3 Critical Steps to Keep Your Church, Ministry, or School Stay on Mission
We recently did an all-day in-service workshop for the staff at a Christian school. As one of the exercises, we asked participants to consider the following scenario:
You're on a hiring committee in search of a new English teacher for the high school. Rank the following criteria, in order of importance, that will shape your search.
Education & achievements
Prior work experience
After they discussed this scenario in small groups for several minutes, we regathered as a large group to process their conclusions. Participants unanimously ranked doctrinal fidelity as the number-one criterion in their search for future staff. Given the rising tide of “progressive Christians” and Christians being influenced by sociological definitions of race and justice, it was encouraging to see the staff’s strong commitment to stand for historic Christianity.
This led to our next question: What practical steps will your team take during the interview process to vet each candidate for doctrinal fidelity?
Right off the bat, we got the usual answer: Ask the person to recount their Christian testimony. The school wanted to make sure that any potential staff had a strong relationship with the Lord. That’s great!
“What else?” I asked.
My concern was that a conversion story might not be enough. After all, many Christians have a conversion story—including those who have been influenced by various aspects of Critical Race Theory. My question was: How could this team ensure that new staff shared their vision for biblically faithful racial unity and justice?
The truth is, that is the question I would like to ask every Christian school administrator, every Christian university provost, every HR director working at a Christian ministry, and the leaders appointed to every pastoral search committee. We can all think of wonderful Christian institutions––churches, schools, and ministries––that started out as Christian but have drifted away from historic Christianity over the years.
How does doctrinal drift happen? And how can it be prevented?
Maintaining fidelity to an institution’s founding vision and doctrinal roots requires strategic planning. Here are three steps that I recommend that every Christian school, university, ministry, and church take right now to ensure a biblically faithful legacy for future generations.
Step 1: Ratify a position statement to summarize your institution’s approach to current issues.
Most Christian entities have some kind of statement of faith. And that’s a good start. A robust summary of unifying key beliefs that lays a vital foundation for an institution’s spiritual culture. But very few churches, schools, or ministries have statements that address how the Christian worldview comes to bear on the big cultural questions of our day.
Here are a few suggested topics to cover in such a statement:
Position on biological evolution (a.k.a. “common descent”) and the age of the Earth
Position about the dignity of human life, including the pre-born
Definition of marriage
Definition of sex, gender, and gender expression
Discussion about how your institution will handle issues of sin, such as divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, porn addiction, and same-sex attraction
Position on race, racism, and racial unity
Position on Critical Theory (e.g., Critical Race Theory, Feminist Theory, Queer Theory), including a summary of its incompatibility with the Christian worldview
If the leadership at your church, school, or ministry has a position on these issues, it needs to be in writing. If it doesn’t yet have one, it needs to assemble a study committee and write one. These statements should be posted on the ministry's web site, and included in the employee handbook, as well as the student and parent handbooks (when appropriate).
Here are a few thoughtful examples to help inspire your effort:
Step 2: Add strategic steps to your application process.
In my experience, it is not uncommon for new employees to go through the motions of signing a statement of faith without giving it the careful consideration it deserves. According to multiple recent studies, doctrinal literacy is low. One recent study says only 2% of Millennials actually have an integrated biblical worldview. A Barna study had similar results about Gen Z. (Listen to my friend, Natasha Crain's interview with George Barna where he explains how he goes about getting these numbers.)
For these reasons, I advise Christian employers to assume that applicants probably don’t understand the doctrinal implications of their institution’s statement of faith and don’t know how to think about controversial cultural issues in light of the historic Christian worldview. In order to preserve doctrinal fidelity, then, it would be a good idea to add steps to the application and interview process.
Here are four practical ideas to help inspire your efforts.
1. As part of the initial application process, include a question where applicants must state where they attend church and what level of service they have. And then vet that church for doctrinal fidelity. This will give you some idea of how the candidate is being discipled.
2. As part of the initial application process, ask applicants to write, in their own words, their understanding of each line of the ministry’s statement of faith.
3. For candidates applying for leadership positions, include a requirement to list biblical support for each line of the statement of faith.
Obviously, steps two and three will take the applicant considerable time. But they will also help unqualified candidates to self-select out, as those candidates likely won’t want to bother with such laborious steps. Implementing these steps will also give the hiring team a snapshot of how deeply the candidate has thought through the finer points of the Christian worldview.
4. Add strategic interview or application questions that will bring the applicant’s beliefs about progressive themes to the surface. Here are five questions to consider:
Can you tell us about books you have read recently? What do you find helpful (or not) about their content?
How would you explain the gospel to a non-Christian?
How would you explain what the Bible is to a non-Christian?
Can you tell us about a time when you had to forgive a co-worker? Walk us through what the situation was, what happened, and how it was resolved.
Do you know your Enneagram number? What are your thoughts about the Enneagram?
If you are interviewing someone where issues related to culture and ethnicity could be a factor in the job itself, here are a couple more questions to consider.
Describe what role, if any, you think social location (e.g., gender, ethnicity) plays in our ability to accurately interpret the Bible. What do you think of the idea that there is a "black approach" or a "white way" to interpreting the Bible?
How do you view Critical Race Theory? Do you see it as a useful tool for Christians to engage in race conversations?
The point here isn't to trap applicants. Asking clarifying questions in an interview is a legitimate part of data collection during a hiring process, just like checking references or doing a background check. It helps to surface what's already there and give some starting points for deeper probing. Applicants might be ignorant about certain issues. Or, really passionate. But even that is data. In my personal practice, I have found that asking these kinds of questions in interviews helps to set proper expectations with applicants.
Step 3: Enact a process to verify that all board members, employees, and volunteers hold personal beliefs consistent with your institution’s statement of faith and position statement as a condition of employment or participation.
Once you have adopted a position statement about critical cultural topics, it will be vital to create a strategy for introducing that to current employees. You will want to create a pathway for bringing board members, ministry leaders, employees, and volunteers into alignment with both the statement of faith and the position statement.
This process could include a series of employee trainings where a theologically informed leader walks people through these statements and responds to questions. And no doubt there will likely be questions! As I stated above, many Christians, even if they have grown up in a church, lack an in-depth knowledge about the faith. So having an opportunity to help employees and volunteers ask questions is vital.
Another part of avoiding doctrinal drift should include a periodic refresher training, possibly every two to five years. You might also consider a process for re-signing of the statement of faith and position statement because sometimes people change their views over time. So having a periodic check-in with them is essential, especially when someone comes up for a promotion or tenure. These steps will provide accountability as a condition of continuing employment.
Engaging in this process rests on the assumption that there is a commitment among the highest levels of leadership (e.g., Board members, elder board, school superintendent) to part ways with employees and volunteers who don’t hold personal beliefs consistent with the institution’s statement of faith and positions. This might be hard at first, but it is often a vital step in order to deal with all employees according to the same standards.
Doctrinal drift is natural. This is why doctrinal fidelity must be intentionally maintained.
For more thoughts about how to maintain biblical fidelity in a Christian institution, check out this webinar that I did on my podcast.
For more tips on hiring, check out my interview with Dr. Gary Miller, former Provost at Biola University.
POSTED: 6/23/21; UPDATED: 7/25/23