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Church Governance

Is it time to update your bylaws?

Chris Railey on June 22, 2018

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Our goal of a healthy church in every community can come about by planting new churches and revitalizing existing ones. It’s a two-pronged approach, not an either/or proposition. There are so many congregations in our Fellowship that are on the verge of something great. They have an incredible history and are looking to a tremendous future.

However, existing churches are sometimes hamstrung when it comes to how they operate. It would be a mistake to run an organization on the same principles and policies it was founded on. Every institution has built-in procedures for changing with the times. Churches should be no exception.

But often, churches are the last to change. Old bylaws may stand in the way of innovation, growth and even evangelism. When old ways of doing things make moving forward difficult, they become obstacles. It’s time we look at removing those obstacles.

Here’s one example that I’ve seen over and over again: Some churches have policies in place that state purchases over a certain amount, say $10,000, must be authorized by approval in a full business meeting with a quorum of members present.

That type of bylaw was written decades ago. A lot has changed since then. I’m not saying we should remove the financial controls, but we may need to update some of our procedures.

Expenses have increased so much in the last 50 years. What costs $10,000 now was much less back then. The world is not the same as it was in the 1960s. Has your church’s government kept up? It may be time to do an audit of your church’s bylaws.

Realigning Your Church’s Governance

To maintain health in our churches, we must retain good leaders. If your church’s policies are driving away good pastors, you must make some changes. It’s not about burning it down and rebuilding from scratch. But there are likely places where your bylaws could use some updates.

There are three areas to consider when you realign your church government structure. These come from many conversations I’ve had with young leaders, newly installed pastors, and established boards looking for help. There are plenty of ways to make changes, but these are the most critical, in my opinion.

The first area is spending. The bottom-line question you need to ask is this: What amount or area of spending should require approval by way of a business meeting? In the previous example, we could think of a lot of expenses that would quickly eclipse $10,000.

It’s probably not necessary to take every one of those needs to the full church body. But many of the bylaws I’ve read have that level of approval written in.

When it comes to spending, we can never overstate the importance of financial stewardship. Having a system of checks and balances in your books can make the difference between securing and shattering trust. But putting a lock on the checkbook is not the answer.

When old ways of doing things make moving forward difficult, they become obstacles.

Instead, think through who can make decisions when it comes to finances. It may be helpful to create levels for staff and board members. Those on the lowest rung may have access to a credit card and can make purchases of up to $200 without prior approval. Supervisors may have a bit more leeway and a larger expense account, and on up the ladder.

Instead of getting the entire church body involved on more expensive requests, think about giving that power to the board. During building campaigns or holiday events, prior approval for large purchases can help eliminate red tape but maintain financial fidelity.

Don’t handcuff your pastors from getting their work done by making it too difficult to get approval on needed expenses.

The second area that may need updating is voting. Think realistically about what the church does and does not need to vote on. If your church requires approval from the whole congregation for hiring or firing staff, you will find it difficult to recruit solid candidates.

Make a list of the most important decisions that need to go before the church body, and then change your bylaws to reflect those priorities.

Another thing to consider is who gets a vote. What does it take to be a voting member? You may find that the rolls have not been updated for several years and people who have no interest or investment in your church still could have a say in a vote.

One idea is to purge the voting member rolls annually. Each year, have members sign a covenant that they intend to remain members. Also, think about what qualifications you should you include. Attendance and service are critical for those who want to be a part of the body, as is tithing.

You could also add language ensuring they are baptized and fully devoted followers. It’s not about restricting people from membership but about making sure they are owning the responsibility of being a part of the body.

The third area of consideration is pastoral affirmation. This may be the biggest one. I’ve often talked with pastors who have to go through a voting process every three years just to remain in the position they have felt called to for a long time. Their bylaws are so outdated that it leads to anxiety and hurt feelings.

Requiring regular pastoral re-affirmation can backfire in two different directions. Good leaders will feel frustrated as they repeatedly go through a process they thought was settled. And those leaders who are not so good will have an incentive to play it safe, not rock the boat, and keep the status quo to remain in position.

It’s not about tearing up the bylaws and rewriting them to benefit a pastor, the board or a segment of members. It’s about streamlining processes while maintaining integrity so that your church can continue to build toward a healthy body of believers.

If your bylaws were written over 40 years ago, it’s definitely time for an update. With a few changes, your church’s governance can be ready for the next 20 years.

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