Real Differences in Church Governance


Some church leaders ask because they are exasperated. Others inquire because they are confused. Some want to know because they are curious. They are all asking the same question:

“What are the real differences between the church council form of governance and policy-based governance?”

It’s a fair question with far reaching implications for churches. Let’s delve into the differences.

One note as we start. In this post, I am presenting the two forms of governance as if they were functioning at their best. I recognize ministry is messy and churches do not function well all the time. Your experience with either governance system may differ from what I describe. I’m putting the best construction on both for the sake of comparison.

A Question of Authority

In churches, the Voters’ Assembly is the final authority in decision-making. The Voters’ Assembly delegates much of its authority for day-to-day ministry to either a Church Council or Board of Directors.

Church Council’s keep this authority, exercising it by voting on decisions made by boards or committees. In policy governance, the board delegates as much of its authority as it can to the Senior Pastor.

This is the real difference between the two forms of governance. The council keeps its authority while the board delegates its authority.

Primary Tasks

Whether or not a decision-making body delegates authority its authority is determined by its primary task.

The primary task in policy governance is governance. In fact, the board can’t engage in day-to-day ministry. Instead, the board focuses on what the church is trying to accomplish in ministry and policies that guide the entire congregation. The board is fixated on congregational vision and values.

The Church Council’s primary task is to run the day-to-day ministry of the church. It makes no sense to delegate authority since the council needs that authority to keep ministry moving. Council’s will, from time to time, write mission or vision statement. These statements rarely impact the council because the council’s primary task is not governance.

What about the Pastor?

The most visible difference between the forms of governance is the role of the Senior Pastor.

In the council system, congregational leaders to run the day-to-day ministry of the church. The Pastor is advisory to the council. Meanwhile, the Pastor and elders nurture the spiritual life of the congregation.

In the policy system, the governing board delegates day-to-day responsibilities to the Senior Pastor. The Senior Pastor ensures the staff (paid and unpaid) is engaging the church in ministry.  The Senior Pastor is accountable for the yearly ministry plan.

It may help to think of the difference in Senior Pastor roles along these lines. All Senior Pastors preach and teach and provide spiritual care to members. The question is how Senior Pastors invest the remainder of their time each week.

In the council system, Senior Pastors often spend this time in specialized ministry such as evangelism or counseling. In policy governance, Senior Pastors spend this time leading the day-to-day operation of the congregation.

Why Two Forms of Governance?

It’s fair to ask why two distinct forms of governance exist. The answer is congregations have different values.

If a congregation values engaging in ministry, then it gravitates towards council governance. Such churches are very process oriented. The council makes sure the Sunday School has teachers and the Elders have ushers for worship services.

If a congregation values seeing God fulfill His mission in their midst, then it leans towards policy governance. Such churches are very outcome oriented. The governing board tracks whether the congregation showing signs of growth toward spiritual maturity. The board wants to see leaders make progress towards starting a daughter church.

What other differences have you observed between council and policy governance. Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.

If you found this post interesting, consider checking out the following related posts:

Root Causes for Churches Changing Governance

Church Governance: Improve before Change

Five Ways to Improve Council-based Governance

Five Ways to Improve Policy-based Governance


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