December 1, 2020

James MacDonald Needs a Business Meeting

By Chaplain Mike

James MacDonald and I both graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1988. He went on to become a successful pastor, author, and radio teacher. I went on to . . . well, let’s just say, a less illustrious career. So, I will leave it to you as to who has more credibility.

MacDonald just posted a deliberately provocative article called, “Congregational Government is from Satan.” In a note introducing his thoughts, he writes, “The tone of this post is intentionally aimed at engaging those who are engulfed in this system of church government that neither honors the Scriptures nor advances the gospel.” He calls this style of church government a “forum for divisions,” says that voting is “not biblical,” criticizes those in churches who resist the ministry of elders, asserts that the system crushes pastors, and states belief in the priesthood of all believers but does not think that should mean the “eldership” of all believers.

Wow. Tell us how you really feel. Never mind that the Bible really doesn’t prescribe any particular form of church government. If it did, would we have Episcopal churches, Presbyterian churches, Congregational churches, and others that built entire denominations around particular forms of church polity? You’ll find support for them all in the Bible, because the New Testament describes what churches did without setting forth a particular structure.

James. James. I’m sorry this has you so upset, but I know just what you need. A few words from Michael Spencer came to mind while reading your post, and so I thought I’d pass them on to you. I’ve inserted your name where appropriate, because the iMonk first addressed these words to another megachurch pastor several years ago.

Here’s hoping you get what Michael wished. I think it might do you good.

(The following words are Michael Spencer’s…)

I’ve thought about it for most of a day, and I’ve decided what [James MacDonald] needs is one of the great traditions of the Southern Baptist church of yore: the business meeting.

I grew up in one of those Southern Baptist churches that practiced the extreme sport of “business meetings.” Now there are a number of ways to play this game, but we played the rodeo version. It was dangerous, and we liked it that way. No nodding acquiescence to endless committee reports for us. This was blood on the floor time.

A business meeting at our church was an opportunity to gripe, moan, whine, insinuate, criticize, carp, ridicule, assassinate, threaten, lie, cry, faint, pontificate, filibuster and commit acts of violence, all with the best interests of God’s kingdom and Christ’s church at heart. People who silently endured abuse from their employers and torment from their spouses came to business meetings to get it all out on the table. The lions may have eaten the Christians in the first century, but the Christians were doing the entertainment via dismemberment in these meetings.

In some churches, the pastor was the “moderator” of this circus, but we would have none of that. In our business meetings, the pastor was reduced to one of the little people, and a layman- usually a deranged deacon (before the invention of psychiatric medications)- would run the show. His goal was simple: whip the congregation into a frenzy that would frighten the pastor into mumbling, terrorized submission to the members of various ruling clans. If the pastor needed to be tied to a chair, that could be arranged.

The moderator wasn’t the only special person at these outings. The business meeting crowd was a unique gathering of humanity in and of itself. This kind of fun wasn’t for everyone.

There were those folks who never missed a church meeting, even if their child was expiring in an ER somewhere. Next to them were the big givers, who were going to make sure that every penny of God’s money ended up exactly where they wanted it to go. You had your detail fanatics; the kind of people who knew how much a pencil cost by the gram, how much it cost to heat the ladies bathroom in the choir room, and last year’s per capita usage of toilet tissue by the sheet and by age group. Of course, there were folks who just showed up to gawk and see what happened next. The same people who hang around automobile accidents and freak shows.

What we needed were lawyers, therapist, referees and people who could give sedatives to the unruly, but those folks never seemed to show up.

In special circumstances, you were allowed to bring in extra congregation members, but it had to be a major occasion. Voting on the budget always filled up a few pews IF the staff was getting a raise. Youth ministry related votes- like permission to paint the youth room as a gigantic pizza- brought out youth, parents and grandparents. And if you were fortunate enough to be around for a contentious vote on firing the pastor, building a building or- best of all- tearing down the old sanctuary, you could expect to see everyone from new born babies to the town madam with ladies and customers in tow.

My business meeting favorites were the fiery orators and extemporary instigators. These were the people who loved to stand and make speeches that sounded like we were about to vote on the dissolution of the Union. People who would never preach, teach Sunday School or witness to their coworkers would stand and argue with the devil over how much we were paying the kid who cut the grass. They knew how to inflame a crowd to violence with nothing more than last month’s budget.

