Two Contributors To Good Church Governance

By Sam Breakey, CBWC Church Health Strategist

As suggested in an earlier article, a congregation requires good governance (the skeleton), and a Christ-dependent gospel calling (the heart) to sustain vibrant ministry. In this post, I wish to identify twospecific characteristics of healthy church structure.

Become Moulded In God’s Image For One Purpose

Ryan Sandulak writes, “The local church is created in the image of God… and this image is fundamentally corporate in nature.”* Scripture tells us that God has been revealed to us in the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three persons cooperate as one being, towards one end.
Congregations follow a similar pattern. A church is not one person but is comprised of many people who function together, like a human body, toward a unifying purpose under the authority of Jesus Christ. While we identify various participants in this structure, (pastors, elders, deacons, members, etc.) each one is to be mindful of the other and those they are called to serve.

This ‘Triune God’ template is replicated in the triune local church. Biblically, a church is comprised of three entities that have equal influence while on God’s mission. In Baptist congregations we know them as Elders/Deacons, Pastors, and Congregants. Each one fulfills a role that requires collaboration with the others. Notice that when you read in the New Testament of pastors, elders, teachers, evangelists and prophets that they are always spoken of in the plural form. Spiritual leaders are intended to lead and serve in a mutually dependent relationship that reflects the cooperative interaction of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Churches that have clearly written guidelines about how the three parties make decisions and minister together have a solid foundation for impactful ministry. When this biblically-based church structure breaks down, congregational conflict increases and missional influence decreases.

Make No Room For Generalists 

Church members, staff included, tend to be generous people offering their insight widely. Congregational government infers that every matter must be important to every member, but, sometimes in congregational life there can be ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ One pastor I know rented scaffolding during his holiday and painted the exterior of the church by himself, because it wasn’t a priority to others.  Board members have been known to recommend which prizes should distributed at Sunday School picnics and many a congregant has second-guessed the colour pallet in the sanctuary. In each case, a party feels responsible for something beyond their responsibility.

As an example of role boundaries, let me offer terms of reference for your senior board team, be they Elders, Deacons, or Church Council. Dan Hotchkiss** describes four board priorities:

  1. Delegating authority with clear guidelines under which that authority can be exercised;
  2. ‘Controlling its agenda’ by focusing on the long-term future;
  3. Partnering with the pastor to pursue common goals and expectations; and
  4. Hosting future-oriented conversations.

Larry Nelson, a good friend and advisor to numerous Christian organisations, once told me that “leaders must know the boundaries within which they can work and be given complete freedom to authoritatively engage their role within those boundaries.”

In summary, church structure should reflect the three-way collaborative relationship of the Trinity. Pastors, church leaders, and congregants are called to pursue one mission by depending upon each other, under Christ. Further, each partner must know and be trusted to fulfill their specific roles without the intrusion of another.

Q: What other characteristics contribute to the health of a church board?
According to a study of 500 churches by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability***

  • Board members were chosen by someone other than the lead pastor.
  • Policies were in place—and the board had the ability—to ask an underperforming staff member to resign.
  • The board was able to challenge and correct a lead pastor when necessary.
  • An active strategic planning process was in place.
  • Time and energy were devoted to assessing risks and opportunities.
  • The board guided the staff with strategic—but not tactical—input.

Q: As a pastor, how can I know what I am free to do to fulfill my role?
Seek answers to the following questions from your board:

  • What decisions do I have the clear authority to make where I do not have to tell the board?
  • What decisions do I have the authority to make, and will make, wherein I need to advise the board what I did or am planning to do?
  • What decisions MUST I get the board’s approval on before acting?

Q: How many members make up an ideal board?
The median church board has eight members, including the Lead Pastor.

Q: How long should a board meeting last?
When the agenda is future oriented, longer is better. Boards that meet for 21 – 40 hours per year to focus on their primary ministry calling, tend to be the most effective.

Q: How can we engage the congregation in a way that creates partners rather than micro-managers?
Scripture teaches both the principle of spiritual eldership and the principle of the priesthood of believers. Healthy congregations practice both, rhythmically. Like tides that ebb and flow along a shoreline, congregational decision-making that honours the authority of spiritual leaders as well as the insight and confirmation of the wider spiritual family, will instigate decision ownership and unity. The greater the issue, the greater the impact of honouring both principles.****

Sam Breakey,
CBWC Church Health Strategist

*Ryan Sandulak. The Synergistic Church Booklet. Church Ministry Institute. p. 7.
**Dan Hotchkiss. Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2016.

***Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra. Governing God’s House: How 500 Churches Keep from Collapsing. August 2, 2016.
****Sam Breakey. Ebb and Flow Decision-making. August 17, 2016

This article was published in the August 2018 Treasurer’s Corner. Subscribe here.