leading a church (3/3) - our church
how does our church - Elevate Life practice biblical governance and finances?
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This is the same intro as part 1-2, but it still applies. So if you read part 1-2, feel free to skip it.
Social media is the wild west of philosophy. It’s made even worse by the fact that we tend to believe that following size = expertise. People with no credibility/wisdom frequently make unverified claims. These claims are then taken as fact because of their following size. Few people are willing to do the research to see if the claims being made are actually true.
I ran across a guru the other day who said: “if you go to a church, and they don’t have a board-run leadership structure, they are an apostate church who is actively practicing heresy.”
On top of that, this same person went on to say: “before you give to a church, the Bible says you are supposed to know what they are going to do with the money.”
That led me down a rabbit hole that you’re about to join me in.
I want to look at a few things:
What does Elevate Life do (Part 3)?
You might not know what an apostate church is. “Apostasy” is when a person turns away from, or renounces a faith. In this case, the Christian faith and practice.
It’s easy for people to throw these terms out or to say things like “this is what the Bible says” without actually providing references. I’m not going to do that.
I’ve realized there are a lot that “lay-people” - read: not professional church people - don’t often know about the Bible. I live in the United States, where 68% of people identify as Christian. Simultaneously, only 6% of these people have a biblical worldview (Source).
So, 94% of Christians don’t have much clue of what the Bible says about anything. Then they go to church, the internet, books (or anything that is not the Bible), or hear what their friends say, and somehow think by hearing what other people say the Bible says, they know what the Bible says.
I say this frequently, but every perspective you hear on the Bible is just that. Perspective. It may be accurate, it may be inaccurate. You won’t know unless you weigh what people say according to what Scripture says. 94% of self-proclaiming Christians don’t do this. So on the subject of church governance, the handling of money, (or anything else) their understanding is misguided and flawed.
Everyone has a perspective and interpretation on Scripture. That’s unavoidable. But if you always go to the source, you can start with the purest source. And I believe God will speak to you through his word in the way you need to be spoken to. You can also determine what kind of church, and what kind of leadership you would like to align your own life with
How does a church practice governance and finances in a “biblical way?”
What about Elevate Life Church?
As of today, our church has been around for 24 years. For 24 years, our church has been subject to questions, aspersions and doubts about our structure, our leadership and our finances. But that’s not just us, it’s pretty much every church. It’s not even really every church. Any community that develops consequential influence is subject to those things. We’re not the first, or only community to experience these types of things. It’s easy for people to make all kinds of accusations, invent motives and generalize what “our kind” of people/church are about.
Opinions are a part of human nature. So is believing that our opinion is right. People have had opinions about things since people have existed. Having an opinion is not a special skill or talent. Thinking that a church should be about one thing or another is something every body who goes to church does. However, the church is not meant to be a customer service organization. It’s not a hotel, theme park or department store. It’s not a publicly traded company with shareholder votes. There are no customers, and they are not always right. That’s not to say churches shouldn’t care about serving people, but serving people ≠ pleasing customers. Our first, and primary focus is worshipping and pleasing God. Before we make a person happy, or do what they think we should do, we think about what God has primarily commanded us to do.
The Great Commandment (Matthew 22:35-40) - Love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) - Go into all the world and make disciples of Christ.
The Great Assignment (Genesis 1:28) - Fill the earth, subdue it and take dominion.
When we die, we are not subject to a council of our peers who will determine how well we did these things and determine whether we get to go to heaven. We will answer to God. And when we hear God speak, we want to hear “well done, good and faithful servant.” We won’t hear that from our friends, we won’t hear that from our family, we won’t hear that from church attendees, we won’t hear that from employees or board members, we will hear that from God. Or not.
The question for us always has been, and always will be, “what can we do to please God?” For 24 years, we have been imperfectly dedicated to this pursuit. We have - and will - make mistakes. For those mistakes, we will repent, change and grow and become more like the church God wants us to be. But we will not do this in subjection to what people think we “should” do. We will do this in response to what God commands, and what pleases him.
How is Elevate Life governed?
First, we have always had, and will always have a corporate board. Why? If a nonprofit organization has a bank account, or a building, they are required by the government to have a board. So there is no version of a church in America where there is one person who has final say on all matters.
Elevate Life has a board of 7 people (lead pastor, 3 staff and 3 non-staff) who meet regularly to discuss church finances, leadership, ministry and direction. Elevate Life also practices the pastor/overseer (episcopal) style of leadership in its vision, mission and day to day practice. The church, as well as its ministries are pastor-led, not overseen by committees. Decisions at Elevate Life are not voted on or managed by consensus, there is always a leader that makes the call. However, these calls are always subject to the board’s review.
In weighing the pros and cons of biblical leadership styles, we have attempted to balance Episcopal and Presbyterian styles. If you want more information on these Biblical styles, i wrote about them in Part 1 here.