This was where the pastor never knew what was coming. Could the pastor explain why we’ve sung the same invitation hymn on the four fifth Sundays of this year? Could the pastor explain why his children aren’t signed up for the 24 hour prayer-a-thon? Could the pastor explain why we consistently get out later than the Methodists, and have to wait to be seated at the local buffet? Would the pastor mind if we rescinded all his medical benefits to pay for a new transmission in the church van?

. . . I’m totally in favor of church government by elders, but don’t get rid of some version of the business meeting. Leaders don’t slip edicts out from under a closed door. They have to listen and respond to all the nonsense. And when they are the ones serving up the nonsense, they get to listen to it. No special meetings. No monologues, no video presentations, no lectures by highly compensated outside consultants that subtly let us know our actual questions have been “dealt with in the research phase and are answered in the printed materials.”

New business lets the congregation be the people of God, and treats leaders as if they mean to emulate Jesus in leading by serving. So what if you don’t know what’s coming next? At least if it’s a three legged chicken, you’ll get to ask why we need one. And if you want hymns in worship again, you can just stand up and say so.

[Some pastors are hailed as the] icons of the new millennium. From his pontifical chair, he assures us that God told him, God led him, God blessed him, so buy the book, the CD, the tape, the video and get the live feed. Don’t wait for your turn to talk. It’s not coming. Not from Pope [So-and-So]. Not from his underlings. Not from his denominational promoters. Not from the people making millions off [his] products. You’re supposed to sit quietly and nod on cue. It’s so wonderful. Feel the love. Take the pill. Be assimilated. Accept the chip in your…..wait a minute. This is getting out of hand!

I say if he can’t stomach an old fashioned Southern Baptist business meeting, he’s a wimp. Face the people, including the thoughtful, reasonable critics with tough questions, and let them say whatever they want. If they want to criticize “what God is blessing,” maybe God is telling you you’re wrong.

Here’s to the day when the [Harvest Chapel] churches end the spin and hype,quit hiding behind all this CEO bullying, and have a business meeting that lasts all night, where plenty of obnoxious people criticize the dubious suggestion that “what God is blessing,” i.e. what the pastor wants, is beyond criticism.

If you run a bus, I’ll be there with a lunch.

• From “The Pope Needs a Business Meeting,” April 30, 2004


  1. Hmmm….

    Like Chaplain Mike said, there is no mandate from the Bible on exactly how to conduct the operations and business of your church.

    Our Lutheran church has elected council members who serve 2 year terms (elected by the congregation). The pastor is always on the council. The council discusses issues and votes on them. We have a council president, vice president, a treasurer/bill payer and a secretary. Our church is 51 years old and things generally run pretty smoothly.

    I see no problem with our system at all.

    If others have systems they like better…that’s great! Do what works for your church.

    • Steve, tell me if your council membership is limited to men, like it is the Wisconsin synod. Indeed, I think in the WELS women are not permitted even to vote for men running for the council.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      Do you also have the annual congregational meeting? That is pretty typical, to elect council members, vote on the annual budget, and address big questions lie real estate issues. This superficially is like the business meeting Michael describes, but for that it is a meeting of Lutherans, and therefore far more restrained, don’t you know? My congregation has followed this model for over two hundred and fifty years. It seems pretty stable.

  2. Have mercy! Michael Spencer’s words had me in tears I was laughing so hard. I haven’t been to a Southern Baptist business meeting since I was a kid and we were meeting to decide if the pastor was staying or going. I was incensed that I didn’t get a vote. I was 12 and was a member in good standing, so I couldn’t imagine why I couldn’t vote.

    Fast forward more than 25 years – 16 of which I have spent in the LCMS church – and I agree with Steve Martin that the Lutheran model works pretty well. However, I’ve been in a church where the pastor needed to go and stayed long past the time he should have gone – the church split twice over it – and I sorely wished for a good old fashioned business meeting…

  3. Hey James McDonald — “shepherding movement” much?

  4. I think everyone could take a leaf from the Quakers’ book. Church leadership/government should not involve an oligarchic panel of elders (downfall: tyranny of the few) OR democratic voting (downfall: tyranny of the majority). Instead, the church should strive for consensus. This takes longer, and is certainly more tedious, but is the most effective way to maintain the unity of the body in a loving, non-confrontative manner.

