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church leaders can cause disengagement too

Do you ever look around on a weeknight prayer meeting and wonder who’s really engaged? Is that brother over there sleeping or does he normally pray with his chin planted on his sternum? Or that sister looking at her nails. Is she mulling over things in prayer or just trying to figure out how to make ends meet this month? Disengagement can happen to any assembly member and it turns out — the reasons might land closer to home than we think.

I’m going to begin talking about disengagement in this post. To be fair: there’s no possible way I could cover every reason why someone in my assembly or yours might be disengaged. But what I am looking to do is address six areas of disengagement that are within the realm of influence that we have as overseers. There are plenty of other reasons why disengagement may occur. But these are areas that we have influence over.

By the way, this was a major issue that showed up on the 2017 Overseer Survey Report. If you haven’t gone over that, it may be useful to check it out first.

1. Irrelevant Standards can Cause Disengagement

I think we too easily forget that the people in our local churches are struggling with a lot of things. Some noble things, like:

  1. How to live their lives for God.
  2. Learning to be an effective Christian testimony at work.
  3. Trying to parent teenage daughters and prepare them for the worldly challenges at school.
  4. A possible career change that is going to impact family, income and assembly involvement all at once.

And some not so noble things like:

  1. The couple fighting at home constantly and don’t want to divorce but have no idea what to do. But they’re absolutely weary of it.
  2. They were sexually abused but have never talked to anyone about it. They’re starting to notice this past trauma is affecting how they react to others around them even at the hall. And they’re realizing they’re not coping very well any more.
  3. Maybe a sister with postpartum depression (happens to 1 in 8).
  4. and so on.

Let’s Go to Conference!

So what do we do when we have these huge questions? Often, we go to a conference. We pray, “God, speak to us!” and in those prayer meetings we acknowledge that there are saints struggling, saints who need encouraged, and saints who need restored.

But there is a huge percentage of good assembly believers leaving those same conferences, and leaving our regular Bible readings and ministry meetings — with the same challenges they came with but no answers. No idea how to actually do something different in their lives so they can move forward. They’re not finding help.

That’s a huge disappointment.

Irrelevance Makes it Worse

What exacerbates this disappointment is when what we are told is important has no bearing on the issues we’re facing. When we hear teaching about using a special language in prayer, or that a white shirt is important to God — there’s an implication in that kind of teaching that the rest of the messiness of life must be so under control that now we are just faced with these tiny refinements in order to ice the cake of ideal Christianity.

The problem is when you feel burdened or distressed or like you can barely figure out how to be a good dad or mom, and you’re faced with this kind of triviality: all of a sudden one day you realize that you don’t belong with these people. They don’t have any of the kinds of problems you do. You know this because they don’t speak about any of these issues that are so real in your own life.

Your only reasonable conclusion is that you have to keep your mess hidden. Or, go find a group of people that you can actually relate to.

This is a huge cause for disengagement. Irrelevant standards — setting up standards that have no bearing or relevance to the issues I am facing. It is a feature of legalistic teaching that has disconnected itself from shepherding. When an overseer or teacher is no longer in the lives of God’s people and is not seeing the real hurt and challenges and issues they face every day, of course it makes sense to preach about abstract issues. But one of the consequences of this type of teaching is that it promotes disengagement.

2. Inability to Trust or Feel Safe

This follows from some of what I’ve mentioned. Our assemblies need to be a safe place for imperfect people to gather. Of course, some people find it hard to trust because of their own personal issues. But in this second area, I’m talking about making our assemblies a safe place.

As I read 1 John 4 it becomes abundantly clear that one of the ways that we manifest the character of God in this world is by showing love — to each other, as believers. People will have no idea what God is like apart from seeing this feature in His people: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” 1 John 4:12 ESV

Safety and trust are implicit in the concept of love.

That means that our assemblies need to have some key features.

Mistakes

First, they must be a safe place to make mistakes without fear of shaming or humiliation. This doesn’t mean we refrain from discipline for major sin, but even those acts of discipline are undertaken with great love and care for the erring believer.

Gossip

Second, we need to work together as a group to eliminate gossip. Proverbs 16:28b says that “a whisperer separates close friends” (ESV). See how relationship is ruined when safety is removed by gossip? Imagine how much more destruction is caused when you aren’t even close!

Criticism

Third, and related to the previous, we need to be intolerant of criticism. In fact, I think I could say God has a zero tolerance policy for criticism: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29.

Gentleness

Fourthly, we as overseers need to learn to be approachable. I’m still working on this myself. I need to smile more. One time my wife leaned over to me and asked, “Are you angry?” I said, “No I’m actually pretty happy.” She replied, “Well, maybe you should let your face know.” Every week I am asking God to continue to grow gentleness in my character as part of the fruit of the Spirit. We need to be the kind of men who people can come to and talk about anything without fear of being mocked, gossiped about, dismissed, or minimized. If people fear us, that’s an issue. And some of us who may have more gruff personalities or may even look a little intimidating need to work twice as hard to convey our approachability.

Safety and trust. The local assembly should be the safest place on earth for broken saints.

