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Overseer Survey Report
By Caleb Simonyi-Gindele / September 18, 2017
Reading Time:
8 minutes

Have you ever wondered if the challenges you face as an overseer are happening in any other assemblies? Granted: we can run into some pretty unique situations from time to time. But for the most part it turns out that we all face a pretty common set of issues as my Overseer Survey Report shows.

In my previous post, I gave a quick introduction to the show and to myself. if you missed that, it’s a good starting point for this post and for what lies ahead.

In this post, I’m going to be going over the overseer survey to discuss the findings and also talk a little about what I didn’t see on the survey that I expected to see. In any case, if you haven’t received a copy of the report, you can enter your information here to have one emailed to you right away:

About the Survey

In anticipation of launching Oversight Today I created a survey for assembly overseers in March of 2017. There was some demographic data that I collected and that is summarized in the report so I don’t intend to go over that here. The report is 11 pages long and I’ve had some great feedback on it so I’d encourage you to get yourself a copy if you don’t have one already.

Now, the most interesting part of the results were found in three long answer questions that I had placed on the survey.  Those questions were:

  1. What aspects of assembly truth would you like to hear more teaching or clarity on?
  2. What is the most common issue you’re seeing?
  3. What do you think is the hardest part about serving as a leader in the local assembly?

The purpose of these three questions was to identify the most significant challenges and issues that assembly overseers are facing in three areas: the doctrine and practice of gathering to the Lord’s name, shepherding problems and leadership challenges.

The Most Common Issue

By far and away the most common theme mentioned in survey responses was concern raised around disengagement among the saints in the assemblies represented by the overseers who completed the survey.

I categorized 54 responses into this group. In fairness those responses came in a variety of forms but there was this very common underlying thread of disengagement. Words used to describe the issue included: commitment, (lack of) attendance, apathy, lethargy, complacency, indifference and more.

Here are some quotes from respondents to give you a flavor of how this concern was described by elders, usually in response to the question, “What is the most common shepherding issue you’re seeing?”

“Apathy in regard to assembly involvement and responsibilities.”

“Getting the wholehearted involvement of all of the believers in the assembly meetings and activities.”

“Encouraging the flock to attend all assembly meetings and being involved in all aspects of worship and witness”

“Keeping young adults engaged and committed the fellowship”

This is obviously a huge concern because disengaged assembly members are just a hair’s breadth away from making a decision to not come at all.

What to Think?

My conclusion is that it makes sense to spend quite a bit of time in future posts of Oversight Today diving into this issue, looking at root causes, and looking at what we can do as overseers to be active in reversing the problem with help and guidance from God.

I do believe that these causes may change from region to region and assembly to assembly so will definitely be looking for feedback from you as you’re listening to these shows or reading the content and also observing what is going on in your own home assembly.

But this was by far and away the single most common issue raised in the survey. I plan to begin addressing this in my next post so I won’t say more about this at the moment. Clearly, there will be quite a bit here to unpack and learn over time.

Second: More Teaching on New Testament Church Truth

This surprised me because we already see a lot of this teaching happening at conferences and in many assemblies.

However I did notice that in the language used describe this issue often referred to “distinctiveness” and to distinguishing the character of our gatherings. Sometimes there was talk of keeping the truth and other times talk of relevance and reality.

There’s a lot that falls under this umbrella and what I see is that many elders are feeling conflicted. We’ve had generations of teaching telling us that we are special and that we have something nobody else has. I don’t think that has been healthy and where the internal conflict comes in is it is very hard for us when we believe we have something special to try to make sense of why so many are leaving.

Distinctiveness…Why Leave?

I don’t want to sidetrack today onto the topic of why folks are leaving — although I do want to come back to this in the future — but I think that what we are beginning to grasp is that we need to revisit the New Testament because we’ve lost clarity on what is actually Biblical vs. what is tradition. And the reason we’ve lost track of this is because much of our teaching today presents tradition with the same authority as truth. That’s a problem the Lord addressed with the Pharisees when he pointed out that they were “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 KJV).

When this kind of mixed teaching is sustained for years we begin to lose track of what is actually New Testament Church Truth vs. the other man-made practices and principles that we are couching those truths in. So our distinctiveness is more apparent by looking at our idiosyncratic pattern of gathering rather than looking for the distinctive nature of how God describes gathering in His Word.

It is interesting, saddening and concerning to watch the responses to the current emphasis on tradition-following. It ends up being one of the causes of the disengagement we just spoke of. In some cases, people leave because they don’t like the rules. Often the young dispense with conformity to the rules and are sometimes tolerated, other times castigated or even bullied into submission. Or sometimes people push extremely far the other way — so far that they begin to throw what is Biblical, or even what is useful tradition, out the window too. That extreme is not necessarily any more helpful.

