Good policies and finely tuned processes can be the backbone of the healthy church. Policies and rigid process can be the noose of death for congregations. But wait Are those statements a clear contradiction? Bear with me in this short post, and let’s think about the difference.

Policies often have an origin in the law, regarding employment or protection for members or staff. Best practices can avoid fraud in the accounting processes or ensure consistent handling of important ministry tasks. However, the language used in the policy and the language used to communicate implementation of the policy or process can make all the difference in a negative vs. positive outcome.

Processes can “do the thinking” for ministry. A good system can ensure that welcome of the first-time visitor happened and follow-up occurs in a healthy manner. A good system can ensure that money received in ministry is secure income and reduces the risk of theft.  A good check-in system can ensure the safety of children and provide confidence for parents. A clear sexual harassment policy with an outline for reporting can protect both victims and the accused. A process done correctly can ensure that what is ”right” happens.

Policy and process at their best are proactive rather than reactive. The congregation that says, “We have never had that problem, so we don’t need a process” is at risk. The congregation who overreacts to an event of misbehavior by creating ridged policy rather than dealing with the misbehavior may err to the extreme. This practice may run the risk of limiting ministry or detraction of A level staff.

Here are three questions to ask about your church:

  1. Do your policies and processes reflect the values of your congregation?
    Does your church have a value statement about ministry to the community around them but your facility and security policies place a huge no trespassing sign at the door? Using other congregations’ policies as a model is ok, but filter them through your congregation’s values.
  2. Do your policies and processes reflect the culture of the staff?
    Do your staff work in a high trust environment or merely exist in low trust? Whereas laws regarding time structure vary by states and exempt and non-exempt employees have different reporting requirements, a church’s implementation of these policies can help to create either a culture of trust or implied distrust. Clear communication and constant training over time are critical.
  3. Do your policies and processes facilitate ministry or control ministry?
    In a planning session have you ever heard the response, “Well that would be a great idea, but our financial policies state that .…”  That may be a strong indicator it is time for a review.

Often the difference can stem from the origin of the policy. At times,  policy is written from an overreaction to a situation responding to something that happens in the past. An example of this might be the policy one congregation adopted to eliminate all outside use of the church facilities. The policy emerged when a short-term after-school event was poorly supervised and resulted in damage to a game room. The policy, written a decade earlier, still stands in sharp contrast to the churches value statement to impact the greatest needs of the community. One of those being unsupervised elementary children after school.
At other times, the process is unwritten and not understood by all but has just “become the way we do things around here.” Sometimes these processes can be the greatest deterrence to trust and efficient ministry but are controlled by unspoken political power in the churches systems.

Does your church have a process to review policy and process? Just because it was a good plan five years ago or two pastors ago doesn’t mean it is a good plan for today and tomorrow.

Here are some suggestions about when it is a good time to start reviewing policy and processes?

  • When you hear about major changes in law, such as the new current tax law, accounting rules, or healthcare requirements
  • When you have significant ministry leadership change
  • When a new senior pastor or a new mission minister comes on board. They may see old processes as limiting and have creative ideas to improve or streamline, or they may find the current guideline helpful.
  • When changes occur in ministry teams or committee – don’t let the lack of understanding of policy and process outlive the individuals responsible for their implementation. So if you have a three-year rotating system of leadership each year, one third will have a new learning curve to understand and support the work established process. It is ok to ask, “Why do we do it this way?”

Good policy and finely tuned processes are the friends of healthy churches. It is worth the time and effort to put them in place and constantly review them to ensure they are serving good ministry outcome.

Phill Martin
Rev. Phill Martin is the Deputy CEO of the National Association of Church Business Administration. Phill’s passion is to engage and connect individuals and organizations to help them reach their maximum potential. He enjoys coaching, teaching, mentoring and connecting people with information and resources. Learn more about Phill Martin. He is a coach and consultant for CHC.