The devil is in the bylaws

I’m a self-confessed governance junky, which makes me the odd person out in most settings. There aren’t a lot of folks who share my enthusiasm for board handbooks, policy manuals, and trustee evaluation instruments. So imagine my excitement upon finding an article about by-laws nestled between heady theological material in a recent issue of Christian Century magazine.  

Although written about congregational life, Anthony Robinson’s essay on the importance of taking bylaws seriously applies to any and all faith-based organizations.  I’ve pulled a few highlights from his piece – enough, I hope, to entice you to read the rest.  

Congregations that pay little heed to their by-laws are often in a state of perpetual crisis, chronic conflict, and steady decline.

“Disordered houses do not stand.” “Communities, in order to be communities, must be ordered.” When 1 Timothy uses such a metaphor for the church, the author talks about the “household code,” or how to order the household of God so that the mess of life doesn’t overwhelm us and disrupt the positive flourishing of life in loving relations in that household.

Order is important. Rules of the road and governance and bylaws matter. They help us have order, avoid disorder and function fairly and openly. . . Where there is good order, reliable governance, clarity about roles and attention to appropriate boundaries, a congregation and its members tend to flourish. There is a sense of reliability and safety that allows a congregation to feel confident in the face of challenges and change. There is confidence in the pastor, who considers good governance and administration to be an aspect of pastoral care.

While order and good governance can, like any virtue, be taken to an extreme and flip over and become a vice, that doesn’t happen often. Usually the solution is to practice good governance, pay attention to the rules of the road, ensure openness and transparency whenever possible and mind our boundaries. . . Without rules and boundaries and yes, bylaws, we are a poor witness for Christ to the world and a disordered house that does not stand.

For anyone other than a governance aficionado, time spent in an organization’s bylaws can seem a living hell. Perhaps that’s the impetus of the old adage about the devil and details. Of this I am certain, organizational chaos is old Satan’s delight.

What's your take on this topic?

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