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Church Governance: Crisis Can Be Averted

Having the right documents in place can help churches better weather storms.

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The pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock has been in the news lately because of accusations that he mishandled sexual abuse allegations at the church.

Brian Schuette, leader of Acts 6 Network and lead attorney at Schuette Law Group / Photo via Schuette Law Group

Pastor Steven Smith survived a vote of confidence by the board of deacons in February, but the church’s lack of governing documents complicated the process. Smith has since resigned.

The middle of a church crisis is not the ideal time to adopt processes and procedures for governing decision-making.

In his legal work helping over 100 Christian churches put biblical governing documents in place, Brian Schuette has encountered many examples of challenging situations.

For example, a congregation member we will call Bob Smith was mad. He wanted to get rid of the pastor.

Knowing the church had an annual vote of confidence provision that required the pastor to get 75% congregational support or be removed, Smith started to gather support for a “no-confidence” vote to oust the pastor.

However, Smith quickly realized that two years previously, thanks to Schuette’s help, the church had reworked its bylaws so that now a supermajority of the congregation had to vote to remove the pastor.

The pastor was able to breathe a sigh of relief and continue his gospel ministry to the congregation.

Scenarios like these are not uncommon, Schuette said in an interview with Jon Harris on YouTube. Schuette began the Acts 6 Ministry to help churches review their governing documents to safeguard them from both internal and external threats.

In his experience, internal threats, like the situation with Bob Smith, are the more harmful ones, Schuette said. Conflict is inevitable because churches are made up of sinful people, but if the church is structured properly, it can weather these threats.

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Schuette said when first setting up the ministry, he reviewed all the Scripture passages related to church governance and found the principles he believes were established there, especially in Acts 6.

There are two extremes—churches with dominating leaders who make all the decisions and “hypercongregational” models where the congregation votes on everything, Schuette said.

But in his view, the best configuration is when church leaders with the greater spiritual responsibility are the ones given more organizational authority. That would include both the pastor and the board of elders. Then the congregation would be involved in major decisions, like selecting those leaders.

Schuette published his governing principles in a resource titled, “The Healthy Church Initiative Statement on Church Governance: A Biblically-Informed Legal Perspective.”

The governing documents consist of three levels: articles of incorporation with basic governance principles, a more-detailed set of bylaws, and policies and procedures explaining measures regarding areas such as security and employment.

As Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax section points out, church governing documents often handle issues such as membership and voting requirements, calling a meeting and quorum minimums, committee formation and responsibilities, hiring and terminating staff (including a pastor), and selecting the members of the governing board.

Denise Craig, CEO of The Church Network, agrees that proper church governance is critical.

“When boards govern well, church staff members feel supported, empowered, and accountable,” she told MinistryWatch.

“Having good governance in place isn’t 100% fail-proof, but it can help provide a healthier space for ministry and potentially avoid things like broken trust, poor church culture, unresolved conflict, mission drift, and fraud.”

Craig pointed out that church governing boards need to understand and take seriously their duties of care, loyalty, and obedience.

The duty of care requires they make reasonable and sound decisions on behalf of the church. The duty of loyalty means they must set aside personal interests in favor of the church. And the duty of obedience requires them to align with the church’s mission and follow its governing documents and policies.

External threats to churches are also real, Alliance Defending Freedom’s Tim Chandler said.

“Churches are facing increasingly complex legal challenges that can make it much more difficult for them to carry out their missions,” said Chandler, who works in ADF’s Church and Ministry Alliance program.

“To help protect their religious liberty, ADF encourages churches to create a statement of faith, statement of final authority, facility use policy, and other documents to clarify their beliefs.”

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctorate from Baylor University. She has home schooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.