Have you ever attended a “secret meeting” at your church?
I have … on at least three occasions. On each occasion, I as senior pastor met with the church board to discuss disturbing allegations that had come to light about staff members.
So what I’m about to write about does not primarily apply to officially called meetings of a church’s governing board … unless the board violates Scripture, church bylaws, and the gospel.
But have you ever had a group call a secret meeting about you?
Yes. I know of one definite secret meeting where I as pastor was the topic of conversation, although there have probably been others that I’ve never found out about.
During my second pastorate, a former board member (I’ll call him Bert) resisted changes that the church board and I had implemented in our worship service. Bert and his wife left the church and began attending elsewhere, but a year later – invited back by a few disgruntled individuals – he returned.
And right after Bert’s return, someone called a secret meeting. I was the unwilling focus of discussion.
The first attempt at meeting secretly didn’t work. A board member - who supported me 100% – showed up at the meeting unannounced. The meeting was quickly cancelled. (Secret meetings are no longer fun when they’re no longer secret.)
But the second meeting came off successfully. I was later told that 17 people attended the meeting. (That was better attendance than we sometimes had for midweek Bible study.)
Guess who became group spokesman? That’s right … my good friend Bert.
The group sat in a room and listed every sin … every offense … and every thing they didn’t like about me … my wife … my 9-year-old son … and my 6-year-old daughter.
They came up with quite a list. If they had only shown the list to me, maybe I could have repented of those sins and experienced instant sanctification.
But they didn’t show me the list … they wanted to show the list to the church board.
Fortunately, those 17 people couldn’t keep their mouths shut, and someone tipped me off to their tactics. The Secret Meeting Coalition wanted to meet with the church board to confess all my personal and professional sins.
So the following Saturday morning, I called a meeting with the church board in my office. First, I needed an answer to a crucial question:
“How do you feel about what the SMC is doing? Do you agree with them?”
The board assured me – to a man – that they stood behind me 100%. In fact, they said that if I resigned, they would all quit as well … which would place the church squarely in the hands of the SMC. Not good.
I then offered two suggestions:
“How about if two of you meet with two of their representatives?”
That evened the playing field … opened up the chance for dialogue … removed a lot of emotion from the meeting … and provided the best chance for me to be treated fairly. The board made this suggestion to the SMC, and they agreed to it.
“Rather than letting them read their whole list of charges against me, why don’t you answer each charge as it’s being made?”
The board thought that was an excellent idea, and that’s what they did.
After the two groups met, I was informed of the charges against me and my family. Mercifully, I can only remember a handful of them.
For example, I was accused of not reprimanding a woman in the church who wore her dresses too short … and the SMC was right about that. (Besides the fact that this woman’s marriage was falling apart, I never thought it was my place as a pastor to ever tell specific women how to dress.)
The SMC also brought up that my wife’s slip was showing one Sunday. (But if it bothered somebody so much, why didn’t they love my wife enough to speak with her directly instead of telling 16 other people about it?)
Every single criticism was precisely that petty. (If I had been guilty of just one major offense, they wouldn’t have had to manufacture miniscule offenses.)
After the two board members answered every single criticism, the SMC probably held several more secret meetings. They eventually left the church en masse, formed a new church in a school one mile away, and used our church as their sole mission field.
Let me make five observations about secret meetings in churches:
First, secret meetings are not found anywhere in the NT.
Secret meetings are spiritually dysfunctional … relationally damaging … highly political … and psychologically unhealthy. The secrecy itself says far more about group members than it does about anyone the group is focused on.
Peter Steinke, in his brilliant book Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, states: “When we are anxious … we are imprecise, vague, covert, less transparent. We operate in darkness. Secrecy is a deadly virus. Undetected, it can do untold damage, lasting for years. How can a congregation be a healthy community if it lives in darkness, keeps skeletons in the closet, and allows destructive disease processes to continue?”
Second, secret meetings are an unbiblical way to handle people’s grievances.
If someone was upset with me or my wife personally – according to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15 – they should have spoken with us directly, not about us to others. If they didn’t like the answer they received from us, they could have proceeded to bring in witnesses as Jesus specifies in Matthew 18:16. And if they were still unhappy about our personal conduct, they could have used the process Paul specified for correcting pastors in 1 Timothy 5:19-21.
But how was listing my faults and sharing them with board members going to help me to become a better person and pastor?
If someone was upset about a church policy – like changes in the worship service – they could have spoken with any board member because we had all agreed on the changes together. If they didn’t like the answer they received from a board member, they had two options: stay and submit to church leadership, or leave the church peacefully. A secret meeting was not going to resolve any of their concerns.
But when people pool their grievances, they automatically become divisive. Joe is upset with the pastor for Offense A … and now Madge is upset with the pastor for Offense A as well. She takes Joe’s side … carries his offense … adds a few of her own … and the whole group falls right into the trap that one author calls The Bait of Satan.
Division in a church begins when people begin to pool their grievances.
Third, secret meetings tend to overfocus on one person – usually the pastor.
These meetings are specifically arranged to find a scapegoat for the unresolved anxiety experienced by some group members. “We’re feeling uncomfortable right now, so let’s blame how we feel on the pastor - and if we can make a case against him, we’ll all feel ecstatic very soon.”
But the church would have been in far better shape spiritually if those who had met to hypercriticize their pastor met instead to confess their sins … read Scripture together … pray for church leaders … and engage in a service project for somebody else. But for some reason, they never found the time to do that.
Fourth, secret meetings reveal the immaturity of participants.
Let me quote Peter Steinke once again: “Secret meetings are not arranged for the welfare of the whole community, nor are they dialogical in nature…. Secrets support immaturity. Underground murmurers in a community are usually insecure, dependent, and childish people.”
Why is this? Because participants in secret meetings do not feel strong enough to share how they feel with their pastor or leaders. They only feel strong when they meet with fellow malcontents. But when they do, nobody will challenge them … nobody will disagree with them … and nobody will love them into health. And when they finally leave the room clinging to a list of somebody else’s faults, they are silently confessing that they don’t know anything about grace or redemption.
Rather than becoming angry with people who resort to secret meetings, we should genuinely feel sorry for them … and if they don’t repent, pray them right out of the church.
Finally, secret meetings consist of ecclesiastical vigilantes.
These people ignore the teachings of Scripture on reconciliation … bypass due process as outlined in church bylaws … and decide to take matters into their own hands. Their group alone knows what’s best for the church!
That particular group of vigilantes couldn’t make a go of their new church. They found attracting newcomers was hard going, although I have a feeling that they never figured out why. Their church eventually disbanded.
And you know what was ironic? When two of the people in that group died, I was asked to conduct their funerals.
I assumed that everyone in that group hated me, but they didn’t. Only a couple of people in that group really hated me.
It’s been 25 years since that secret meeting took place. I’ve learned a lot since then about healthy and unhealthy behavior among Christians.
And one of the things I’ve learned is that many of the secrets that arise out of secret meetings eventually become known. Nothing stays hidden forever.
And yet tonight … all over this land … Christians will be holding secret meetings … most of them aimed at their pastor.
To quote from an old folk song, “When will they ever learn?”
Check out my website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org You’ll find my story and recommended resources on conflict. I will also be leading 3 seminars addressing church conflict on Saturday, August 17 in Temecula, California. The details are on the website. I’d love to have you join us!