Caution: Steeplejacking

Webmaster’s Note: this is a republication of an article with the same name originally published in the November 2014 issue of the Kansas Messenger. Since its original publication, we have received several requests for this information and thought it would beneficial to publish this article again. 


Disciples are wonderfully ecumenical in outlook, cooperating with others in lots of ways—community missions, Vacation Bible School, shared worship, and more. It’s our DNA as Disciples. But occasionally, the sharing of resources can become something less helpful.

Recently one of our Kansas churches was visited by representatives of a different church, who offered to provide worship leaders and musicians, even preaching, while our congregation was between pastors. Those same visitors looked the building over carefully, taking notes about the various rooms. This action bothered the member who was giving them the tour.

Especially because of their persistence, the departing pastor recognized the signs of a possible steeplejack attempt—a move to infiltrate an existing congregation, pulling it away from its denominational moorings in order to establish a church of the infiltrator’s type, with a building and membership already in place. Often but not always, this is an attempt by a church that sees itself as proclaiming a ‘pure’ gospel or ‘the Biblical way,’ to ‘correct’ a church that they believe is preaching a corrupted gospel.

Once the agenda of the visitors became clear, the leadership of the visited congregation told them they were welcome but their offers were not.

The initial approach may be more subtle: an influx of new people who immediately get involved in the church, often seeking to serve in positions of influence. Churches love new members who want to serve!

If you suspect that your church may be a target in a steeplejack attempt, call your regional staff. Don’t wait; the congregation mentioned earlier repelled this by swift action, and you can too.

Several things can be done to protect your church from a takeover, and to protect your assets for your distinctive ministry—assets built through the efforts of generations of Disciples before you. The most effective is to educate your members. Keep people informed about the church’s vision, mission, actions, and affiliations, so that they won’t feel muddled when approached by newcomers. Bonus—when your current members know who you are, and what you stand for, they are more confident in evangelistic conversations with neighbors and friends!

In addition, structural changes will offer more protection. 



Suggested Changes to Protect Your Church

First—a reversionary clause on your deed prevents a change in ownership of your real property until the clause is released—which means that your Disciples membership will continue to own your building. 

This service is offered by the region in order to protect your building for your Disciples membership. The Christian Church in Kansas is NOT interested in owning your church building—ask us about First Christian in downtown Wichita! When it’s time to sell, releasing the reversionary clause is a simple matter.

Why change the deed, instead of the constitution or bylaws? These governance documents can be amended by the congregation alone, and often the process is simple enough that it could be hijacked by a group of determined new members. Changing the deed protects you, by requiring the participation of an outside entity.


Second—in your bylaws, require a minimum period of active membership before a person may vote or hold particular offices, and define ‘active.’ Steeplejacking is often done quickly, before members fully realize what is happening. A minimum of one year before voting in congregational meetings, and two years before serving in offices of trust (moderator, trustee, treasurer—this will vary by congregation) will give you time to know new people more fully, and time for them to know you. This tends to thwart the efforts of outsiders who prefer to move quickly.


Third—the congregation in the other article changed its bylaws so that they will accept new members during an interim period only by action of the board. This will not prevent people from being active participants; it simply postpones official membership until the new settled pastor is in place and has time to orient new members. The interim is a vulnerable time, and steeplejackers often don’t want to wait.

These actions say that your church is serious about maintaining its Disciples identity

The best time to implement changes is when things are well. Vaccinations are given to healthy people to prevent illness—this is like a vaccination. We write wills and do financial planning well in advance of death—this is like a will, to protect your assets. Your regional staff will help. Call us! We can visit your board or other group to talk about this and other matters.


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