The SGM Board’s Letter To All SGM Pastors

November 14, 2011 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

A few people have written to ask if I was aware of a letter that had gone out from the board of Sovereign Grace Ministries.  The letter purportedly had been sent to all SGM pastors, and its topic was the board’s differences with Josh Harris and Covenant Life Church.  Here is one such letter, which was posted as a comment under the previous post.  This letter was apparently sent out the week prior to the SGM Pastors’ Conference.

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To the Pastors of Sovereign Grace,

Thank you for your continued labor of love in your churches, your ongoing support and partnership in the gospel, and your unshakable confidence in God during these months. Many of you have asked questions about the current relationship between Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and Covenant Life Church (CLC). We realize this is of interest to many of you, and it’s a relationship we cherish, so we are grateful for your inquiries and prayers.

Over the past few months, we have been discussing areas of disagreement with Josh Harris and our brothers who lead CLC. So far we have taken the approach of privately engaging with CLC over the disagreements and concerns we have for them. It has been our hope from the beginning that these disagreements could get worked out privately, and that we would not engage in critiquing each other beyond the private realm. Some of you men have challenged us for failing to make statements about CLC’s public leadership and the effects of it upon your churches. Our goal has been to interact privately and through conversation, withholding public critique. We have not wanted to do anything that would unnecessarily put CLC in a negative light or multiply their local church challenges. We dearly love these brothers and the church they lead.

Why Write to All the Pastors?

Those of you who have been around for a while in SGM know we normally wouldn’t communicate to pastors throughout our family of churches where we disagree with a particular member-church. But there are a number of factors that seem to make this a helpful and necessary step in this case. The major reasons already mentioned include the number of pastors who have inquired about these things and the affect CLC leadership has had on some of our member-churches as the CLC pastors have chosen to broadcast their differences and disagreements in public meetings and through the internet.

But another reason for updating you of these things is that in the past, 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. However, despite our many agreements on essential issues, SGM and CLC now find themselves with some differences and disagreements, and it seems important to begin explaining those differences for the benefit of pastors and churches throughout SGM. We do not plan to post this correspondence on the Plant and Build blog right now, nor are we planning on sharing it with a broader audience at this time.

A final reason for sharing these things with you—and really the one that ultimately prompted this letter—is that 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. The CLC pastors have publicly voiced their concerns and criticisms for SGM broadly, and continue to call for reform in SGM in a number of areas. We feel their approach makes it necessary for us to explain our perspective and pass along to you our thoughts on their public critique.

Thoughts from the Recent CLC Members Meeting

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. They expressed their belief that there are deep-seated problems in SGM, and that our authority has operated in unaccountable and arbitrary ways. On a few occasions, we have shared our concerns with Josh regarding the sweeping and pejorative assessments he is making of SGM, his broad conclusions about the way SGM functions based on his limited exposure to SGM, and the apparent lack of consideration for the impact of his leadership statements on the broader family of SGM. We wanted to share our perspective with you here because of the public nature of Josh’s comments and our concerns for how SGM is being portrayed.

The pastors of CLC shared their concerns under two main headings in their family meeting: 1) leadership structures and 2) due process in evaluating charges against SGM. We readily agree with the need for growth in these categories, and we are indeed expending much energy in seeking to address these. Our disagreement lies with aspects of their assessment, their presentation of these issues, and the impression their public statements can have.

First, we agree on the need to address organizational weaknesses. The last four months only highlight the need for more clarity and definition in certain areas. However, Josh’s comments imply that the board (the old one of which he was a part, and the new one convened in July) has not been already occupied with reform in this area, and could leave the false impression that we are uninterested in or resistant to change and growth.

Although CJ’s LOA and the release of Brent’s docs have certainly diverted efforts over the past few months, the board has spent much of the past two years evaluating ourselves and exploring changes. Included in this has been an evaluation conducted by the regional leaders of the former board in 2009. That same year the board also conducted an assessment of our governance structures, and began a thorough polity evaluation. Our size as a family of churches, coupled with our desire to walk carefully through this process with our pastors’ input and involvement, have made the polity process a painstaking one, and much work remains to be done, as our recent experience and the constructive criticisms of Ambassadors of Reconciliation have made clear. So it is no secret that SGM has identified weaknesses in our structures and our polity, and we are eager to address these. We are disappointed that there has been so little mention made in CLC’s public statements of the history and nature of these efforts. Instead of acknowledging the ongoing process and the steps taken in this regard, many of which preceded the current crisis, CLC presented their critique as a call to reform. Such an approach, we believe, presents a skewed picture of the situation and can leave the impression that we are resistant to change and that problems are only being addressed in response to recent accusations. We feel this is misleading, one-sided, and uncharitable. It is difficult to understand why there is a call to reform in areas that we are already seeking to address, and we are seeking to do so with the counsel of our pastors.

