In many ways, churches tend to rise and fall based on the quality of their leaders. Strong godly leadership is important, as is good governance, clear decision-making processes, and appropriate accountability.

When it comes to the subjects of leadership and governance, the New Testament presents a fairly fluid and emerging model for local churches. That’s why there are so many different views on what church leadership should look like today. [For a detailed look at the subject of leadership as portrayed in the New Testament, here is a link to download a paper I wrote on this topic as part of my Master’s of Arts Degree in Theology at Ridley College back in 2001 – A New Testament Pattern for Church Leadership]

A few years back, I helped a large church that I was leading at the time engage in a governance review. As churches grow they need to occasionally review their structures and processes to ensure that they are conducive to creating a healthy environment. As a result of our review, the following decisions were made at the time:

  1. To simply the church’s constitution. [The constitution now contains just a Statement of Purposes, a Mission Statement and a list of Core Values. It then outlines the required Rules for: Membership, General Meetings, Governance, and Administration. Now that these things are clearly established, they will most likely not need to be changed again]
  2. To establish a single Board of Elders as the primary governance group of the church. [Prior to this time the church had two governance groups – an group of Elders focused on spiritual matters and a Board of Directors handling financial and business matters]
  3. To create an internal Policy Governance Manual that further outlines the specific role of the Senior Minister and the Board of Elders, and how they relate to each other. [It is important to know what decisions a Senior Minister can make by themselves and what decisions require the involvement of the Elders. This document is a working document and will by updated as necessary. The goal was to create an environment with a high degree of empowerment for the Senior Minister but also with an accompanying high degree of accountability]
  4. To require that no more than one third of the members of the Board of Elders be employed by the church or its ministries. [This is in order for there to be proper accountability and genuine ‘independent review’, which requires separation of the creation of ideas from the review or approval of those ideas. Both the Staff and the Eldership leadership roles are crucial in the life of the church but there must be adequate differentiation between them. Large churches often function best when ‘staff-led’ and ‘Elder-protected’]
  5. To have a person other than the Senior Minister Chair the Board of Elders. [This enables the Senior Minister to report and be accountable to the Elders. It also enables the Senior Minister not to have to perform a neutral facilitation role that may be best filled by a different person]
  6. To consider an appropriate ‘length of term’ for members of the Board of Elders so as to balance continuity and connection with the past while providing opportunity for new members to bring fresh ideas and perspective to a particular group. [Prior to this time, Elders remained in this role indefinitely or until they resigned or were disqualified]

These changes were implemented and a new Board of Elders’ team was formed, both of which have served that church well for many years now.

For those who would like to do further study or who want to obtain some more extensive advice, I’d recommend the following resources related to church governance:

It is important to realize that from a spiritual perspective, Jesus Christ is the ‘Head’ and therefore the ‘owner’ of any local church. The Bible is to be each church’s ‘constitution’, providing a clear mission, as well as kingdom values. God directs and then empowers a church planter to start a church congregation. The initial Senior Minister usually forms an Eldership or leadership team and establishes involvement of members from the congregation as appropriate. Over time, wise church leaders articulate clear ‘mission and values’ so that the church can last beyond them and influence succeeding generations. The team of Elders them become the primary guardians of the ‘mission and values’ of the church entrusted to its care by Jesus Christ and together they take responsibility for its ongoing health, growth and well-being.

In contrast, from a legal perspective, most local churches here in Australia are set up as an incorporated association, especially if they own land and employ staff. An incorporated association belongs to its ‘members’ who are the real ‘owners’ of the organization. They appoint, or cause to be appointed, a Board (or ‘Board of Elders’) to govern the organization on their behalf. The Board of Elders then appoints and holds accountable a Senior Minister to give leadership to the church as it seeks to achieve its mission and live out its values. The legal constitution of an incorporated association essentially creates an ‘artificial person’, describes why it exists (‘statement of purpose’), and how it governs itself within society.

The church is a living organism (a spiritual entity) and yet it also has organisational aspects, and more so as it grows larger. These two differing but related aspects of church governance need to be held in delicate tension. God has designed the church to be like a ‘body’ – a body that is very much alive and carrying out the mission of it’s Head, Jesus Christ, yet also realising that a body requires a structure and processes to facilitate that very life.

24 thoughts on “Church Governance

  1. Thanks Mark, that was a really interesting overview – sounds like a healthy governance structure. Is the church’s constitution available online? (I had a quick google for it and only found a mention of it).

  2. Mark, delighted to come across your post here. I recently helped a church install a Policy Governance structure. It solved several problems very well.
    I wonder how you have structured the linkage between governance and operations. Does the Pastor take the role of CEO? Who or what is held accountable for production of ends and avoidance of unacceptable means?
    I hope you post on this topic again. I’d like to read about how things progress, how challenges are met and how policy helps improve governance.
    Peace and Blessing, Glen

  3. Hi Glen. Yes, essentially the Senior Minister is much like a CEO in an organisation. However, in our environment, being a large church, the Senior Minister has a staff team that helps them with the operational, financial and administrative tasks. However, ultimately the Senior Minister is responsible. Hope that helps. Mark

  4. Our constitution is not available online but we are willing to share a copy with those who request it.
    Our policy governance manual was based on some samples from the John carver and Aubrey Malphurs materials (see recommended resources list), which we fine-tuned to fit our environment.
    Our ‘ends’ policies include our Mission Statement, Core Values, and Vision 2010 statement. These are all available on our church web site.

