By Dr. Mike Queen
Co-Coordinator Center for Healthy Churches-Carolinas
There are people in every church who are fearful that without adequate bylaws to govern everything that happens in the church, the wheels will surely come off the bus and lead to disaster. It doesn’t have to be that way. Faithful souls can figure out what needs to be done without using bylaws as a crutch or an excuse.
Every church in which I have been privileged to serve has had a bylaws document. What is interesting is that in each church the bylaws were used in different ways. Sometimes they served to foster mission and ministry in the church, while in other circumstances they proved to be a hindrance to the same. In some places bylaws are consulted weekly, while in others someone has to search the office to find a copy when needed. There have been days when I was grateful for a set of bylaws and days where I wish they had never been written.
Dr. Bill Wilson, President of the Center for Healthy Churches, constantly reminds us that there are four parts of church life that we must ‘relentlessly align’ with our mission and vision. That means that each of these four must serve the mission and vision of the church. The four are Facilities, Finances, Staff and Structure. Bylaws are meant to be a part of the structure of a church. They address how we govern ourselves. They spell out defined procedures when certain events occur in the life of a congregation. They provide a framework for how we organize ourselves for ministry. Bylaws are important when they function in this way. Healthy churches have healthy bylaws.
Obviously, some churches do not have bylaws, but most do. Often their creation is born out of some perceived need or perhaps an emerging conflict in the church. The same holds true with amendments to bylaws. An issue may arise in the congregation for which there is no specific directive found in the bylaws to address it. Most such issues get resolved in one way or another. Then in the aftermath some well-meaning soul decides a new bylaw is needed so that the church will know exactly what to do the next time a similar issue arises. That may well be a needed step to take; but it may also start the church on a path whereby they try to create a set of bylaws that addresses every possible issue that could arise. When that happens, bylaws can begin to create a drag on the congregation.
In one congregation virtually every question that got asked in a committee or task force meeting was quickly followed with another question: ‘What do the bylaws say?’ The net effect was often confusing. If the bylaws did not provide either permission for or a prohibition against, the result was sometimes a paralysis. Either nothing happened, or they generated another new bylaw.
Over time, bylaws can become bulky and convoluted. What was a really good structural piece twenty years earlier may no longer serve the needs of a congregation in the present. When the bylaws are no longer aligned with the mission and vision of the church, what should a congregation do?
One congregation, realizing that their bylaws had become unwieldy from years of amendments to address things that no longer mattered, decided to do an in-depth review of their 23 pages of bylaws. After a month or so, the committee tasked with the review came back to the Chair of the Diaconate with an alternative idea. Rather than making an attempt to edit the bylaws, they wanted to do a complete re-write which would only include the language that was needed and that was in alignment with their mission and vision. Through their diligent efforts and their abiding patience with a congregation fearful of losing control, the church came to the place where they set aside the old 23-page document in favor of a new set of bylaws that took up only 9 pages. The fear of not controlling everything gave way to a freedom that empowered them in new ways to do ministry.
Every church needs some kind of structure to govern itself. Well-crafted bylaws can help a church define the truly healthy ways to deal with conflict and difficult situations that arise from time to time in congregational life. When bylaws are out of date or when they no longer support the mission and vision of the church, they need to be revisited. I know of one church that has as a part of their bylaws a provision that requires them to revisit their bylaws every five years just to insure that they are in alignment. That is a good practice of a healthy church.
Dr. Mike Queen
Co-Coordinator, Center for Healthy Churches-Carolinas
A native of West Virginia, Mike Queen, has served churches in North Carolina the last 36 years. Recently retired after twenty-five years as pastor at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, NC, Mike, along with his colleague Jayne Davis, has founded a ministry of encouragement called Hopeful Imagination to work with traditional churches dedicated to finding God’s way in a changing world. Mike and Bobbie, his wife of 45 years, live in Wilmington and they have continued their ministry by serving as interim pastor in other NC churches.