Excerpts from the Letter on the SGM Polity Committee

A letter was recently issued to the pastors of local SGM churches regarding the polity committee formed and commissioned by SGM Board of Directors.  I have included excerpts of the letter (in italics) with a few comments interspersed.

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As you were informed last week, the Board of Directors of Sovereign Grace Ministries has appointed a committee to propose a future governance structure and partnership agreement for our family of churches. The Board realizes that its present role is to lead SGM through significant changes in polity. The Board is working from some constraints of the existing polity and bylaws with a view to transitioning SGM to a different governmental structure that involves more participation by the pastors of its member churches. Our history together in Sovereign Grace has been characterized by much grace, but we have been aware for some time now of the pressing need for further ecclesiological definition. It is our intent that the changes we make be informed by our common history and involve the robust participation of our pastors, with sound doctrine as our ultimate guide. The Board has not yet determined whether the new polity proposal will be submitted to a formal vote of the pastors or a less formal process of affirmation.

We should duly note the same leader who led us into this disorder now chairs the polity committee. To my mind, the fact that the committee is chaired by CJ Mahaney, speaks the disingenuous posturing by both the Board and Mr. Mahaney himself.   Prior to his return to President, there was much posturing that this would be temporary and that the Board would quickly seek a new President.   From all appearances, this was not their intent.

Also note that this is furtherance of the elitist, top down control mentality that has pervaded the way SGM has run for years.  “We will figure it out and when we do, we’ll let you know”.   I don’t know about you but the “less formal process of affirmation” didn’t work so well in the appointment of the new Board.  The disregard of the input of approximately 20 churches stands as a stark reminder of the way the “process of affirmation” works in SGM-land.

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The bylaws of SGM state that any committee appointed by the Board of Directors must have two members from the Board. We have added to that three other pastors and two members of the Leadership Team. Here is the Polity Committee:

C.J. Mahaney, Co-Chairman (Leadership Team, President of SGM)        

Phil Sasser, Co-Chairman (Board Member, Pastor, Sovereign Grace Church, Apex, NC) 

Paul Buckley (Board Member, Pastor, King of Grace Church, Haverhill, MA)            

Matthew Wassink (Pastor, Providence Community Church, Lenexa, KS)  

Jared Mellinger (Pastor, Covenant Fellowship Church, Glen Mills, PA)      

Bruce Chick (Pastor,-Sovereign Grace Community Church, Roanoke, VA)                          

Jeff Purswell (Leadership Team, Dean of SGM Pastors College)

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Once again, this is what you call stacking the deck.  The omission of anyone from two of the largest and most influential churches in the network of churches is notable – why is neither CLC or SGC Fairfax represented on the committee?   Besides those two churches, there are other knowledgeable and wise pastors marginalized from this process – and that is disappointing.   Please read over the names of the polity committee again – do you believe these men, with their predisposition to maintain status quo and current power structure, will capably invent a polity structure that is consistent with biblically sound and common wise practices?   The following excerpt from the letter indicates their propensity to maintain current power structures.

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Let it be noted that SGM as a family of churches has enjoyed a rich history together. There are many doctrinal positions upon which there is widespread unity within SGM. As a result, the Board believes that there are some areas that should be preserved in our future polity. Here are the three important areas to be preserved.

a. SGM churches are elder-led. This has been taught and firmly established for decades. Of course there are many questions about the specific qualifications of those elders, how they are selected, how they are ordained, and the nature and scope of their authority, which will need to be examined.

b. Extra-local leadership has also been a part of our history. This will definitely inform our approach, but the Board of Directors realizes that there are many questions about extra-local ministry which must be answered. These include the nature of extra-local authority, the basis of that authority, the extent of that authority, and the means and methods by which that authority is exercised in the local church.

c. SGM as a family of churches has historically been committed to planting and caring for local churches. This mission is essential to all that we stand for; we are determined to continue in this mission. The Board also realizes that there is much to be discussed, determined, and defended concerning the mission of the church and the ecclesiological status of SGM.

Regarding (a) , Is the selection of local church elders, the purview of a organization outside the local church?   There is no warrant for SGM to exercise such authority over the local church.  In fact, any local eldership that surrenders that authority to an extra-local body is acting in out-of-step with biblical principle and abdicating governing responsibility.

