Welcome to the Exciting World of Church Constitutions!

Joel Nelson

Director of Church Strengthening, Converge North Central

  • Church strengthening

Over the years that I have been on staff at CNC, I have compiled a library of articles on my computer that deals with church governance. The titles of these articles range from the subtle to the blunt. They include:

  • Seven Guiding Principles on Church Structure
  • Why Your Church’s Constitution Might Be Killing You
  • When Should a Church Change It’s Governance System
  • Signs Your Governance is Stifling Your Growth and Mission

Now to be honest, church constitutions, bylaws, and other governing documents are often dry and read like the phonebook. They are often viewed as necessary in order to check the “legal entity” box for the church and are only referred to in special situations or emergencies. Beyond that, they collect digital dust in the office computer and file drawers.
I don’t know your experience, but my ministry training did not include a class on church constitutions! But they are important. Let me suggest four reasons why you might want to revisit and review your church governance documents.
There are some actions a church takes regularly. Other actions take place occasionally. Some are rare, if ever, in their frequency. In most cases, the rarer the decision, the more significant the decision. (eg. taking on debt, purchasing real estate, calling a lead pastor, dismissing a lead pastor)
Especially when these significant decisions take place, it’s important to have a consistent guide to follow. It allows a process that was developed methodically amidst the calm to guide and lead in a decision that might include strong emotions. (eg. conflict, exuberance, fear, anger.)
It’s not uncommon for these church documents to reflect similar documents from other churches. This is not a bad thing, as long as they reflect a quality document, some inconsistencies can get past the final edit.
In every application of what is written in a church’s governing documents, but even more so in situations of conflict, confusion, or an emotional decisions, clarity is key. It’s never helpful when one group interprets something one way, while another group can look at the same article or procedure and interpret it a different way. Whether something was written poorly, is vague, or incomplete, clarity is the goal for an effective document.
For example, a pastor sent me a section of the churches bylaws and asked me how I interpreted it. I made a case for three distinct interpretations. That was a problem.
The meaning of conducive is to make a certain situation or outcome likely or possible. The church is an organization. As such, there are documents which define, guide and speak into different organizational functions. But the church is also a living organism – the Bride of Christ. It has been endowed with a mission and a purpose. Because of this, a church’s governing documents need to not only be consistent and clear with organizational processes and guidelines, but they also need to be conducive to the church carrying out the mission and purpose it has received.
Often I will see a constitution and/or bylaw that was the result of a generic online search or heavily influenced by an attorney. These documents are usually watertight from a legal and organizational perspective, but they lack the “living organism” aspect. They are conducive to a legal entity, but are not conducive to the Bride of Christ. Both are needed.
There are structures and processes in a church’s governing documents which are foundational and don’t change. But there are many other situations which come and go with culture, context, style, dynamics, and trends. The documents that provides the structure and principles to how the organization is formed, operates, and responds, needs to reflect the current reality.
The core of the church doesn’t change. The purpose and mission that God has given each local church doesn’t change. But other things do change. The nuances of the ministry. The local context of the church. The size of the congregation. A shift from a more institutional approach to a more missional. These are just a few examples of some of the changes that require a fresh look at a church’s documents. Many constitutions or bylaws included a section that required a review of the document regularly, acknowledging the documents are not gospel, but a tool for missional effectiveness.
CNC regularly interacts with churches regarding their constitution and/or bylaws. Sometimes it’s a new church developing their document for the first time, while other times it is an established church that is reviewing their current document. CNC offers an outside perspective as well as best practices observed and seen in practice. Our goal is to help churches become more effective in accomplishing the mission and vision God has given them.
If you’re looking for a fresh set of eyes on your church’s constitution or bylaws, contact Joel Nelson.

Joel Nelson, Director of Church Strengthening, Converge North Central

Director of Church Strengthening

Additional articles by Joel Nelson