Root Causes for Churches Changing Governance


Which of the following do you think church leaders would like the least?

  • Weekly Voters’ Assemblies
  • Serving on the annual nominating committee
  • A root canal
  • Changing the church’s form of governance

Unless you’re an oral surgeon, the least preferable option is likely changing governance. Yet, an increasing number of congregations are asking me for assistance in changing from the traditional council model to policy-based governance. This means issues in the church, like some tooth aches, are too painful to ignore.

When I ask leaders what caused enough discomfort to consider changing governance, they identify three root causes.

We can’t get our members to volunteer.

The foundation for traditional church governance is two to four year commitments by lay leaders. The leaders attend at least two meetings a month, their own board and the church council. The leaders must also recruit their board members and fill out monthly status reports. Leaders may volunteer six or more hours a month without actually engaging in ministry.

For most in the Generation X or Millennial generations, the council system is like a root canal every month. Most do not want to invest so much time and effort into propping up the church’s organizational structure

So, churches rely even more heavily on recycling Baby Boomer generation leaders. Only today churches are just one of dozens of worthy causes Boomers can support in the community. It’s harder for churches to keep their volunteers in the council system.

Policy-based governance replaces standing boards with short term task forces or teams. Instead of holding meetings, these task forces engage in ministry. If a ministry requires a meeting, the team meets once for planning instead of every month.

We need to make decisions faster.

At one time pastors received phone messages scribbled on little pieces of paper. I’m serious about this. During a two-week vacation those notes would pile up on the pastor’s desk like fall leaves under an oak tree. Members understood it could take a few days for pastor to get back to them.

My home church is installing a new communications system. The system will forward telephone calls to my pastor to his cell phone wherever he is in the world. As members, we will soon expect immediate return calls from our pastor.

Apply this to church boards and committees. Members and ministry partners expect similar rapid responses from congregational leaders. Under traditional governance it can take up to a month for a church board to consider a request. The board often sends the request to the church council. Now we’re talking more than two months before we receive an answer.

Church leaders can no longer wait months to make a majority of decisions. Policy-based governance pushes much of the decision-making to the task forces engaged in ministry. Task forces make most decisions in one discussion. Only the most important decisions go the Voters’ Assembly.

Our church must become proactive in ministry.

Non-profit organizations are structured for survival. Churches are no exception. The church council system is effective at protecting congregations. It minimizes risk through group decision-making. Most resources go toward meeting member needs. It protects the doctrinal beliefs of founding members.

The council system minimizes the number of people who can become part of the church. None of the staff positions, boards or committees are solely dedicated to member recruitment. Mission boards or outreach committees focus on service instead of making new disciples.

This system was created for a world where…

  • Americans had a high degree of denominational loyalty.
  • Multiple generations lived and worked and worshipped in the community where they were born.
  • The church was a valued institution in society.
  • When Americans relocated, they would seek a church from the denomination of their youth.

This world existed back when dentists used laughing gas or ether to anesthetize patients. A different form of governance is necessary to sustain churches today. The governance must support mobilizing the congregation to reach the community, then integrate the community into the congregation. Policy-based governance supports such a structure.

Which of the above sources of discomfort is affecting your congregation? Share your insights in the comments or shoot me an email.

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