by Josh Bryant
This may be one of the easier things you could do in ministry. Church leaders have been doing it for decades. As society becomes more litigious with courts that are more open to issuing a judgment against a church, church leaders have begun to feel the effects of bad bylaws. Here are five ways to mess up your church’s bylaws.
1. Do It Yourself.
This may have just negated the rest of the rest of this article but trying to write a legal document without legal training is often akin to doing surgery on yourself. You could really do a lot of damage. You really need to get a lawyer to help, and preferably one who understands how churches operate differently than businesses. Shameless plug: our managing attorney has served as a pastor at a large regional church and works almost exclusively with churches.
2. Write In Complicated Procedures
The more complicated the procedure to make decisions in the church, the more difficult it will be for the church to do just about anything. The process of making a decision must be simple. There should be a clearly defined, step-by-step process at each level of the church with decision making authority.
3. Fail to Identify Decision Makers
Speaking of levels of authority, your bylaws must have a clear authority structure. What decisions do committees make? What decisions do staff make? What decisions must the board or elders make? These are questions your church bylaws must answer. Your church bylaws must also address how decisions are reviewed and the process for undoing a decision.
4. Refer to Roberts Rules of Order
Ever. Roberts Rules have no place in the decision making of a church. They are far too complicated and outdated. If the church does not follow the proper process of making a decision, the decision itself is open to attack in court. Write your own rules of order, or better yet download your free copy of the rules we’ve written for churches here.
5. Ignore Them
Most churches have bylaws that were drafted ignoring at least three of the above four no-nos. As such, they are too difficult to follow and the temptation too strong to just ignore the bylaws and make a decision. Courts have changed a church’s doctrine, required a church to rehire a fired pastor, and otherwise interfered in the internal affairs of the church because the church failed to follow its own bylaws. If they are too difficult to follow, hire a parliamentarian to help you navigate church votes until you can get them amended to be far easier to follow. Under no circumstance should a church ever fail to follow its own bylaws.
The church’s failure to follow its own bylaws is probably one of the most dangerous sleeping giants in the church world today. Sexual abuse in the church is a dangerous problem – one that a fair percentage of churches will have to deal with. I dare say that a greater percentage have bylaws problems – a ticking time bomb that could cause major problems if not taken care of.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.