Your Church Governance’s Achilles Heel

Do you understand the weakness of your church’s particular polity or governance methodology? 

I did a board training recently and showed a little chart talking about three different generalized types of church governance: congregational governance, centralized governance, and representative governance. I talked about where the authority is, with examples, and talked about strengths and weaknesses of each. 

I thought it would be worthwhile to share a blog post on this topic as it’s very worthwhile to know how different church governments run and the strengths and weaknesses of those types. The main two types are centralized representative and congregational forms of government. 

Under centralized government, the source of authority is a head office which is the ultimate authority, like an Anglican church or Salvation Army. This head office, they are the authority basically dictates what happens on the local church level. 

If you ask what the strengths are of that it’s the consistency, not a lot of need to debate things, and a clarity of directions. Even if you’re a very congregational person, you have to admit that those are strengths. In a way, it’s almost like a franchise model where every church is going to be quite similar. 

The weakness or Achilles heel of centralized government is that the ministry itself often can lose its localized flavor, emphases and the adjustment to what’s going on the ground at the moment. 

Over on the other model, which is the congregational model, the membership governs through congregational vote or in some cases some delegated authority where they delegate it to a board of some kind. An example of this would be a lot of Baptist churches, brethren churches, and independent churches of every kind. 

I just have to say, as an aside that some independent churches profess to be congregational but are really little kingdoms run by dictators. This tends to happen from time to time with a lack of external accountability or authority. You have to guard against that because congregational systems can actually go that way if there isn’t a proper balance inside the governance system itself. 

The strength of the congressional system is high ownership, high involvement, and can be very nimble meaning the church can adjust to local situations very well. 

The weakness is that sometimes things are debated and discussed at the congregation level that really don’t need to go there. They’re not moral issues but are minor issues that can waste a lot of time by talking about too much and voting too much. Another weakness is that a lot of congregational systems do tend to default towards the squeaky wheel or the strong voice. In congregational systems without external checks and balances, strong personalities and strong voices can dominate even though it’s a congregational system. 

In the middle, neither centralized nor congregational, is the representative system. It’s something called a Presbyterian system where there are elected representatives empowered to lead. For instance, a board of elders is elected and given a lot of authority to make ministry and church life decisions through the year. 

Being a Presbyterian system, obviously you’d see this in a Presbyterian church. You also see it in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, of which I’m a part. The strength of this is that it’s a balanced kind of model. There’s congregational input, but not requirements to take congregational votes on a lot of things that there might be a congregational system. 

The weakness is that sometimes, just as with a congregational system, strong voices and strong personalities can dominate. When the governance model isn’t followed, people can get in positions of power and stay there. 

So in each of these systems, there are some strengths. There are some weaknesses, maybe several. I’m sure there are more that haven’t thought of right now. 

Really the point of this is to say, do you understand your church governance system, and do you understand its Achilles heel? If you’re in a system, you probably understand its strengths. You probably understand why it’s good and might even make a biblical case for it. 

But do you understand its Achilles heel? Are there checks and balances within your governance model to protect yourself, if you’re a pastor, a board member, a congregant or protect the church as a whole from those weaknesses? 

Those are the kind of questions that leaders actually have to ask, because part of the role of church leaders and elders is to both direct and protect the congregation. 

What is there in your church governance that you need to protect your church from? What are the weak points? Identify them. Prepare for them. Guard yourself and the church from them. It’s part of the job. 

Have an outstanding day. God bless. Press on. 

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