    • I agree, I have been learning more & more about the Quaker Meeting idea of consensus. Our church has been practicing consensus for a long time now. It is amazing how the spirit can move in when we practice community! It is messy but rewarding. I would never want to go back to “CEO” or “board of elders” type leadership.
      democracy is 2 wovles & 1 sheep figuring out of for dinner 😉

    • Double agree – I think both extremes can lead to worse situations than if the congregation had wrestled together for awhile towards a consensus.

  5. The scriptures are pretty specific about what sort of individuals ought to be in church leadership: Devoted Christians, preferably longtime Christians, whose family life is in order, who exhibit the spiritual fruit of self-control.

    When you have a fully democratic church, where everyone has a say, and everyone can vote, you have essentially allowed everyone to be in church leadership. Including people who are in no way qualified, biblically, to be there. Some of those folks shouldn’t be let anywhere near a business meeting. They will vote their faithlessness, selfishness, and carnality.

    Years ago I was a member of an Evangelical Free Church. Love the people, hated the business meetings. They were monthly, and frustrating. A fair number of us didn’t know the difference between “stewardship” and faithless apathy. They voted down anything that threatened the status quo or waste “God’s” (really our) money. And because of where I was in my Christianity at the time, my voice joined theirs more often than not—and I was in no position to be anywhere near a leadership spot. Yet my vote had the very same weight as the pastor’s.

    I won’t get into the whole bit about how the popular vote got Jesus crucified; nobody’s church (I hope) is that far gone. But still: Democracy is only appropriate for secular government. Church government needs to follow much tighter standards.

    • Actually, the popular vote didn’t get Jesus crucified. That is why the whole trial process happened at night, orchestrated by the temple leaders, away from the “popular vote”. Mark 14 states that “the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.” ”

      Those who shouted “crucify him” were the temple stooges, rounded up for that express purpose while most people were asleep, and in the case of Jesus’ followers camped out in the villages around Jerusalem.

      Having said that, I agree with most of K.W.’s first three paragraphs.

      God however uses people who are not in leadership to initiate radical change. “Why are we paying the youth pastor so litte?” “Why is there so little money in the budget allocated to outreach?”

      • Yeah, part of the reason I didn’t get into that was because it’s an old saw that isn’t entirely accurate. But thanks for clarifying that.

  6. Highwayman says

    In principle I would like to agree with Michael Spencer, particularly part of his article that you didn’t quote:

    “You could criticize what was going on, and it was OK. You weren’t unsupportive or unspiritual. Even if “God was blessing,” you could ask if it was Biblical, or true to the church’s purpose. You could question the pastor right there to his face, instead of dealing with one of his underlings or enforcers. And if the pastor said something stupid like “Don’t criticize what God is blessing….,” you could laugh at him right there in front of everyone.”

    Unfortunately, in the situation I am most familiar with, it just isn’t true! Although decisions are supposed to be made by the membership gathered at the church meeting (which is not to say that the issues shouldn’t be discussed and prayed about by the elders first, with recommendations made), in reality, though, the church meeting has tended to become a monologue by the pastor, who is happy to let everyone else agree with him – but woe betide them if they don’t!

    The result has been that many members no longer bother to attend, because they know that whatever they say won’t make any difference. Why waste an evening and get stressed attending a business meeting when you know the pastor is a control freak? I don’t actually believe it’s intentional, but even so, it reminds me of the old militant socialists’ tactics of boring everyone to death by raising obscure items which are of no interest to normal people, so most of them stay away and those running the meeting get their own way. Sorry to be cynical, but I know from bitter experience that the Minutes of a meeting can be altered to give a false impression of what was discussed.