Regarding (b), this is what you call self-interest/self-preservation.   Indeed, there are many questions to be answered including the relevance of a body that exist outside of the local church that seeks to exercise authority or leadership of the local church.

Regarding (c), local churches plant new churches – that is the biblical model.  What role does SGM play since they have no biblical right to exert authority over local churches?   Perhaps they could function in a similar way to a Missions Board but the scope of their function should be limited and under the direction of the local churches.

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There is much more to the document but I sincerely do not wish to further the analysis of their letter, especially in a negative tone or in a nit-picking manner. I merely wanted to call out relevant areas that signal the continuance of a top-down leadership style in the hands of insiders.  This my friends, is not reform, no matter how SGM seeks to package it.

AoR Report on Sovereign Grace Ministries – Observations & Commentary

This is old news for most  – SGM has released the AoR report.   First to SGM Board – thank you.  I suppose if I’m going to call you out in my last post to “do the right thing” by releasing the report in entirety – I should thank you for doing so.

Following the release of this report, there have been different responses – disappointment to many, encouragement to others,  vindication to the very few.  With this post,  I’d like to offer a few comments and observations about the AoR report that I hope might be helpful.

Let me start by saying this –  I think there’s a lot that’s good and helpful in the report – thank you AoR for your work.    In particular, the general call for every participant to examine his/her own heart – repent and refrain from sinful communication patterns is good and wise.    It is also useful to hear again the need to extend and proclaim forgiveness.   As we often say in our church culture, if you’re around us long enough, we’ll sin against you – how true and well exemplified through this sad episode but we must forgive when someone repents.  The encouragement to extend love, not only to those currently in the church, but also to former members is very helpful.   There are other notable good points so I would encourage you to read it in totality and maybe a couple of times.

However, I’d also suggest that there were a number of points that were perhaps a little off the mark or not encompassing the essence of the SGM debacle.  Here are a few points of observation or analysis.

