If your church bylaws are like most church's bylaws, they probably aren't a very exciting read. Managing Attorney Josh Bryant has had pastors confess falling asleep reading them. Why is it that the document that establishes how our church operates at the most basic level is so boring? Your church bylaws create a system which allows your church to become one of three types of churches.
These are the churches whose bylaws are so restrictive that the church can't move. Nothing gets accomplished. I once heard church planting guru Mark Clifton say that in dying churches it is easy to tell from the bylaws who in the church can say no, but it is almost impossible to tell who can say yes. Decisions about the most mundane things get bogged down in a committee staffed by members who are dead or don't even know they are on the committee. If the decision is lucky enough to make it out of that committee, two others with the same problems have to sign off on it too. Josh Bryant helps churches like this modify bylaws to get unstuck.
These are the churches where more than likely no one cares what's in the bylaws. Often times, their bulletin contains a menu of veritable gourmet Christianity. Any possible Bible study or program you could want, they have it. Everyone in the church can say yes to anything they'd like to say yes to. When a member asks to do something, the church leader says yes without hesitation. These churches can be likened to a spiderweb. Do everything you can to catch as many people as you can, and then have them running in circles around the web or stuck by the program that caught them in the first place. Josh Bryant helps churches like this utilize bylaws to reign things in a bit.
These are the churches that have a vision and a mission. They know where God is leading them and aren't afraid to say no to any distractions that may steer them off course. These churches can be likened to a super highway. Their leaders keep the vision before them like a polestar to guide the way. Every program moves the church closer to its vision. Members are engaged in the mission through those programs to get the church where it needs to be. The bylaws may not be central to the polestar (and I'd guess they aren't), but they can help. This is the type of church Josh Bryant keeps at the forefront of his mind when helping a church update their bylaws.
How? I'm glad you asked.
1. Institutionalize Your Vision
Josh Bryant recommends institutionalizing your vision in your bylaws. Make your vision a part of the DNA of your church. The Founding Fathers did it in the U.S. "bylaws":
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
(Yes - every capital letter and the word defence is found exactly that way in the Constitution.)
The founding fathers had a vision of an increasingly perfect union of states and Americans. They had a vision of a nation in which justice, peace, security, welfare, and liberty were commonplace, not just for themselves but for their posterity – for us – as well. That vision has inspired generations of Americans in part because the founding fathers institutionalized it in the nation’s bylaws – its Constitution. They didn’t have vision casting meetings in homes across the states. They didn’t have social media campaigns. They put it in writing and made it the supreme law of the land. Millions have fought for that vision; hundreds of thousands have died for it. Why and how so many have lost that vision is a topic for another day.
Why and how so many have lost the vision of the Kingdom of God and the church – the Bride of Christ – is a topic for right now. Our Lord, the head of the church, revealed the vision throughout Scripture. “After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Rev. 7:9-12 (HCSB). He revealed the commission to “Go and make disciples of all the nations.” Matt. 28:19. The means by which God has led your church to partake in the mission towards His revelation of eternity should be institutionalized in your bylaws.
2. Remember the Purpose and Power of Bylaws
Your church's bylaws empower your church to act in our world. They can restrict the church too much, like a Poky Church. They can also set the church on course and keep it there. The trick is to provide enough restriction to keep the church moving toward its vision, but not so much that it can't hardly move at all. We don't need fences around churches, but we might need guardrails to keep them from veering off course. Your bylaws can serve as one of those guardrails.
3. Remember the Purpose and Power of Policy
Church policy is born of the bylaws. Those bylaws give people in the church the ability to set policy. As such, policy can act as the other guardrail to keep your church on track. You can use policies to determine the means by which new programs or events are vetted to determine whether they will distract the church or move it closer to its vision. You can use policy to set forth how back office functions should be performed in furtherance of the vision. What you'll find is that with policy inevitably comes process. Policy acts as a guardrail, but process drives the church forward.
More from Managing Attorney Josh Bryant on this topic very soon!
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.