My personal experience with church governance comes from as many as ten different perspectives. I have been involved as a casual observer, a church member, a board member, a board chairman, a volunteer interim chairman of a struggling church, a volunteer consultant, as a staff member, in two Executive Pastor roles, as a professional church consultant, and as the author of a manuscript on this topic. This varied background gives me respect for all of the participants. It has also allowed me to forge some very specific convictions. Here are just three of them:
- Most churches experience at least two transitions in the form of their governance as they grow, or they don't grow
- Most churches wait too long before they make the transition
- Transitioning requires leaping over several potential barriers
Within congregationalism, governance is the roles, relationships, and decision making rules for the congregational members, the primary board (and possibly one or more other boards), and the paid staff. These roles and rules are usually codified in a constitution and/or bylaws which explain how things are supposed to work.
How Many Forms Are There?
There are many forms. There are the actual forms that show up in the bylaws, and then there are the ones that are expressed by the expectations of the players. But to keep this simple, there are three healthy forms as churches grow from small to medium to large sizes. In the small church a healthy form places more decision making on membership. In medium size churches there is a shift of some decision making to the primary board and paid or unpaid staff. In large sizes the shift goes further to the board and paid staff, while the membership continues to retain certain areas of decision making.
Careful church leaders recognize that there are unhealthy forms as well. For example, participants may cling to an old form knowing full well that it has outlived its usefulness. Another unhealthy form occurs when the membership, board, or staff disrespect the rights of other participants to make decisions when they should.
What Does it Take to Change Forms?
From my experience, change occurs when there is a realization that the existing form or structure may have worked in the past but that it doesn't now. But there are other requirements to see a transition occur. We have to trust that it is a good decision to allow others to make decisions when we used to make them. We have to believe that the new form is acceptable in Scripture or our statement of faith. We will need to rely on the advice of others who have tried different forms as they grew. We also have to have confidence that the new form will work. We then need to know how to lead the transition and communicate it well. Finally, we need to be patient because this is going to likely take a year or years not weeks or months.
Governance transitions are not easy. But they are essential as the church grows.