  • Have you ever heard of the saying – “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail”?   Well, I think it applies here.  AoR has a decidedly “conflict resolution” perspective of the problem at hand.  To be sure, personal conflict is one dimension of the problem but the issues related to SGM are much broader than that.   In this sense, I think AoR’s work (and possibly expertise) is misaligned w the macro problem at hand   What’s needed for SGM is not simply reconciliation between parties but reformation of church culture and polity.   I agree that there is a need for forgiveness to be extended all around – pastors to fellow pastors, pastors to members, members to pastors, etc…   but there is need for much more than that.   When you only apply the category of inter-personal reconciliation, you may misunderstand and misinterpret your observations.   As an example – absent the category of spiritual abuse, you may be more concerned about pastors correcting sinful speech than extending forbearance toward those who may be sinning as a result of spiritual abuse.
  • AoR is not a completely neutral, independent, objective party…but that’s ok.   I believe this to be true for 2 reasons.  First, they are paid by SGM, spent time with SGM board in preparation for their work, and worked in concert with SGM board throughout the process.   More than payment, time spent interacting with SGM leadership undoubtedly would shape their view regarding the nature of the issues.  For instance, SGM has repeatedly sought to frame this problem in terms of personal conflict while many of the church leaders calling for reform have repeatedly stated – “this is not primarily about a conflict w CJ”.   Second reason, AoR is not completely neutral or objective is due to an effect similar to the “Heisenberg Measurement Problem” in physics – which says that when you try to probe and measure a system, you inevitably alter the system that you’re trying to measure, hence invalidating the accuracy of the measurement to some degree   Here’s how the “Heisenberg Measurement Problem” may have possibly affected AoR as the process unfolded – when AoR began their participation, some in the blogging community were unfairly critical and suspicious of them.  This could very likely have affected AoR’s view of the situation.  Frankly, how could it not?   They were reading the blogs and that kind of response to them only served to reinforce SGM’s opinion of “the blogs”.  This would certainly explain their negative fixation on “the blogs” in their report when frankly, in my opinion, the blogs have served an important purpose in bringing what is hidden into light.  Yes, there has been unprofitable sinful speech but that’s not all that has occurred in the SGM blog land.   Before I leave this point,  I must emphasize this – just because AoR is not completely neutral or objective does not mean that their report is materially unfair or prejudiced.  Nor does it mean that they’ve done anything wrong – overall, notwithstanding their judgment of the blogs, they probably did as good a job as can be expected on a rather broad, challenging task.
  • In my opinion, AoR missed the bigger picture when making observations about the SGM debacle.  The report is full of valid observations about the SGM church culture – both positive and negative but they may have missed the mark in their analysis.   I’m not sure AoR grasped why there is widespread frustration over SGM leadership culture.  Why are otherwise mature, kind pastors and church members so up in arms over what’s happened in SGM?   Here’s a clue – it’s not because they have a vendetta against CJ (at least not for most).   It’s actually because of this – since this entire sad situation has broken, all that has been exposed and observed is that SGM leadership including CJ has been out of step with the church culture and practices that we hold dear.  In some circles, this may be viewed as hypocrisy.   It may or may not be so, but it is nonetheless frustrating to current members.   I don’t think AoR understands this.  For instance, is it any wonder that when a corporate leader steps down, confesses and then some weeks later publicly recants his confession that it might lead members to completely lose confidence in the leader?
  • AoR made a point of praising CJ’s preaching but failed to make the point that he needs to take corporate responsibility for its failures.   They observe with some puzzlement that CJ’s preaching is gospel centric but this “gospel-centeredness” does not accord with our practice.   Actually it’s not so mysterious. Have you ever been in a company or group where the professed values do not match up with the practice?   I have and it’s not altogether unusual.  But in those cases, you can almost always trace the culture back to the head honcho.  He’s responsible and if he’s a great leader – he’ll own it – good, bad, ugly and seek to change.   AoR should be aware that CJ’s current preaching content is a small slice of his pastoral influence over the churches in the past several years.  The culture, not the preaching is the full measure of his body of work and he should take ownership for it.
  • I want to say this humbly but I do believe that AoR missed it on specific advice regarding the nature of sinful communication and appropriate mediums of communication.   I understand that if you live in the realm of conflict resolution, you are particularly concerned about sinful communication but is the admonishment to not conduct public “family meetings” really on target?    Seriously, just because you witnessed a couple of those meetings get out of hand, should we not have public meetings?   Let’s be clear – there is no biblical warrant for that.   I’ve seen people sin in prayer meetings, should we abandon prayer meetings altogether?   As a matter of interest, my SGM church has conducted a number of very good and helpful public meetings where members asked hard questions, challenged decisions but all in all, did so in a brotherly Christian spirit.   Both members and pastors were helped by those meetings, including the difficult and challenging questions.  Perhaps this is where the lens of conflict resolution can be a little narrow in focus.  The goal of these meetings isn’t to avoid sinful speech.   The goal is actually to have a family meeting in the true sense of the phrase whereby fellow members can express their sentiments openly, safely and in a God glorifying manner.   If, on occasion, a few members get frustrated and angry, that’s ok – we can encourage repentance, we can extend forgiveness and in so doing exemplify the gospel in church life together.  I’ve seen it happen at our church.   Look – I have no time or space to get into the topic of slander/gossip here but there are lots of reasons to disagree and even criticize at times – not all of them sinful.   When someone questions another persons qualifications or critiques the body of his work, it isn’t necessarily sinful speech.

Friends, do lay hold of AoR’s good advice to examine our hearts for uncharitable judgements and bitterness.  Extend forgiveness when warranted.  But also bear in mind that this isn’t primarily about personal reconciliation.  For many current members of SGM churches, it’s about reform and we’re not ready to stop calling for it.   We may have to at some point, but we’re not there yet and we’re hoping that SGM board will have the good sense to listen.

Finally, since AoR had a negative view and concern about blogs, I would sincerely and humbly invite them to please contact me if they felt anything I said here was uncharitable or sinful.

SGM Board – Please Fulfill Your Commitments

The SGM Board just released a statement regarding their meeting with AoR and highlighted what was accomplished in the recent meeting in Louisville, KY (Aside: SGM members: get used to hearing – “reporting from Louisville”).   You can read the entire statement here.

With little surprise, but great disappointment to this blogger, they appointed John Loftness as Chairman.   It is unclear what relevant competencies Mr Loftness has demonstrated befitting this position but there are reasonable questions raised to the contrary.  Contrary evidence of his qualification would include but not limited to – his management of the Ashburn church crisis and his poor communication with key churches in his region.   But then again, he is loyal to CJ Mahaney – so perhaps in that regard we should not be surprised that he is considered to be eminently qualified.