Who holds the pastor accountable?
This is a loaded question for most people. Accountable to what exactly? Most people that are asking this question are really asking: “Who tells the pastor what to do?”
Who tells the pastor what to do? Firstly we believe that God does. Throughout Scripture, God has chosen individual leaders to lead within his Kingdom. Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Elijah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and many others have been chosen by God to lead movements that advance God’s plans in the earth. This has been true for as far back as we can measure. The idea of a board being a pastor’s “boss” is an invention of the past 500 years. Church boards have done good things throughout history, and there are many churches where the leadership weight is distributed that way. Elevate Life does not subject the mission, vision, values or role of the lead pastor to a board-directed vote. The lead pastor functions as the visionary of the church. We believe this is in alignment with the Episcopal leadership style found in the Bible.
The board is not the Lead Pastor’s boss. But they do function as the chief accountability structure for leadership of the church. Because sometimes when people are asking about accountability, they are asking about what happens if the Lead Pastor has a moral or ethical failure.
In this time in history, this is a valid question for people to ask, as it seems like a new ministry leader is in the news monthly for their failures. Although Elevate Life treats the Lead Pastor as the visionary, the board convenes to decide what happens with church property, doctrine, and what is called “church discipline” ie, what happens if there is a severe failure in leadership. The board has the ability to remove the Lead Pastor temporarily or permanently.
What does Elevate Life do with money given?
At Elevate Life, we have 24 years of history of meeting needs and fulfilling the biblical financial requirements of a church. We have seen tens of thousands of people follow Jesus and be discipled. We have responded significantly to natural disasters locally and all over the world with people and finances. We have paid off over $15 million dollars in medical debt statewide. We’ve supported the spread of the Gospel on every continent. Our ministry impact is vast, and continues to grow. We discuss our specific impact frequently throughout each year. We don’t take this lightly, and know that God has given us a significant position that requires exceptional stewardship.
Because of this, we do everything we can to ensure that the majority of our contributions go directly toward ministry causes.
In the world of corporate accounting, there is a cost line item called G&A, or General and Administrative. These are costs that are necessary for the operation and management of the church, but are not directly connected to ministry. The average church in the United States of America has a G&A of 30-40%. At Elevate Life, our G&A costs are currently 16%. In 24 years, it has never gone above 20%. The majority of our contributions go directly towards building God’s Kingdom, not administrative costs.
How can I know this for sure?
Every year since our founding, our board has hired an independent third-party auditor to conduct a full audit of our finances. This is not something that every church does, or is required to do. But we believe that all churches should do it, and we have always required it of ourselves.
During a church audit, auditors:
Independently verify all financial reports
Follow all funds and see if proper steps are being taken in handling them
Evaluate accounting controls (systems that ensure the accuracy and integrity of financial records)
Assess segregation of duties (assurances that more than one person is involved in critical steps in handling money so that there can be checks and balances, and that Lead Pastor and Vision Team have boundaries between themselves and the church finances)
Calculate the reasonableness of systems and procedures in the light of all factors, including the size of the church and its budget
Adequacy of insurance coverage
Elevate Life was founded in 2000. So far, we have completed 23 audits.
For 23 consecutive audits, Elevate Life has had a clean audit. Which means an auditor found the church’s financial records to be accurate and reliable, without any significant discrepancies or concerns. It’s the best type of report a church can receive from an auditor, as it indicates sound financial practices and reporting.
Our 24th audit will begin in February, the audit will be delivered to the board, and the board will announce the results to our financial leaders once it is completed.
We announced the audit results to the church every year through 2019. Responding to the events of 2020 shifted a lot of our communication focus and we have not communicated this information outside of board meetings. In 2024, we are going to get back to sharing the results of our audit. Our desire is to always be above board in our stewardship financially and in every other way. We believe it is important for people that call Elevate Life home to understand how we manage money. Especially in a time in history where people are more concerned than ever about church finances.
How does the Lead Pastor get paid?
Many people ask this question of churches. It is a popular sentiment for people to think that the Lead Pastor, or leadership team has no accountability in how they are paid and are given carte blanche access to the church’s accounts.
Every year, our audit ensures that the Lead Pastor, and leadership team has appropriate distance from the finances of the church. In addition, the Lead Pastor has no say in their compensation.
Every few years, a compensation committee is established by the Board to recommend the compensation of the Vision Team. Which consists of a Lead Pastor, and Co-Pastors. A third party legal firm conducts a nationwide survey alongside the compensation committee that establishes the total compensation (salary and all other benefits) of the Vision Team. Members of the Vision Team are not allowed to be present for these discussions, nor do they know the results of the compensation study until after the compensation committee and the board have made their decision.
