There is a great deal of confusion around the concept of congregationalism. Many mistakenly believe that congregationalism means that all folks in a church have a voice in all matters and that the congregation gets to weigh in on all decisions. In addition, to keep everyone in the loop and to ensure that nobody has too much power many churches continue to operate with numerous elected boards and committees. At its core, like American politics the system is build on mistrust of leaders so it is designed to make decision making complicated.

Congregationalism as defined above says more about bringing our national polity practices into the church than anything the New Testament says about church leadership! In scripture there is only one group of senior leaders variously called elders or overseers who are responsible for the spiritual temperature of the church, ensuring that the congregation is taught, protected, developed - empowered and released in ministry and led well. When new needs came up they simply appointed ministry teams like the deacons. All of this was designed in an atmosphere of trust where leaders were actually loved and appreciated by the congregation. And they were to lead well as under shepherds.

But what to make of the congregational thing? Congregationalism originally conceived did not mean a democracy or that every individual has an equal part in decision making. The priesthood of all believers is not the leadership of all believers. If that were true Paul would not encourage those with the gift of leadership to lead well.

Congregationalism meant something very simple. There could be no authority outside the local church such as the state church that could tell them what to do. Second it meant that congregations had a way to change the direction of their church if their leaders took it in a direction inconsistent with Scripture. Thus we say in the EFCA that if a congregation calls its senior pastor, votes on an annual budget, votes on any changes to the bi laws or constitution and must approve the sale and purchase of property it is congregational. Boards may choose to bring other issues to the congregation but this is what it means to be congregational.

Too often, the way we practice congregationalism hurts the church rather than helps bit. Multiple boards and committees are like toll booths that hold ministry up. The number of people on those boards and committees keeps those very people tied up in meetings rather than using their gifts in ministry. Leaders become discouraged because it is so hard to get things done and there is a huge loss on Return on Mission if indeed there is a mission being actively pursued.

If your ministry suffers from some of these elements it may be the very thing that is keeping you from moving forward missionally. And you do not have to live this way. My books High Impact Church Boards and Leading From the Sandbox (NavPress) can help you think differently about how you lead and about the missional elements to that leadership. Don't let your system constrain your mission. Design your system to serve your mission.
  • Oct 12, 2010
  • Category: News
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