Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Understanding Church Governance: Thinking through the Issues



    Church structure is a hot topic among evangelical pastors, and among Baptists in particular. Each church I have served had a different administrative structure for how their church was governed. Each of these churches believed their government to be both thoroughly Biblical and within the American Baptist tradition. Today, it seems that churches are reinventing their structures to reduce meetings, streamline decision making, and better equip the church to use their gifts to do ministry.

    There is a lot of overlap in the nature of the new structures that churches are looking at. Generally, however, these structures fall into a few categories. First, there is the move toward having a one church board. Instead of giving the people the title "deacon" or "trustee" each member comes on the board and leads different teams of ministry. These ministry teams, led by the board member, carry out the ministry of the church.

    Another model popular among conservative evangelicals is moving to a "plural-elder" model. This has one board responsible for the day to day work of the church (the deacon board), and one board responsible for the spiritual oversight of the congregation (the elder board). The pastor becomes the lead elder in the congregation, but he is surrounded by a tribe of other elders that are responsible for the ministry of word and sacrament with the congregation. The congregation may vote on major financial concerns, as well as the call of a pastor, but the elder board takes a strong lead on most decisions

    The traditional model in Baptist churches is also in use in many churches. In these churches, the pastor is the elder of the church, and the deacons are the "board' of the church. The trustees handle the physical concerns and/or financial management. And the congregation meets either quarterly or monthly and has substantial input on the day to day operations of the church.

    I have served churches that employ a variety of leadership structures. The church I serve currently uses a "pastor/deacon congregational" model of leadership. It is unique in that the deacon board is invested with both the power of the purse as the finance committee, and the power of oversight of the church ministry. In recent years preceding my tenure at First Baptist Church of Fowler, as well as while I have been serving First Baptist, I have been confronted with people who believe that the traditional Baptist structure is not what God has ordained for the New Testament church. Many advocate for a plural-elder model of leadership with deacons having the role of servant-leaders supporting the elders as the only leadership model that is Biblical. Most of these people also believe that only men should be elders of churches.

As I began to discuss church governance with these people, I began to realize that my own theology of church governance is not well thought out or prayerfully considered at all. I need to understand what I believe about how a church should run. I had all sorts of questions. What is the one way a church should be led? Or is there a "one" way? Are the instructions in the Pastoral Epistles prescriptive or descriptive of the leadership of the early church? What are the "rules" of Biblical governance, and what are the principles that I should lead our church toward as we seek to be more faithful to God's word, and his call to minister to our community and world? Are there any changes we should make? What are they? And, what are the practical implications of certain forms of church governance?

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