    I don’t think this is an inherent fault of the system – it just goes to show that fallible human beings can cock up any system and convince ourselves that we’re doing God’s will…

  7. David Cornwell says

    Until my last years serving as a pastor I was a big supporter of the episcopal form of church denominational structure. Usually this meant that congregations had less control over the “appointment” of pastors, financial issues, local property, and other affairs. As time goes on I’ve partially changed my mind. All kinds of abuses and problems can take place under any form of church government. I am now aware of congregational types of churches that have many advantages over other forms. Everyone having a vote, as I see it, isn’t a problem. How we can ever judge who has the Christian character to have or not to have a voice in church affairs is beyond me. Any system we think is perfect is bound to eventually fail and disappoint us.

    Joshua’s ideal of consensus is wise. It takes time and is hard work, but in the end it is more difficult to blame a certain group for failure. This takes real leadership and prayer.

  8. When a post about this was posted at Jesus Creed on June 10, 2011, a commenter using the pseudonym Judah Maccabee (comment #51. & #52.) mentioned being a member of MacDonald’s church and described the pastor’s arrogant and condescending and insulting/bullying behavior towards the staff, and also provided a couple links.

    Having come out of a “The Pastor is in charge” cult, it was unnerving to read, because this behavior, if true, is only a couple steps away from abusive cult behavior.

    And the odds are, when you see this kind of behavior, there are often other sins of the flesh being engaged in and covered up. Just sayin’ from sad personal experience….

    • See Bill Kinnon’s comments (he’s in the IM blogroll).

      • @Steve:

        I took your advice and went to the Jesus Creed post and down to comment 64. with the link to Bill Kinnon’s comments at, and read what Bill had to say, and then followed his link to what WTH (Wenatcheethehatchet) wrote about MacDonald.

        Having done so, I think the odds that there are other sins of the flesh going on behind the scenes just went up – James* 3:16

        * not “MacDonald”

      • Thanks for the shout out, Steve. Brother James actually responded in the comments and I turned his comment and my response into a new blog post, if anyone is interested.

        And boy, does this post make me miss Michael even more – but I do love what Chaplain Mike and the rest of the crew are doing here.

  9. I believe the SBC business meetings of old weren’t exactly the best way, but the benevolent dictator model used by China, Saudi Arabia, and most all mega churches definitely isn’t the way either. I believe this new model is at the heart of the evangelical collapse.

    I am impressed by the Lutheran model in my church, the council system seems to be a decent middle ground.

  10. My old church was congregational in form, but the system was gamed by plenty of what I perceived as “spiritual” manipulation preceding the congregational votes. Some examples:
    * The budget was presented by the Trustees as “God’s plan for our church”.
    * When bylaws required congregational vote of approval, it was presented as “the elders unanimously recommend approval…” Somehow our elders were unanimous more often than the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea… as if a contrary opinion meant that someone was promoting disunity.
    * When our senior pastor retired and a new pastor was nominated by the elders for congregational vote, the sermon that preceded the vote concluded with the verse from 1 Corinthians, “but if anyone disagrees with us, WE have the mind of Christ” [totally out of context BTW if you read the surrounding chapters].

  11. Randy Thompson says

    The best, and perhaps most effective church business meeting: Make all decisions by flipping coins, heads or tails, and no two out of three flips, either.

    Doesn’t Acts 1 tell us that we got Judas’s replacement along these lines?

  12. I’ve read MacDonald’s argument. What it rests on is an assumption that the leaders usually get it right, while the members are sometimes “carnal”.

    I agree that sometimes congregational govt allows vocal members to make trouble in meetings. I’ve seen plenty of it recently, and although my church hasn’t quite become iMonk’s caricature, we’ve sometimes gotten close. I like the idea of doing things by consensus, and if the pastor/elders are proposing things that a large bloc of the ch don’t like, they should be sounding it out earlier.

  13. Scott Miller says

    Actually, Michael’s posting is a good argument for McDonald’s viewpoint.
    I spent time in a Calvinistic baptist church (ala Spurgeon) a couple years back that changed their name and removed “Baptist” from the church name because they wanted to make it clear that they were NOT, under no circumstances, congregational lead. And just before that they had a full fledged excommunication – kicking out a Sunday School teacher and his family for supposedly teaching/implying something that the church didn’t believe in. (Never did find out what he actually taught.) The elders made sure that everyone knew that even the pastor was under their leadership. It was very “lawyer”-like and quite amusing.

