Letter from the Elders

SEPTEMBER 15, 2022

Highlands Family,
It’s been an honor and joy to serve you in our first year as elders, and we regularly praise God for the diverse group of people He’s brought together here at Highlands. As we conclude our first year, we want to share some reflections with you about where we’ve been and what we’ve learned. We hope this will be edifying to you.

Where We’ve Been
As many of you know firsthand, the last few years have been very difficult for our church family. If you’re newer to Highlands, you may not have directly experienced this but you’ve likely heard it mentioned. During the last year, we have spent time praying, studying God’s Word, listening to many who were wounded by our church, listening to leaders who have gone before us, and considering ministry patterns and practices of the church at large, both present and historical.

Our hearts break over many of the stories we’ve heard, and we will continue providing support to those who have been hurt by the events of the past few years. While we are so grateful for the many ways God has sustained our church through this period, we also recognize the need to acknowledge the pain many have experienced and share some lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Here are some leadership decisions related to the events of the past few years we want to apologize for:
Our Delay in Initiating the GRACE Investigation
As we shared in our most recent update, we wish we would have initiated with GRACE sooner as a way of immediately providing a safe outlet for any potential victims. Additionally, given Derek’s long tenure in Student Ministries, we could have better equipped our church to understand grooming behaviors and encouraged parents to ask their students about anything inappropriate they may have experienced.

Our Handling of Pastor Jesse’s DUI
As previously expressed, we are sorry for our lack of due diligence investigating the details surrounding those events, and recognize the damage inflicted upon our church because of our failure to make this public immediately. Looking back over time, this was a regrettably poor decision.

Our Shepherding of the Kent Campus
Looking back, we see there were some ways we unintentionally made members at the Kent Campus feel like second-class members. In hindsight, there are a number of things we could have done differently, and if we ever explore additional church plants or congregations in the future, we hope to learn from this experience.

Our Shepherding Model
For several years, we have shifted primary shepherding responsibilities away from the elders to the staff and lay leaders within the church. The intent behind this was good, as practically it is impossible for the elders themselves to meet all the shepherding needs within a church our size. But unintentionally what happened over time is the elders became less and less known by the congregation. Related to this, we have not had a great process for communicating regularly and transparently to and from the congregation, which has contributed to confusion and distance between the elders, staff, and congregation. Consequently, when major events arose and people were instructed to contact the elders with their questions or concerns, many people (including staff members) felt uncomfortable doing so.

Our Shepherding of Women
As a church who historically believes the biblical office of elder is reserved for qualified men, we have failed at times to properly shepherd women with spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership. We have not always clearly articulated a path for godly, gifted women to thrive in ministry at Highlands, nor have we always been as intentional as we could be about seeking their perspectives on leadership decisions we face as a church. We are sorry for this. We believe God has created both men and women in His image and has gifted both men and women for service in His church, and we want to be a church that equips women to thrive in ministry.

Based on what we have learned, below are some steps we are taking to grow:

  1. Increase our shepherding presence with the staff and congregation.
    • Lead Team staff members regularly rotating into our elders’ meetings.
    • Lay elders participating in our All-Staff meetings.
    • An update from the elders published to the congregation on at least a quarterly basis.
    • Communicate more transparently when possible.
    • Hosting family-style members’ meetings three times each year.
    • A detailed annual financial report and budget published to the congregation.
  2. Seek women’s input into leadership decisions of our church.
    • Invite women to participate on elder-led task forces and committees to include women’s voices and perspectives.
    • Periodically invite women’s ministry leaders to Elder Board meetings to provide first-hand information on their area of ministry.
    • Invite Elders’ wives' to participate in selected elder activities, such as at the elder retreat in April 2022 and during monthly prayer meetings concurrent with the elders’ meetings.
    • Continue to evaluate our practices and explore opportunities for women to thrive in ministry leadership at Highlands.
  3. Ensure appropriate policies and practices for leadership accountability and child protection.
    • Required sexual abuse and grooming awareness training for all elders, staff, and Next Gen volunteers from an outside source.
    • Clear reporting requirements and protocols for any abuse or neglect concerns to the appropriate ministry leaders and designated lay member(s) of the Elder Board.
    • Continued full support to complete the GRACE investigation and implementation of GRACE’s recommendations.
    • Reviewing our evaluation and accountability procedures for elders.
  4. Practice regular rhythms of prayer and rest, including:
    • Monthly congregational prayer meetings starting this September.
    • Availability of elders to pray with the congregation after services.
    • Required one-year elder sabbatical for elders from the elder board after serving six consecutive years (bylaws updated in March 2022).

Hearing from You
We realize that you may have questions about the lessons we have learned and steps we are taking to improve going forward. If this describes you, we invite you to:

    • Speak with one of our elders after any of our Sunday services.
    • Submit your question or concern to the Elder Portal.
    • Arrange to meet individually with one or more elders to discuss your specific questions or concerns. If you feel uncomfortable meeting with a group of elders by yourself, we encourage you to bring along a person or persons you trust. We can also arrange for elders’ wives and/or Student Ministry leaders to join us if a woman or student does not feel comfortable meeting with a group of elders alone.

Looking Forward
As we look forward, we hope to be a church that’s more dependent on God than ever before. As elders, we are more aware than ever how much we need the Lord’s grace and wisdom. We hope to foster a culture that’s rooted in the gospel – a culture where it’s normal for us as leaders to be honest when we make mistakes and express our daily need for God.

We are inspired by the following Scriptures as we imagine the kind of culture we hope to create:

Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:1-3

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:12-17

Finally, all of you be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble, not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this, so that you may inherit a blessing. 1 Peter 4:8-9

We are encouraged by so many things we see happening in our church family! We regularly thank the Lord for the many long-time members and the many new people He has called to restore and rebuild His church at Highlands. Together, we commit to center our ministry on God’s Word, to persist in prayer, to foster loving community rooted in the gospel, to disciple the next generation, and to cultivate a missionary heart for our neighbors and the world.

Thank you for being part of this journey with us of helping people find and follow Jesus.

The Board of Elders
Highlands Community Church