The second heading they presented is also a category where there is much agreement. Before Brent’s documents were released, we had become aware of our lack of appropriate procedures for handling grievances, and this season has intensified this realization. We failed to implement policies for bringing charges against an elder and against an SGM leader. We are especially grieved to see how this has adversely affected not just C.J., but some former pastors from SGM churches over the years, and addressing this weakness is a significant priority. We must and will reform there. We also need to make a clear way for people to bring grievances, and create a process for establishing what charges are to be heard and what should be rejected. We have learned that many church bodies have these policies. So we have been at work to develop, alongside our polity changes, appropriate policies to process grievances that both protect leaders and churches and afford redress to those truly offended. This is one of the many reasons we secured the assistance of AOR. But here too, we wish CLC would have more clearly acknowledged both our recognition of this weakness and our efforts to address it. Their presentation takes pains to stress our absence of such policies and their own call for change, which can obscure our concrete efforts and raise questions about our clarity, sincerity, and good will. Again, we do not believe that they communicated an accurate picture of our efforts.

Although we are agreed about the need for change in this area, it also seems we may disagree in what some of these processes should look like. For example, we believe that allegations made against a minister are to be discussed and weighed only in the context of private confrontation and appeal (Matt. 18:15-16) or in the context of a church judicial process (1 Tim. 5:19-21). We believe the Scriptures require a just process, in which a man should be publicly rebuked or corrected only after “two or three witnesses” have given their testimony in the presence of the accused, if at all possible (“both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord”, Deut. 19:17), and the accused has been given an opportunity to speak in his defense (Prov. 18:17). Furthermore, sins which have been publicly confessed should be publicly forgiven, not dissected and rehearsed. Any further consequences of confessed sins should be determined and announced by way of a church judicial process (1 Tim. 5:19-21). We do not believe that it is appropriate to discuss at length the sins of a leader nor allegations against him (or anyone for that matter) in congregational forums.

Beyond these two categories, the CLC pastors also discussed the need for congregations to be vitally involved in significant decisions. This would be another area where we believe there is much agreement. However, CLC’s presentation stressed their own commitment to change while leaving SGM’s position in question. Josh’s comments made no reference to the specific teaching we did on this topic at the T4G meetings in 2010 in which we encouraged every church to give attention to this area. Moreover, it would appear that the CLC pastoral team would be unaware that this has been a growing practice in some SGM churches and has been the longstanding policy in others (At Covenant Fellowship Church, the elders have involved the congregation in the purchase of land and the evaluation of elders for many years as well as in the affirmation of Jared Mellinger as the new senior pastor over three years ago). We are grateful that CLC is addressing their weakness and now seeing the need to involve the congregation in meaningful ways. But we find their omission of references to SGM’s instruction and the practices of many churches to be misleading, and their assumptions about SGM in this area somewhat misinformed, and therefore illustrative of how they can at times mischaracterize SGM.

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 – something we assume he does not intend but that he does not seem to adequately consider as he seeks to lead his own local church. Moreover, these critiques can also fail to present an accurate picture of SGM’s leadership, particularly as it seeks to navigate the current crisis and address areas needing change. This, too, can raise unwarranted suspicions throughout our family of churches.

Our Commitment

We are committed to our relationship with the pastors of CLC and we continue to dialogue with them. These are men we greatly love and respect, and we cherish our partnership together—a partnership that spans three decades. We recognize they have been facing a very challenging season, and we pray for these brothers and for their church as they walk through these difficulties. 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. We are eager to deal freely with any and all issues, questions, and even disagreements. However, doing so publically in a way that doesn’t present the full picture can often be unfruitful and have negative relational effects as well.

Furthermore, we are committed to doing whatever we can to help meet the very real leadership challenges CLC is facing as a result of this crisis. We believe God has much good for the future of CLC because he has so evidently been pleased to bless others through them in the past. This church has been an abundant means of grace for SGM for nearly three decades. Through their training up of leaders, their example of faithfulness to the gospel and their financial giving, CLC has been at the forefront of much of our mission together.

No matter where you fall on the spectrum of agreeing or disagreeing with their leadership, we hope you will see them through this same lens of faith and grace. It is impossible to ignore the difficulty of having to work through these issues when in the past there has been so much unity, but God is with us and has good for all of us in this. We are learning from each other, sharpening one another, and are eager to see how God glorifies himself as our dialogue continues.

Please pray for us all, that our discussions will be marked by grace and humility, and that God will be honored in all our conversations and decisions.

As always, we desire to continue to receive your feedback.

In His Grace,

The SGM Board

© 2011, Kris. All rights reserved.