Let me just take this opportunity to remind the SGM board of the commitments that has been established with SGM members.

First, please, be men of your word.   Giving us an update is fine and all… but what we expect is for you to release the AoR report in entirety, without edits and word-smithing.   Our confidence in SGM leadership to “do the right thing” is at an all time low.   Please demonstrate the kind of gospel centered courage that brings into view all faults, failures and sins – takes responsibility for them – but leans into Christ to redeem.

Second – be accountable to appoint a new President immediately as we were led to believe would happen after CJ returned to office.   Please do not allow misguided loyalties derail the future of SGM.   SGM isn’t CJ’s or your personal ministry experiment.   Think instead about the thousands of stakeholders who have invested their lives – through  financial giving and gifts employed in service to their local SGM churches.   Please hold CJ and others in SGM corporate leadership accountable for the undefined polity, abysmal communication practices,  heavy handed apostolic authority and failed example.   This means a whole new leadership team and structure.   If you fail to do that, you will not regain the confidence of members.

Finally, actually come clean, listen and make changes. The excuse till now has been the temporal nature and limitations of the interim board.   Now that we have a permanent board in place – please act with integrity and do as you should.

What Motivates the Actions of SGM Leadership?

I’m grateful for this week’s post from a guest blogger who blogs under the handle – Ozymandias.     With this thoughtful post, Ozymandias raises interesting questions about the motivational forces that drive the SGM leadership and offers provocative ideas on how to initiate change in SGM.   Hope you appreciate this post as much as I do.

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It is common wisdom that human conflicts can break out when immediate proximate causes (“sparks”) ignite long-standing, underlying causes (“highly flammable material”).  As a conflict goes on, however, one can also identify what might be called a perpetuating driver, or what Carl Von Clausewitz’s 19th century treatise On War calls the “center of gravity.”  For Clausewitz, the center of gravity is the opponent’s “hub of all power and movement” – often defined as the opposing military, capital city or alliance structure.  Michael Shaara’s fictionalized history of the final years of the Civil War, The Last Full Measure, highlights the concept through a conversation between Ulysses Grant and Elihu Washburne.  Debating the relative merits of focusing Union efforts on Robert E. Lee and his military versus Jefferson Davis and the seat of government in Richmond, Washburne insists that “[t]he Confederacy, the rebellion, starts with Jefferson Davis.” “No sir,” replies Grant, “Those men over there…they are not dying for a government in Richmond.  They do not charge into our guns screaming the name of Jefferson Davis.  They are fighting for Lee.  Lee is the rebellion.  If he is defeated, if his army surrenders, then make no mistake, this war is over.”  In short, the immediate proximate cause – Lincoln’s election in 1860 – set ablaze the long-divided American political landscape, but as the Civil War progressed, the conflict’s center of gravity became the continuing viability of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, and what the man and his military (psychologically) represented to the Confederacy as a whole.

So, what does the center of gravity concept have to do with the state of our denomination?  The conflict erupted publicly in June/July 2011 when an immediate proximate cause – the conflict between C.J. Mahaney and Brent Detwiler and the subsequent information leak – ignited existing, systemic problems of SGM polity, authority, and church subculture.  However, as the conflict has continued, I would argue that one discerns a distinct center of gravity.  Akin to Clausewitz’s comments about alliances, the center of gravity is the denomination’s relationship to the wider Young, Restless and Reformed (YRR) community.  It isn’t first and foremost about who is at the denomination’s helm, or how a new Partnership Agreement will define HQ-to-field operations, but about how public discussion affects the denomination’s reputation in conservative evangelical circles.  As has been referenced here and there on “the blogs,” the center of gravity revolves around the (psychological) fear of what the public airing of SGM’s systemic problems would mean for its reputation in the YRR world, or in social science and business terms, the public diminution of the denomination’s overall brand among co-religionists.

For the sake of a working hypothesis, let’s see how this particular way of defining center of gravity might explain just a few of the decisions since last July:

— It can explain why the interim board’s first order of business was the establishment of the fitness panel, involving three well-known conservative evangelical personalities: Kevin DeYoung, Carl Trueman and Ray Ortland.  It also helps to explain the rapid turnaround and public release of the report’s findings.

