At the beginning of my ordained ministry, I encountered a book called “Best Advice: Wisdom on Ministry from 30 Leading Pastors and Preachers” (2009) edited by William J. Carl III (https://www.cokesbury.com/9780664232436-Best-Advice). It has a number of excellent segments that are great primers and friendly reminders for navigating this beautiful world of ministry we are all so devoted to. However, there is one in particular that is especially timeless.
The advice comes from the editor himself that comes in the form of what he calls “the Four S’s.” I did not know it then, but I would be sharing this one singular piece of advice with session members, pastors, and congregations for the next 13 years! The Presbyterian Outlook ran an article on this in 2017, which makes this advice searchable for easily distribution and conversation.
1. No secrets. This is to help us seek to talk with each other instead of about each other, and model how to do that lovingly. Secrets have a way of putting up blockades, and denying us opportunities to engage each other in truth and kindness. Secrets have a way of attacking from a distance, and then denying us the opportunity to work together. Also, things in the light are just easier to address! (Note this is different than confidentiality, which is a healthy practice for those charged with the care of others!)
2. No surprises. This is so we don’t ambush each other and catch each other off guard. Surprises at meetings can limit our time and resources we have to address important things together, and then force us into more confrontation than deliberation. Constant surprises can put us on guard, which sends out signals that do not encourage trust. Few of us like surprises. Unless it involves cake. And even then that’s case by case.
3. No subversion (or sabotage). This is so we do not actively undermine decisions that have been duly made by an appropriately authorized body—even if (and when) we disagree with them! Our polity is designed so that the will of the majority may prevail, but only while the rights of the minority are protected. Our system of deliberation encourages debate and disagreement, but the mechanisms for expressing them are never secret or hidden. There are ways to offer dissent, challenge, and reconsideration, and even create a whole new way forward, but none of those ways are typically found in a church parking lot after a session meeting (see first two of four S’s for reference).
4. Lots of Support! We all want to know we are doing a good job and are making a difference. Being secure in what we are doing well helps give us resilience and courage to address everything else. Building a supporting culture together is one of the best ways to invite others to be a part of the work together! This is especially true now after two and a half years of just being battered by the pandemic. We all need support, and it goes a lot further now than it did when this book was published.
(Do please check out the Outlook article for a better summary than I can provide: https://pres-outlook.org/2017/03/the-four-ss/.
The reason why I like these four S’s so much is because, at its core, is the understanding that the healthiest functioning church systems are ones where the responsibility for preserving healthy dynamics is a responsibility not just belonging to the moderator, not just to the pastor, but to the whole system. A group or system’s health is a commitment to each other that is shared. How do we know what is healthy or unhealthy? Jesus says it best, in Matthew 17:16a, “You will know them by their fruits.” You can look for what is tasteful, generative, and life-giving as a way to navigate toxic behavior as it arises. Bill Carl’s 4 S’s offers a kind of fruit tree, one that can give us a rallying space, goals, and specific language to address behaviors so we can build a positive culture together.
I have found sharing these together at a session meeting for discussion (and possibly commitment) to be a wonderful exercise together. If your group has experienced toxicity that you are struggling to address, this can help give you a place to start! If you have a healthy functioning church, this can be a great way to celebrate what you are doing well! If you are still building trust and getting to know each other, this could be a great way to start to build some accountability measures as you learn how you can work wonderfully together!
I commend this resource to you to explore together as we enjoy the fruits that hold us together as a community. Whether you are a small church, large church, rural, urban, suburban, whether you are a church that is in conflict or a church that is operating smoothly–there can be something here really helpful. You may even have a few more S’s of your own to add!
Let us all find ways to take shared responsibility of the spaces we are in, so all of us know our part, and that we have power to directly contribute to the healthy functioning of our ministry. 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
In this together,
Rev. Ryan J. Landino