Many churches are long overdue to change their governance systems, but I am still surprised to read many church constitutions that make real leadership very difficult. Church leaders who would never structure their business the way their church structures leadership are seemingly OK with the fact that it is almost impossible to do any kind of leadership within their governance system.
Yes, churches are not businesses. They are far more important that a business because eternal lives are at stake. Yet we continue to hamper leadership that would help the church to be more effective. Here are some common governance issues that congregations still allow to hamper their leadership.
Keep the leadership from controlling the budget
In what other arena would you find a system where those who are charged with the direction and effectiveness of the ministry (elder, Deacons or whatever the group is called in your polity), must go to another board (often trustees) to designate funds toward ministry initiatives. One board is charged with the effectiveness of the church ministry and its direction and the other board holds the dollars to carry it out hostage.
Such systems are absolute foolishness from a leadership perspective, yet they continue to exist. Every decision the first board makes must then be negotiated and made by a second board when it involves funds. And a board that is not vested with the direction of the ministry can determine whether they release the funds or not. In the best scenario this is a waste of time and energy. In the worst scenario, it sets up conflict between the two boards.
Multiple boards and multiple authorities
When you give a group the designation of “board” you give them implied authority. So, when you have multiple boards such as elders, deacons and trustees you have multiple groups with implied authority. Of course, this raises the question as to who is ultimately responsible for church leadership. When no one is in charge, everyone is in charge!
It is these kinds of structures that cause the best leaders to stay out of church leadership. They cannot lead and when they do, it is a very frustrating experience. And because no one desires to give up their power it is hard to change. In both scenarios, the power issue keeps people from making needed changes. We would not admit it, but it is true! And again, key decisions must be negotiated with multiple groups.
Confusing, overlapping and vague authority
Reading many church constitutions is a laborious activity because they are often full of confusing, overlapping and vague authority that makes it impossible to interpret who is responsible for what. Good governance documents should be simple, clear and designate lines of authority with precision. When this is not the case, the authors (well intentioned I am sure) set the congregation up for conflict and endless discussion.
If it is not simple, clear and delineate clear lines of authority it is a poor governance document and should be revised. Yet we resist revision because “you cannot change the bylaws.” Actually, you can since the bylaws serve the mission of the church rather than the church serving the bylaws. And you should.
What many don’t realize is that these kinds of poor governance structures keep leaders from leading and the church from moving forward. If you like the status quo this is a great strategy. If you care that the church is effective it is a terrible strategy. Often it takes the courage and diplomacy of a true leader to help others realize that their structures need to change if they want to be effective.
Let’s call poor governance systems for what they are and revise them for the sake of the gospel.
TJ Addington (Addington Consulting) has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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