  5. Thanks for posting your insights here Mark. Just wondering why you decided to combine the functions of Eldership and the Board? We are a church of 550ish and are contemplating a move in the opposite direction i.e. seperating the two roles of spiritual and pastoral oversight (Elders) and governance (Board). Would appreciate your thoughts…

  6. Hi Mark,
    I am intrested in how you managed to come up with a Governance Manual that has a balance of empowerement for the pastor but keeping a clear line of accountability – do you take your Consititution statments and base a foundation from their?
    Regards Grant

  7. Hey Grant. Good to hear from you.
    The Aubrey Malphurs book has the best relevant stuff on that. Worth a read.

  8. We have a young church with 400 to 500 weekly attenders and we would benefit greatly from a policy such as the one implemented at citylife church. Would you be kind enought to provide a copy? God bless.

  9. Mark, Thanks for your insight. Our church needs to redefine its structure. Even we are Board led, we were operating as one Person (The Senior Pastor) being close to the allmighty. We have some bylaws and articles of incorporation that have not been aplied properly. Even we dont have “formal” membership, our sunday attendace is in the 1,200 on four services. We would like to redefine our governace and policies. Would you mind sharing yours?
    God bless…

  10. Hi Jonas
    We adapted ours from the book mentioned above, ‘Leading Leaders’, so I suggest you get a hold of that, as it is an excellent resource.

  11. hi mark, your article on pattern of church leadership answer some of our basic questions. We are a 500 visitor per week church, in Jakarta, Indonesia. We have completed our 5 years strategic plan. It is a 200 pages power point doc. We are interested to learn the governance that lead to strong and healthy church. May possibly request you to send the mentioned constitution doc so we may learn from it. yours. bdewandaru.

  12. We are a multi-site growing church which adds another twist. We need to delegate the board’s oversight to site leadership teams and reserve the board’s influence to finances and accountability. I would appreciate a copy of your constitution for comparison. Thanks.

  13. Most churches have a membership of 100 or less. What kind of governance do you think is best for a small church?

  14. As simple as and informal as possible, Ervin. Unless you own land and buildings and/or employ staff, no legal constitution is really needed.

  15. Hi Mark – Truly impressed with your understanding and practical experience on church governance after reading your article. Our church of about 300+ has been operating the last 5 years with a constitution that addresses this area poorly. Need guidance on how to improve the governance structure to allow Pastoral freedom at the same time be protected with solid Board accountability. Would be most grateful to see a copy of your constitution and learn from your experience.
    Many thanks!

  16. Hi Mark – I thank God for your attempts to solve this problem of “Church Governance”.
    For me the issue is simple, it is a matter of who is to lead and who is to follow.
    However, the issue of misuse of power has prompted the need for such a phrase in the church, the body of Christ.
    Your attempts are remarkable, but lack one focus point. The first step in governance is alligning the church with its nature, that it is NOT an organisation but an ORGANISM.
    All efforts including yours will suffer from the premise from which they all efforts are found.
    It is clear that the issue of Governance is bone out of the outcry, by circular governments and certain corporate leaders, who having run big business have understood the value of proper governance.
    However, this issue did not exist in the body of Christ and including the era of priesthood. The issue of governance only applied to specific projects of the church not to the church in its formation.
    The question exists today, What is a church? is it an organisation or an Organism?
    When we answer this question diligently, we will find a solution to our problem and challenge.
    I would like to hear more from you.
    Blessed regards,
    Wellington Mkhize- South Africa

  17. Thanks a Million Mark. I am a masters student and would like to research on church governance in general. Do you have any Text books that you may recommend for my literature review.
    Best regards,

  18. Hi Mark,
    Thank you for writing this article. Even though it’s dated almost 5 years ago, it’s still relevant today.
    Our team is working on a new church plant, and I’m trying to get as many resources assimilated for governance, articles of faith, and mission statements. I just bought a copy of the Leading Leaders book by Aubrey Malphurs that you recommended. When you get a chance, please send me a copy of your Policy Governance Manual; it would be a tremendous benefit in starting this church. Thank you.

  19. Mark
    I am a member of a congregational church in Connecticut that is in the painful process of rebuilding after 16 years of having a minister who thought he was a CEO. He wasn’t a very good CEO in spite of all his efforts and those efforts demanded so much of him that he wasn’t a particularly effective minister. He resigned rather than face the mess his”leadership had created aWe are currently trying to deal with a significantly diminished membership, depleted endowments, and a significant debt load.
    The last time I checked, the seminaries were not turning out too many MBA. They do not seem to be turning out too many servant leaders either.

  20. Hi Eugene
    So sorry to hear about your situation. Poor leaders can do a lot of damage in any community. I pray for wisdom, grace and courage from God for you and the congregation as you navigate this difficult time.

  21. Hi Aaron.
    The books listed in this article would all be good value for your literature review work.

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