— It can explain the overarching theme of SGMHQ’s November 2011 denominational letter, written in the wake of Covenant Life Church’s internet release of its 30 October 2011 Family Meeting.  Note the sheer number of times the letter repeats the words “public” vs. “private,” as well as the highlighting of Josh Harris’ influence and CLC’s public example [emphasis added]:

“we have taken the approach of privately engaging with CLC…”

“It has been our hope from the beginning that these disagreements could get worked out privately…”

“we would not engage in critiquing each other beyond the private realm”

“Our goal has been to interact privately and through conversation, withholding public critique.”

“…the CLC pastors have chosen to broadcast their differences and disagreements in public meetings and through the internet

CLC has always functioned as something of a model of SGM belief and practice. Pastors throughout our churches could assume CLC and SGM are on the same page, and look to CLC to observe the direction and positions of SGM.”

public statements continue to be made from CLC pastors that seem to us to significantly misrepresent SGM and have the potential to implicate and cast suspicion upon you and the churches you serve.”

“CLC pastors have publicly voiced their concerns and criticisms for SGM broadly..”

“In their most recent family meeting, made public through Josh’s Facebook and on their website, CLC openly shared their negative assessment of SGM leadership.”

“…the sweeping and pejorative assessments he is making of SGM…”

“…because of the public nature of Josh’s comments and our concerns for how SGM is being portrayed.” “Our disagreement lies with aspects of their assessment, their presentation of these issues, and the impression their public statements can have.”

“We have communicated to Josh that his broad critique of Sovereign Grace in public forums, while identifying certain weaknesses with which we all agree, is having the effect of raising suspicions in local churches against local church pastoral teams”

“Our request to them at this point is to confine their public pronouncements concerning reform to issues CLC is facing, although we have urged them to please continue to share concerns for SGM privately with the board, just as we have sought to share our concerns for them privately.”

— It can help to explain, following CJ’s reinstatement, the discernible move away from regular posts about the denomination’s issues on SGM’s Plant and Build blog.  Related to this, it can also explain why, recently, all of the previous comments to older posts at the Plant and Build blog have been deleted and are no longer available for public review.  It can also help to explain why earlier statements by denominational leaders have also been removed, and why, in the new board’s first public statement, it made itself clear that, among other things, it would not involve itself in “day-to-day communication.”

— It may explain why there has been no specific response to Sovereign Grace Church of Fairfax’s 7 March 2012 letter to the interim board – a letter signed by multiple SGM churches and subsequently made public.

— It may help to explain the rush to affirm and seat a new board, as SGM’s 13 March 2012 letter describes, “[in the] small window of time before the release of the [Ambassadors of Reconciliation] report.”  If – and I emphasize if – the goal is to lessen the impact of the report’s findings among the conservative evangelical crowd by releasing it simultaneously with some statement about “how the denomination has already addressed AoR’s more salient points,” then it is understandable how, as the 13 March letter continues, “it was important to get a new board in place in order to respond promptly to [AoR’s] report.”

— It could also explain the decision to hold off any public release of the AoR report until after this week’s Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference in Louisville, rather than release it in the run-up to the event.

So, if such a working hypothesis is accurate, what might it mean for denominational reform?  How might one address the conflict’s center of gravity?

First, at this point, I would argue that significant reform is just not possible without public YRR discussion of the denomination’s historical, systemic problems.  And unfortunately, there has been a noticeable unwillingness on the part of YRR outlets to engage in any such discussion.  If you regularly read conservative evangelical bloggers or personally interact with conservative evangelical publishers, you may wish to bring this up with them.  Shying away completely from the conflict’s immediate proximate cause (i.e. the Mahaney/Detwiler conflict) I might recommend a polite letter, especially to those who have historically highlighted SGM, its books and its music to their audiences, asking if they are aware of how the denomination is currently facing division, and if they have any concerns that they have – either through commission or omission – perpetuated the conflict rather than helped to ameliorate it.

Second, for those who are going to T4G, please don’t hesitate to ask SGMers – perhaps even craft a relevant and polite question that can be asked during a seminar Q&A, or during Band of Bloggers – about the denomination’s systemic issues, and about how reform might be possible.

Third, if during conversations you are questioned about gossip and slander on “the blogs,” (and it is very likely that it could come up), I would highlight the fact that the 7 March 2012 Fairfax letter and the problems of reforming denominational authority have nothing to do with either of those categories.