    • I can remember a congregational meeting that got so contentious, with people trying to figure out how to follow “Robert’s Rules of Order”, that someone in the balcony finally cried out, “is there a LAWYER in the house?”.

      You know you’ve lost your moorings when the people of God are literally begging to be under the Law.

  14. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    I’m not a big fan of congregational government for some of the same arguments as McDonald puts forth, but for an individual, independent congregation, “elder” systems can lead to serious accountability problems. Usually that’s because there’s either not a plurality of elders or the elders are just yes-men for the pastor. I think the real issue from my perspective is how to maintain the little-“c” catholicity of the church in a congregation that is completely independent. Been there, done that, and don’t wanna go back.

  15. I grew up in the same type of SBC churches that Michael describes. The pastor was just another person with a vote and did not run the meetings.

    In my 20’s I joined a seeker mega run by a group of elders. I went on to be a training consultant to many megas. And I have seen the dark side. All were run by a “plurality” of elders and most of these churches were very corrupt. If only people saw behind the stage! If only they could see a total budget!

    In fact, I came to see it was not just some bad apples but the barrell was bad. The system actually created the corruption. Of course, when you do it in the Name of Jesus to protect the “image” of the institution it does not seem so bad. But this lack of accountability to the larger body creates certain situations that they end up not wanting the congregatoin to know about.

    About 10 years ago, I went back to an SBC church that is congregationally governed. (one of the few left)
    The meetings are not contentious at all. But we all see detailed budgets and the pastor does not lead the meeting. I will never go back to the darkside. I am a member of the Body. And I can speak to the body if I feel so led. Even as woman.

  16. Well, let me throw in the Presbyterian form of government for consideration. The local church is ruled by Elders which the Pastor is one. Everything but the selection of the ordained Pastor and his compensation is the decision of the Elders. The Elders are nominated by a committee of members, examined by the Elders, and affirmed or denied by the congregation.

    Additionally, the ordained Pastor is not a member of the local church, but a member of a regional body (the Presbytery) which is made of all the Elders in every local church within a defined region. So if their is any funny business (theological, financial, personal conduct, etc.) at the local level, the Pastor must answer to a committee of Elders at the regional level and if the committee can’t decide what to do, they present the case to the entire Presbytery to vote on what to do.

    Through this series of checks and balances we attempt to remove much of the shenanigans that go on in church government.

    • +1

    • As one who attends a Presbyterian church, let me give some big ups to this form of government. I grew up in a Church of Christ environment in which each congregation was radically autonomous. There were virtually no checks and balances, and a strong pastor with the help of a couple of forceful elders could run everything down to what kind of craft glue to buy for vacational bible school. Much prefer the Presby. way.

  17. GringoChilango says

    In my early twenties I got involved in the charismatic movement and was deeply challenged by God and grew significantly because of my connection to the charismatics. I know that many have doctrinal disagreements with the charismatics, but that is a separate discussion. What I’ve observed in several different locales is the ubiquitous top-down structure which charismatics employ. It is often with the façade of elders, but I’ve never observed them to be anything but “yes men”. What has long been commonplace in charismatic circles is now becoming commonplace among mainstream evangelicals as well. This is regrettable.
    The issue of church governance is too often viewed through the lens of what’s most expedient for the leadership, too often the senior leader himself. When we commit this error, it’s almost inevitable that we’ve deviated from God’s will. To whom is the senior leader, and all leaders for that matter, sent to serve? Clearly he’s sent to serve the sheep. How can one effectively and compassionately attend to the sheep when they’re disenfranchised?
    Perhaps the analogy of schooling is appropriate. Children have limited choices in elementary school because of their immaturity. Yet as they grow, they’re given more latitude. School councils, individual class selection and clubs offer students more areas to explore according to their own interests and abilities. Finally, at the university level students are virtually free to live as they please. Of course, some do this well and others fail miserably, but the point is that we don’t expect twenty year olds to live with the stifling rules of an elementary child. I dare say that a twenty year old who required the structure typically reserved for an eight year old would be perceived by many as a failure in parenting. Allow me to ask a question relating this to church. Isn’t this what we do when we impose a staff-led governmental system on a person who’s been a Christian for twenty or thirty years? Is it beneficial to Christians in the pews?
    The attitude expressed by Pastor MacDonald may explain the exodus of so many longtime evangelical and charismatic church goers to home fellowships, denominational churches or even nothing at all. We simply can’t reconcile leadership’s demand that we, “Show up, pay up and shut up” with the reality that we’ve been Christians for twenty-five years and yet still I’m voiceless in church. Pastor MacDonald and all who adhere to his organizational principles may have thriving churches in their own eyes, but I wonder, “Are the members thriving?”

