I’ve never heard of a church that didn’t have a constitution, but I have heard of church leaders who wish they didn’t have one! Outdated wording, obscure explanations, and seemingly irrelevant guidelines often characterize the constitutional documents that leaders struggle to work with. I’m convinced that despite these challenges, a good local church constitution—followed faithfully—can be a church leader’s best friend!
Consider these four suggestions for church leaders about working with their church constitution. . . .
Affirm Its Value
When I pastored, I sought to communicate to my people that a church constitution is an important document in the life of any church. It safeguards the integrity of leaders who seek to follow it, expresses the will of the congregation, and gives guidance in governance. When difficult but constitutionally mandated decisions are made, leaders have protection and support from the official agreed-upon document that governs the church’s affairs. The constitution’s importance both doctrinally and methodologically is hard to overstate. In short, the Bible speaks of things being done “decently and in order.” A good constitution helps us accomplish that.
Know Its Content
Some leaders haven’t looked carefully at their church constitution in years! I admit, it may be a difficult read, but it is very important that those in leadership have a good working knowledge of what their constitution says. Leaders are responsible for leading according to its guidelines, and such familiarity is foundational to their success. (By the way, it’s probably not a “once and done” read. As a pastor, I found myself consulting the constitution on a regular basis, looking up specific wording that I may have forgotten over time.)
Follow Its Instructions
I am a firm believer in the importance of church leaders faithfully following the church constitution as it is currently written, even when it contains parts that are significantly outdated or in need of Biblical clarification. The pastors who take it upon themselves to set aside the constitution do the congregation and themselves a serious disservice and raise questions about their integrity. My position is that until those parts are changed in accordance with the proper channels of constitutional change,* follow it!
* Most constitutions contain wording about the process.
Update Its Wording
In my experience, constitutions regularly need updating as ministries change. If your church constitution has not been updated in some time, a major revision is probably in order. Here’s what I suggest: Establish a task force to work through a careful process of constitutional change, keeping the congregation informed and appropriately involved. If a major revision is not needed, hold periodic reviews and make minor adjustments—say, every four or five years—so that the updates are not drastic and people become used to recurring constitutional updates. Here are three additional suggestions about updating.
Keep the wording concise. Lengthy documents are more frequently ignored. I also suggest the elimination of policy statements in a constitution, because they seem to be more appropriately placed in a policy manual that can be more easily changed.
Add or strengthen statements on church discipline, marriage, and moral issues. These are needed today more than ever as a protection for church leaders and congregations, and they often become a valuable point of instruction for the church family. (Contact me here at the Resource Center if you would like suggested wording.)
Don’t forget the doctrinal statement, which is often part of a church’s constitutional documents. I’m not suggesting we change our Biblical convictions, but these statements often require some new wording over time as theological terminology changes and clarifications are needed.
Jim Vogel (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) was a pastor for 30 years before becoming associate national representative of the GARBC.