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Awareness of church, societal trends helps leaders prepare, attorney says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An awareness of changes in churches and in secular society can help church leaders prepare for the future with their church’s best interest in mind, an attorney and Southern Baptist layman told pastors, church administrators and other church staff meeting.

Steve Lewis, an attorney from Oklahoma City told participants in the “21st Century Forum for Church Administration” that today’s paid and volunteer leaders need to recognize where the church is today and where society is in relationship to churches — to protect their churches from crises that did not concern congregations a few decades ago.

The March 27-29 conference was sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

Lawsuits against churches, for example, have grown from a few in the 1960s to thousands in the 1990s, Lewis said.

Many churches still operate as though society is the same as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, he said, citing a number of indicators that the world has changed dramatically:

— Topics such as sex changes and homosexuality are presented in a variety of public media.

— Christian witnessing comes under fire from the public.

— Moral character appears to be unimportant for public leaders.

— Signs of Christianity are disappearing from America.

“Many churches today barely survive, much less thrive,” Lewis observed. “We have to help fellow church leaders gain skills that allow them to successfully navigate the waters of a culture totally foreign to most of them.”

An estimated 85 percent of larger churches have had claims asserted against them through the legal system, Lewis noted.

“Numerous multimillion dollar judgments have been awarded against churches,” he continued.

Among the legal issues facing some churches are failure to comply with government regulations about workers compensation, overtime pay, tax reporting and confidentiality of medical records.

In contrast to the way churches conducted business in the 1950s, today’s church members do not have the right to know everything related to church employees, Lewis said.

Non-ministerial staff, he added, cannot be asked during the interview process about marital status, age, disability or childbearing issues.

“Why do we ignore the law,” Lewis asked, “but expect it to respect us and leave us alone?”

Lewis said he sees churches at a disadvantage when:

— church leaders have no training in business, government and legal issues;

— the church has no cost-effective place to turn for advice;

— there is a tendency to ignore scary issues or avoid confrontation; and

— matters are delegated to untrained, quasi-interested committees whose members know less about the legal issues than the church staff.

Today’s churches do not have the historically protected status in which the government took a hands-off approach to internal church issues, Lewis said.

Compounding the problems churches face today are staff burnout, short-tenured ministries, a crisis of immorality among some church staff persons, staff dismissals by churches and staff job descriptions that are impractical and unachievable.

On the positive side, Lewis cited expertise at LifeWay and in state Baptist conventions in the area of pastor-staff issues; an increasing need of churches to change form and procedure, but not the gospel message; a growing willingness of churches to train and delegate to accountable lay workers; and an increased recognition of an individual’s specific limited role, rather than trying to “do it all.”

LifeWay’s pastor-staff leadership department sponsored the 21st Century Forum for Church Administration, covering a range of topics on trends and critical issues affecting churches.

The next 21st Century Forum for Church Administration will be March 26-28, 2001, in Nashville. Questions may be directed to Mark Marshall at 615-251-2514 or by e-mail to [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Charles Willis