  18. IMO (!), a “church” is too large and complicated if you can’t take care of your business meeting stuff between the Lord’s Supper and lunch on Sunday.


  19. McDonald scares me.

    At my current job, my boss once asked me if he was doing anything wrong, or if he was making me nervous. My boss genuinely care about his behavior and how he made me feel. This absolutely blew me away. At my old SBC church, I never encountered this kind of leadership. At the SBC church, I never encountered introspection, a willingness to ask hard questions, or the willingness to consider that leadership might actually be wrong (gads!). Instead people who questioned leadership were thought to be the problem. We were taught that when you trust the church leaders and just follow along, you are implicitly trusting God, which is to say, that any questioning means a lack of faith and trust in God.

    In three years working at my current job , I have received more mentorship and have learned more about leadership than in 15+ years at my old church. How sad is that?

    • Highwayman says

      Sad, but probably not that uncommon. Whilst I didn’t always enjoy the training sessions, I think I also learnt more practical sense about pastoral care from local government management courses than from anything we did in my several years as part of a church eldership.

    • Yeah, I’ve been on the other side of leadership evaluations. My boss asked me to evaluate him honestly, and when I did (as lovingly and honestly as I knew how), he had a meeting with me about my attitude problem. People like him are common in the SBC world unfortunately. I’m always a nervous wreck when I have to work under people like that. It’s good to hear you’re having a good experience though!

  20. I posted this on James MacDonald’s article:

    “The office of the pastor, as it exists today, is not biblical. I agree that congregationalism is not necessarily found in the Bible, but that does not make it “from the devil.” I think someone could make a better argument for the modern position of pastor originating from the devil.

    If anything undermines and/or completely destroys the priesthood of all believers, it is the position of the pastor–even the position that James MacDonald calls his own. I doubt very much though, James, that you will give any serious consideration to this since it threatens the high position you are in now. There is probably too much at stake for you to objectively think about the inherent damaging effects of your position as pastor.”

    Here is his response:

    “This comment has made me think . . . that I was in a congregational meeting.”

    This has lead me to conclude that he probably couldn’t handle a business meeting and is–according to Michael Spencer–a wimp.

  21. Point of information: while Quakers call what they do “consensus” as a sort of shorthand, in theory that is not a correct description. What they are attempting to do is to all discern together what is *God’s* will — not simply what *they* the members can all agree on. The theory is that since God’s will is one, then when everyone agrees with God, they will also agree with each other.

    In practice, as one might imagine, there are numerous ways this can get derailed or go wrong, Quakers being human. But when God’s will truly *is* everyone’s goal, the disagreements diminish considerably.

  22. Another point

    What I find interesting, are pastors who want to be treated as “the leader”. They want to receive praise. They don’t want to be questioned and they do not want to be held accountable when they screw up.

    When they screw up, they’re response:

    We’re all human/sinners. There are no perfect churches. You shouldn’t be judgmental. You need to practice forgiveness.

    Of course, all of these things are true, but they also are not defenses to be used when you want to avoid accountability.

    If you have responsibility you also must be willing to accept the accountability.

    Isn’t there something that says this. Oh yeah, it’s James 3:1

    • Such dudes need to seriously memorize Matthew 23:8-12. Backwards and forwards and inside-out and upside-down. In the original Greek, too. And Jesus isn’t just saying addressing His disciples and telling them to treat each other equally; in this passage He is also speaking to the crowds (23:1). Also, adelphoi (23:8) is a common gender noun. Jesus’ words apply to both men and women. Leadership or servantship in the Kingdom under Jesus is not gender-restricted.

  23. The evangelical circus continues to run amok.

    This particular tent, and the alpha pastor who runs this show, I want no part of.