Healthy Bones: Why Church Governance Matters

by Don Green 

Structures are never neutral; whether a physical building or an organizational, governing structure, they either help you or hinder you.  Structures are either empowering or controlling.  Many years ago, I first came to Lincoln Christian University as a trustee at a time when the Board of Trustees was a very micro-managing Board.  I watched the Board transition to a policy-governance structure and saw tremendous empowerment of the entire entity take place. 

When a congregation plateaus, it’s often because its governing structure stifles the body’s health and vitality.  Seeing LCU’s transformation, and seeing so many churches struggle, was what prompted me to notice this factor in an organization’s health and even write my doctoral thesis on it.  That work involved a survey of every independent Christian Church/Church of Christ congregation within a 250-mile radius of Lincoln, Illinois.  Some 1,400 surveys went out and about 300 were returned.  I’d like to share a few observations from not just that survey, but from decades in observing and coaching churches in this aspect of their health. 

Church leaders often assume their congregation’s governing structure is functioning and working just fine.  I remember working years ago with a particular congregation and I was well into my first presentation when a lady right down on the front row raised her hand and said “If you think you’re going to change our board structure around here, you got another thing coming because it’s working just fine!”  Sometimes, church leaders assume that a Board structure is the biblical mandate.  Sometimes, church leaders have and continue with a Board structure simply out of precedent and example; not knowing of any other way to operate, they simply continue, to put a fine point on it, living an unexamined life.  

Over and again, I have seen an organization, church or otherwise, struggle with their health because two things are not working in a complementary way – a functioning structure, and empowering leadership.  There are many church leadership paradigms out there, but to focus on what’s most biblical, let’s describe it this way…

  • Elders protecting
  • Staff and Servants (“deacons”) leading ministries
  • Congregation doing the ministry

If your congregation hasn’t gone in a direction of “elder governance,” how might one get started?  Obviously, start by studying Scripture.  While “governance” is not mentioned as a term in the New Testament, all the parts, as we think of governance in the 21st century, are there.  Governance focuses on the roles and responsibilities of all involved, and those are highlighted throughout the New Testament.  The roles and responsibilities of elders, of preachers/pastors/teachers, of servants/deacons, and of the people of the congregation in general, are all shown quite clearly.  Of course, one could study Acts for such insights, but beyond that, other texts help us think about this as well.  One text that I frequently work through with churches is Ephesians 4:11-16. 

Additionally, church leaders should get familiar with John Carver, who wrote about policy governance going all the way back to the 1970s.  More recently, John Kaiser wrote Winning on Purpose and he specifically applies much of Carver’s ideas to the church realm.  When reading any book, especially secular books, think along this principle: adapt, don’t adopt.  We are good stewards and leaders if we adapt what’s biblical, along with what works and isn’t non-biblical, to the church.  We should not assume that we can adopt, wholesale, everything any given author says, save for one Author.

Finally, what does the eldership do that no other group in the church can do? 

Ultimately, we need to define responsibility, delegate authority, and determine accountability so that we can, to the best of our ability, see that the church achieves what God wants and avoids what’s unacceptable.  This is how we can “work like it all depends on us, while praying like it all depends on God – because it does.”

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