Blessed is the congregation with up-to-date by-laws, for they shall enjoy peace.

It’s the rare church shopper who makes a choice based on governance structures. And I’ve yet to hear long-time members credit their church’s by-laws as a reason for staying. But worshipers, as well as pastoral staff, should care deeply about such things – all the more so when pursuing peace is identified as a core value of the Christian life.

I know of what I write (unfortunately), having recently experienced a period of turmoil within my home congregation. When a new pastor’s leadership style bumped into the way things had always been done, the collision of wills threatened to tear us apart. The church board looked for help in our governance document, only to discover that the by-laws weren’t up to the challenges with which we were dealing.

stick_figures_carrying_folder_800_clr_8602In my congregation’s defense, the governance systems of most nonprofits –churches included – run on assumptions more than clearly defined expectations. In good times, fuzziness about the who, what, and how of decision-making isn’t noticed. But when conflict rears its ugly head, cracks in governance structures cause big problems. Worse, the witness of God’s people is tarnished.

My friend Larry Perkins, in an article on his blog, describes governance as “a competence supplied by God to help the body of Christ achieve its potential, i.e. accomplish its mission. The ‘shape’ and expression of this competence gets formed by Spirit-given virtues such as love, joy, peace, gentleness, patience, kindness, etc. It serves to guide, resource, and protect a local church, as it pursues its mission under God.”


Larry’s description brings to mind the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi who urged the people of God to “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” Occasionally those words – our preaching – take the form of policies, by-laws, and governance handbooks.

Specifically, I encourage congregational leaders to give attention to the following three issues:

1.  Identify the key governance participants for the particular church. On the face of it, this sounds easy enough, but then the questions start. Historically, for many churches the usual governance participants consisted of pastor, church board, and a congregational council. However, these days multi-member staffs are the norm – a development that’s muddied the governance waters. And with churches increasingly eschewing membership, defining who can participate in what decisions isn’t the simple task it once was.

Leaving the door open to assumptions about who’s official and who’s not is leaving it open to            conflict as well. The better way is to put everything in writing.

2.  Identify the roles of the various participants in various decisions. Organizational life goes better if everyone involved knows who decides what, when, and how. Ambiguity about jurisdictions of authority invariably leads to conflict. This is a particular challenge in congregational settings where emotional ties run deep and individuals feel strong ownership for specific programs and ways of doing things.

Taking time to clarify roles and responsibilities doesn’t preclude gray or overlapping areas of authority. Doing so, however, alerts congregational leaders to potential trouble spots to which they should be attentive.

3.  Assess the adequacy of the existing structures to handle the work ahead. This step should help in identifying governance functions that have outlived their usefulness and suggest possible new venues (councils, commissions, teams, task forces, etc.) that are more likely to facilitate congregational health. As specific roles and prerogatives are assigned, these should be delineated in a handbook or policy guidelines.

It is particularly important to differentiate the roles and responsibilities of paid staff and volunteer-lead committees or commissions that focus on similar issues (e.g.  Pastor of Worship Arts and Worship Commission).

Back to my home congregation, our recent troubles, and our less than adequate governance document. I’m happy to report that a task force has undertaken an over-haul of our by-laws, with their handiwork headed to a Council meeting early in 2014.

I’m not saying the new document will/can guarantee that we’ll not stray again from the path of peace, but having an up-dated set of by-laws to guide our way will help. This is my assurance to church shoppers and long-time members alike.

What's your take on this topic?

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