The majority of pastors, even in board run churches are not subject to this level of accountability. But at Elevate Life, we believe this ensures a higher level of integrity and accountability.
We live in a world filled with cynicism and doubt. Public opinion of anyone who seems to have any influence is low. People who are on any kind of platform are confronted with scrutiny, criticism and disparagement regardless of what they do - or don’t do.
If we base our success or failure on the opinions of crowds, our opinions of ourselves will rise and lower like the tide. People will always have opinions. Especially in a country like America that is so churched, so delusional and so opinionated. People walk around saying a church, pastor or leader “should” do all kinds of things. Our churches are filled with people should-ing all over themselves. These people aren’t the first people to question, criticize, condemn and complain. Nor will they be the last. And the church will continue to move forward and change the world regardless of how they feel about it.
Like it or not, on its worst day, the Church is the greatest community that has ever existed. When churches have held to biblical truth, they have never been wrong on any issue in history. Ever. Take any issue, when the Church stood on biblical truth, it was fixed. There are people doing wrong everywhere, at every level of society. Including the Church. And when people fail, that doesn’t change the truth of Scripture and what the church is meant to stand for. When people fail, God doesn’t. When a church runs God’s way, it cannot and will not fail. Human error is already factored into that equation. Criticism, anger, “church hurt,” deconstructionism, bitterness, hypocrisy, judgement and the very gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18).
We are going to do our very best to honor God with our leadership of the church. With or without the criticism opinions and perspectives of a crowd.
We are going to make decisions that align with Biblical values and principles. Regardless of how people feel about our failures, flaws and mistakes.
We are going to take care of orphans, widows, and those less fortunate. With or without a press release or the crowd’s knowledge.
We are going to help people step into the full measure of the greatness that God has for them. Whether people think that’s a worthy cause or not.
We are going to govern well, and manage money to the best of our ability with integrity and responsibility. Without regard to negative judgement, criticism and speculation.
We have done, and will do these things because there is one thing that reigns supreme. Honoring God.
You don’t have to agree with me for me to honor God. You don’t have to like me for me to honor God. You don’t have to think that I’m honoring God for me to honor God.
I can’t speak for every church, or every leader. No one can. But we’re not afraid of hard questions, difficult discussions and challenging dynamics. Especially with those who serve, give and call Elevate Life home. We will fail, we will make mistakes. We will apologize, repent, and get better. That’s not an explanation, or a defense of failure. That’s just the facts of what we do and who we are. The church is a place of grace for everyone in the church, including its leaders. That’s what makes the church unstoppable. People will fail, God’s Church won’t. That doesn’t mean there’s not a higher standard, that just means there’s always a way forward when anyone, including leaders don’t meet the standard. This weekend, we held our “State of the Church” service and discussed these things. But I also wanted to put them in writing.
You may learn all this information and it’s still not enough. You might read these things and want them to be different based on what you think a church should be or do. Maybe you don’t go to Elevate Life and you judge your church and try to hold them hostage by refusing to participate in serving or giving unless some arbitrary personal conditions are met.
Almost all criticism of the modern Church as “unbiblical” comes from biblically illiterate conspiracy theorists with a victim mentality posing as theologians. These people are, at best, perpetuating falsehoods. At worst, they have an axe to grind and attempt to propagandize the Church and use lies - knowingly and unknowingly - to divide and destroy. They are unwittingly a tool being used by the devil; the “author of confusion” and “father of lies.” (1 Corinthians 14:33, John 8:44)
When people throw out “that isn’t biblical” as flippantly as these pseudo-theologians do with no context, they are saying the same thing the snake said to Eve. Since the Garden of Eden, the devil has used “did God really say” in all kinds of forms to pull people away from God’s plan. The good news is that when someone says something is “unbiblical” each one of us has the Bible at our fingertips to confirm for ourselves.
Regardless of how you feel about a church or what you think a church should be like, one thing is true for all of us.
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
// Psalm 92:13-15
When you get planted in God’s house, you win in life. There are 380,000 churches in the USA. Not liking a church, or its style ≠ “that church is unbiblical.” There are some unbiblical churches, but they are a small minority. It’s ok to have our opinions, interpretations and preferences, it’s not ok for us to turn our opinions into God’s opinions. Or to think that because a pastor was/is an idiot, or we got hurt at the last church that we are then anointed by God to become an arbiter of what church systems are biblical or not.
If your church - or our church - does not fit your preferences, go get planted somewhere you can give 100% of yourself with no conditions and bear fruit. That’s what Jesus wants us to be known for. We’re all going to judge each other for a lot of reasons. But if you want to judge something “biblically,” don’t judge based on your opinion, preference or interpretation, judge based on fruit. A person’s consistent actions and results over time say more than anything else. You can argue with a lot of things, but you can’t argue with fruit.
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