover from them.  We can! But – returning to the ugly picture of the wound in need of lancing — we will not recover from them until the brave, bold, painful deed of exposure is done. 

Photo source: istock


Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.



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