Church Governance: Improve before Change

Governance

There is growing frustration in too many churches about day-to-day ministry. While changing governance could ease emotions, try to improve the current system first.

Just in case I wasn’t clear: Improve your current system of governance before overhauling the Constitution and Bylaws.

And this is from a guy who gives talks on the benefits of changing governance. While I’ve experienced the blessings of governance change, I also know the risks and downsides.

The Case Against Changing Governance

In general terms, congregations can successfully navigate one or two significant changes a year. If you’re wondering about this, ponder what happened the last time your church received a new pastor. Or built an addition on the church. Or closed an educational ministry.

While it may not seem so at first glance, changing governance is a major change. Members must change expectations of their congregation. Leaders must learn new patterns and behaviors. Those who experience loss in the change must grapple with a new reality.

Congregations also become obsessively inward focused when changing governance. The energy spent on governance results in less time for in reach and outreach. No matter how hard churches try to avoid this pratfall, it always trips up the congregation.

Finally, leaders are always ahead of members in feeling the need to change governance. Leaders are tired of rotating holding church offices. They are frustrated by the unwillingness for members to serve. They are burned out from faithfully serving yet seeing the work bear little fruit.

Meanwhile, the rank and file members don’t have the same sense of urgency for change. They know things could be better at church. But sermons are still preached. Member visitation continues. Electricity continues to hum in the church buildings.

The Case for Improvements

There is a principle at work here. The greater the change, the lower the odds for success. Rolling out a new system is a major change. Improving the current system is a significant change, yet more likely to succeed.

The learning curve between the two options is very different. The learning curve is huge when changing governance. The congregation must learn new vocabulary, new values and new systems. There is less of a learning curve when improving the current system.

One argument against changing governance is, “We haven’t tried to improve the current system.” So when leaders do try to improve the current system, members are more likely to support changing governance.

Significant Improvements not Tweaks

Note I keep using the term “significant.” Significant change does not mean tweaking the By-laws. It does not mean going from six Voters Meetings to five Voters Meetings. It does not mean merely changing the name of “elders” to “deacons.”

It means understanding the problems and challenges facing the congregation. It means identifying principles that will serve as guides for improving the system. It often means delegating authority, releasing control of ministries and re-imagining what it means to serve at church.

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Looking for specific ways to improve governance? Check out these posts: Five Ways to Improve Council-based Governance and Five Ways to improve Policy-based Governance.


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