A New Form of (Church) Government

Over the course of nine months or so this year, my congregation worked on a complete revision of our church by-laws. We adopted the new by-laws by an overwhelming margin on November 17. It was a huge process—involving every single committee in the church—and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Sometime in the future, I might write a little bit about our process and some of the best practices we are trying to implement, but for this post I want to focus on our new governance structure. I think it will work very well. And I think something like it could benefit other churches.

First, a few things about our old structure.

Our old church government was somewhat bloated, to put it mildly. It included five officers (including the pastor), four other elected positions, a Church Council (and Executive Committee), four boards, and seven other committees. There was some overlap between these groups. For example, all of the officers served on the Council.

There were also some problems:

First, the structure was huge. Our Nominating Committee was working to keep about 90 seats filled every year. Since our average worship attendance is about 80 people, that meant that seats were being left open, people were serving on multiple committees, and that only a few people who were active in the church weren’t serving on a committee at any given time.

Second, there was some overlap in unrelated functions. For example, our Board of Trustees managed the budget and managed the building and grounds. That meant that one group had control over the money and had an interest in where that money was spent. And while that hadn’t been a problem yet, it could have turned into one.

Third, there were some gaps. For example, no one was really in charge of looking for and attracting new members.

Fourth, some committees were ill-defined. I’m sure that there was a kind of institutional memory of what they were supposed to do at some point, but some of the committees just weren’t quite sure about what they were supposed to be doing.

Fifth, and finally, there were a lot of meetings. Most of the boards and committees met every month. That meant a lot of meetings for the people who served on multiple committees (and for the pastor).

In other words, it wasn’t quite working.

The new structure is very different.

There are now four officers: Moderator, Vice-Moderator, Treasurer, and Secretary. The pastor is also an officer, but we can ignore them for now.

The Church Council is composed of the four officers plus five at large members. That is a nine-person Council, charged with overall oversight of the church and the creation and enforcement of church policies.

The Church Council then splits into three groups of three, and each of those groups adds two at-large members to form three boards.

The Board of Mission is charged with making sure that the church is keeping its covenants, following its Statement of Identity and Purpose, and maintaining its relationship with the denomination. It also executes the legal instruments of the church.

The Board of Stewardship is in charge of the congregation’s finances. It manages the budget, raises money, maintains a gift acceptance policy, and so on.

The Board of Property is in charge of all of the congregation’s stuff. It makes sure that the building, grounds, and property are well-maintained, in good repair, and hospitable.

In addition to the Council and Boards, there are four standing leadership teams, each composed of five to seven people. It’s important that these are leadership teams, not doing everything teams. It isn’t their job to do all of the work in their portfolio. It’s their job to make sure that all of the work in their portfolio gets done. They might want to do some of that work themselves, but they can—and should—also recruit volunteers from the rest of the congregation to do things.

The Worship and Fellowship SLT is in charge of worship and fellowship. It makes sure that there are volunteers and material for worship services. It also makes sure that there are opportunities for our church community to just spend time together.

The Faith Formation SLT is in charge of faith formation. It makes sure that there are volunteers and materials available for educational programs for youth and adults, like Sunday School, Bible studies, book studies, and whatever else they can think of.

The Generosity SLT is in charge of giving our congregation’s time, talent, and treasure to the wider community. It gives away money, organizes volunteer opportunities, puts together mission trips, and so on.

The Membership and Engagement SLT is in charge of maintaining the church membership rolls, publicizing church activities, inviting people to visit or join the church, and providing for ‘congregational care’ (making sure members are involved with and cared for by the whole congregation).

In addition, the Council can form Ad Hoc Leadership Teams. These teams are formed for a specific purpose and time period, and then automatically dissolve when that purpose is fulfilled or when time is up.

Here’s what I really like about this structure:

It’s lean. Instead of having the 90ish seats we had to keep filled each year, we will now have 35 to 43 seats to keep filled. That opens up some possibilities: since fewer people have to sit on committees, that means that they can volunteer without also having meetings to go to.

It’s clear. Every committee has a well-defined job and they know what it is. The by-laws don’t leave basic responsibilities up to institutional memory.

It’s coherent and complete. Each of the standing leadership teams ties into our Statement of Identity and Purpose, and all of the things in that statement are covered by a committee. Plus, we have the option for ad hoc teams. This means that all of the work of the congregation has a group from the congregation that is responsible for it.

There are probably still some kinks to work out. But I think that this will be a strong governance structure that will help us move forward as a church and community.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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