I See Two Underlying Issues

First, somehow Gospel Hall assemblies have, in many parts, but not all, assigned preaching brethren the role of being the guardians of assembly practice and thus, responsible for keeping everyone doing the same things and looking the same. This is not biblical — at least, I haven’t found biblical support for this kind of a role. I’m not blaming preaching brethren nor even ourselves as overseers for this. I’m not sure that fault-finding is helpful in this case and I’m not sure it could be fairly assigned in various regions anyways. I’m just observing that this has happened and, as I said, I don’t see support for this in Scripture. If we’re following an unbiblical practice we should expect to see unbiblical outcomes.

Secondly, our Bible readings — especially those at conferences — have lost the intent which they were first founded on. I believe that early assembly Bible readings were a place where brothers could safely and respectfully hash out the truth of Scripture as iron would sharpen iron, and refine their understanding of truth. They sought the teaching and leading of the Spirit on such occasions. They could challenge and be challenged because truth belonged to God, not to any one of them. They could teach and be taught. But now, what I typically see is conference Bible readings, especially, have become a place to reinforce the status quo. The aspect of fresh examination is missing. That humble assumption that we have more truth to uncover is gone and replaced with a subtle but prideful attitude that we have a complete body of understood truth. That’s a prideful assumption. I’m not saying we need to toss everything but let’s agree that no practice or principle is above sincere scrutiny. It’s that challenging and reexamining exercise that we’re missing that was characteristic of the believers at Berea.

Consequently, it’s my belief that overseers need to return to the role that Paul instructed Titus to give to overseers: to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9 ESV). Just note that the overseer is not told merely to hold onto what he is taught, but to hold onto the “trustworthy word”. Clearly implying that all else should be held very lightly. That practice of holding and of giving instruction is primarily for overseers. And, I might add, so is the responsibility to rebuke those who contradict it. This is certainly an area where I have completely failed to obey God. We’re not rebuking when we ought to be.

So a good part of what I will be doing is reviewing assembly truth and trying to work with you, my listeners, as I need to be learning through this process as well, and hopefully maintaining that Berean spirit of examining and proving what is right before the Lord.

Two Issues Tied for Third Place

The next highest number of responses on the survey was a tie between two subject areas.

A significant number of respondents mentioned the difficulty with finding enough time to shepherd the sheep.

To be perfectly candid, I’m not sure how to address this issue and so I believe I am going to have to do more investigation to understand the nature of this problem.

The other issue that was a tie was a request for more help on shepherding the saints in a way that develops Christian character, spurs spiritual growth and just practical advice for Christian living in a modern, sinful world. So we’re going to be diving into these issues as the Lord leads as well.

What I Did Not See

There were a couple areas that I expected to see a lot more discussion around when compiling the Overseer Survey Report.

The Current Exodus

One is that in some parts of North America there is a very significant exodus of the Lord’s people from Gospel Halls. And that wasn’t mentioned. Which is both understandable and concerning. I know that for myself as an overseer that when someone leaves I feel that very deeply, very personally. I feel like I have failed. And so I would find that very hard to talk about too.

But I think we need to acknowledge what is happening and try to understand it better because what I find, in discussion with many saints and overseers from other assemblies, is that there are people who can help us really understand why these departures are happening. Especially ones where they are on a more significant scale and where we not just losing — if you’ll allow the expression — fringe people. I am loathe to use the term but you know there are folks in all of our gatherings who really struggle — maybe significant mental health issues. Maybe significant family or work problems. Often we don’t know how to help them. And we aren’t as surprised when they go.

That’s sad all by itself.

But I think it should really, really start to trouble us deeply when the folks who are leaving are well-established assembly people with healthy families, no significant mental health issues, they’re middle aged and they have a good grounding in the word of God and were, if not recently, at least at one time major contributors to the spiritual work of the assembly. When those people leave, that’s a signal that we have a significant problem we need to identify, understand, and address. Again, I’m not saying the latter group are a better class of people than the former, just that when this latter group leaves it should be cause for deep reflection on how the character and nature of our assemblies has evolved.

This observation of, and concern for, departure did not come through on the survey and that surprised me.

The Pornography Problem

The second thing that I was expecting to see much more mention of in the Overseer Survey Report was pornography. Of the nearly 300 answers from over 120+ respondents there were just three mentions of problems with pornography or purity or holiness (which I took as implying sexual holiness).

That really surprised me. I’m not going to get into statistics here. I’m going to start addressing that in episode 6, Lord willing. But I will say that if you have more than 2 men under the age of fifty in your assembly, then you have at least one porn addict that needs help. And if you have more than 5 sisters in that age category, then you now have two people that need help. They are beset with this hidden sin and in future shows I will show you how you can help them break free from this sin that has been plaguing them for years.

There’s more that will be said on things we didn’t see. I’m sure in private conversation more would have come out but I do sincerely appreciate all that was shared through the survey. I hope to do more surveys in the future in order to better understand and share the challenges that we all face as overseers. You see, once we acknowledge these challenges we can start to reach to each other and start to dig into the word of God to find answers so that we can address them more ably.

About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.