If it’s not, people will pull back, put up polite but distant barriers, and back off. If you’re not a safe person or place, my instinctive response is going to be one of fight, flight, or freeze. Any person in fight, flight or freeze is socially and emotionally disengaged from their environment.

3. Authentic Leadership

Thirdly: Authentic leadership is new moniker used to address the shortcoming in the classic phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

When what I teach and what I practice are not aligned then I am living fraudulently. And when this is apparent to others, it is clearly going to lead to disengagement.

I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time explaining this but when we as leaders teach about love and grace and forgiveness but we obviously struggle with bitterness and legalism and are not friendly, warm believers ourselves — then we are failing to lead authentically.

When we say that discipline is for the purpose of restoration but make little or no actual effort at restoring someone, we are not leading authentically.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to make mistakes. We all act incongruently with our values and responsibilities from time to time. But when those moments happen, do we just brush them over? While we don’t miss any opportunity to identify the failures in others? Or are we also authentic in confessing our failures and making amends where necessary.

You see, if I’m a fraud, people aren’t going to want to follow me. So you might have a believer who is committed to assembly truth but cannot for his or her own conscience’s sake follow or respect the leadership because of their lack of authenticity. Then they have to pull back, shut down, disengage.

4. Fairness

Being unfair can cause disengagement.

An obvious form of unfairness is favouritism.

Another form of unfairness is leveraging power from my position as an overseer. For example, pushing things through in the assembly because I’m in the position of an elder and so I can. I have been guilty of this. It is unfair and it represents a misunderstanding of Biblical servant-leadership.

And if I am not transparent and open. Now, I get that there are times when we are privy to details that we cannot share. Earlier I was cautioning with regard to gossip. That’s one thing. But I’ve been learning there’s a lot more that I could be transparent about — and showing believers in the assembly how we make decisions whenever possible, and being open about the dilemmas and struggles we face when we can be open about them — that goes a long way towards creating transparency which communicates fairness.

Showing ourselves as fair and reasonable creates trust, fosters engagement and commitment to follow the Lord.

5. Autonomy

Obviously there are truths that we hold to in the assembly and we want people in our assembly to hold and be convicted of these same truths. But do we require them to hold that conviction at the same level as we do?

Do we give believers in our assembly the opportunity to hear the truth and then to make their own choices?

The most extreme form of removing autonomy is what you find in cults: the use of manipulative, abusive tactics to force people to comply to certain standards and behaviours against their own will. So that everyone is always in 100% conformance by force of coercion.

There’s something beautiful when you respectfully give a young brother some teaching from the word of God but you then leave it with him. He will likely obey. He may not.

Autonomy = Engagement

When you don’t give people autonomy you generate either anger or fear. Those are distancing emotions.

But when you present the truth — and it’s great to do so with passion, if it means a lot to you — but let them go make their own choice, then they feel respected and this creates engagement.

Again, when we feel the need to micromanage their belief system and convictions that behaviour represents a threat to their autonomy.

Clearly, there are times when we have to uphold truth for the sake of the congregation. First our Lord and then the apostle Paul acted the same: both were very direct with false teachers. I’m not talking about those kinds of extremes.

Nor am I necessarily talking about preaching or teaching: I believe that we should engage in these activities with passion and conviction.

I’m thinking more when we’re 1 on 1 shepherding and coaching God’s people. One of the ways we show respect for the autonomy of another is by being gentle. As Moses said, “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distil as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb.” (Deuteronomy 32:2 ESV)

When we’re too forceful, too pushy, too invasive with our teaching then people pull back. That’s also failing to give enough room for the Holy Spirit to do His work. And that creates disengagement.

6. Can They Contribute?

My final point: do the people in your assembly feel like they have the ability to make a meaningful contribution?

I know that if I’m in a situation where I don’t feel like I have anything valuable to add, I’ll sit back. That’s disengagement.

The individual who is disengaged could be entirely responsible. Their own beliefs about him or herself may lead them to believe they have nothing valuable to add. That’s a problem with how they see themselves.

But again I’m talking things that we overseers can take responsibility for.

Perfectionism Can Limit Contribution

I know for myself I have to watch my perfectionism. Perfectionism means that others won’t be able to please me; when they figure this out they stop trying. That’s a real flaw in my own leadership.

But is There Opportunity?

One of the things I’ve observed in our home assembly is that one of our overseers has spend the last year and a half, maybe two years now, creating opportunities for the young people to engage in gospel work locally. Mainly literature distribution and visitation.

These young people have taken up the mantle: introverts, extroverts, younger ones and older ones…as a group. I think it has been really good for them and we are seeing spiritual growth come as an indirect result. Because they have meaningful work to do. They are contributing.

Honestly I need to expand this provision of opportunity to serve — not necessarily with everyone doing the same thing — but I believe that when the people of God are serving they are engaged. Again, going back to Titus when you see Paul exhort Titus to teach the people of God to do good works, the very next thing Paul says is “These things are excellent and profitable for people.” Good works are good for Christians.

So this is a lesson I’m learning and exploring and am glad to be able to share with you today.

So there you have it: six reasons for disengagement among the people of God. By no means exhaustive but definitely food for thought.

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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.