As part of his sermon this past Sunday, our pastor shared a horror story from his past tenure on the board of another church:
The pastor of that church had sinned in such a way that his continued work at the church was no longer possible. We’re talking sin-that-made-the-news sin. Sin-that-resulted-in-charges-being-filed sin. The church asked for his resignation and he gave it, but then–because the church bylaws were vague and it was a non-denominational church with little external oversight–the pastor withdrew his resignation and promptly sued the church for wrongful termination. In the meantime, the church discovered that (unbeknownst to them) they owed 180 thousand dollars in unpaid bills and the insurance for all of their workers (three of whom were pregnant!) had gone unpaid and had also expired.
It took 18 months for the church to dig itself out of the hole, return to solvency, and endure the lawsuit (which was eventually dismissed), all while struggling to keep a preschool open and the congregation together. “Don’t worry,” the pastor quipped as he ended the story, “this won’t happen to you. You’re Methodists and you all have some serious bylaws and oversight structures in places.”
I got a chuckle out of his comment. But it also made me think about how important policies and procedural documents can be to a church.
At my church, for example, we have policies and procedures (written and established both by the congregation and by the Methodist church) that guide how we conduct children’s ministry: we require any workers who might be involved with children to undergo full background checks and to take a set of courses that teach CPR and basic first aid. We have policies and procedures and bylaws and documents that dictate how and where money may be spent, how the church is to handle conflict, how to handle pastoral transitions and hirings and firings.
Many churches have policies and bylaws and guidelines like this. In many cases, they are based on spiritual principles found in Scripture; others are more practical and based on legal necessities or on common sense. But they exist to protect the church and its members: to ensure that congregants and their families will be safe, that the church will remain functional even if a pastor leaves, and that unexpected conflicts or problems won’t catch everyone off guard and throw the entire congregation into disarray.
That’s why you ought to know what your church’s policies and procedures are.
I’m surprised by the amount of people who don’t. Some people don’t even realize their churches have constitutions or written documents at all, or that churches do in general. And even if people do know, they’re sometimes uninterested: who wants to read a bunch of boring stuff about how the church defines membership, or how it conducts a search for a new pastor? Yet as I often tell my students who groan when they have to get up and shuffle out the door during a university fire drill: “I know, I know. You don’t need it. But one day you might.”
Knowing a church’s guidelines for how to handle particular situations can tell you a lot about that church: what they prioritize, what they don’t, what they have prepared for, and what they haven’t. If you’re looking into a church or trying to find a church home, their policies or bylaws or guidelines can give you an insight into the sort of church that it is and how it handles conflict, problems, and transitions.
Being prepared matters. As I’ve watched the fallout of the Sovereign Grace child abuse allegations (you can follow the whole thing here on Christianity Today, though some things may be paywalled), it occurs to me how ill-equipped some churches are to deal with a congregant making an allegation of child abuse. Torn between wanting to turn it over to the authorities or solve the matter “in-house,” uncertain of whether or not to conduct an internal investigation, unsure of how to apply Biblical principles of rebuke and forgiveness to a painful situation, many churches flounder right out of the gate. Having bylaws/policies/procedures in place may – sadly – not always be enough to protect our children from those who seek to harm them, but it at least gives congregations the upper hand in being able to anticipate a compassionate and loving response to a crisis when it occurs.
What happens if your pastor does something really, really bad? What happens if the whole congregation wants a pastor to leave but the pastor doesn’t want to go? Who gets to vote on things? What matters are worthy of a vote, anyway? How often is communion? How much money goes to what? Researching your church’s literature can tell you about what it’s prepared to handle and what it might do in these situations…and it can also tell you if your church isn’t prepared at all.
So go take a look! Familiarize yourself with your church’s foundational documents – and even your denominational ones, if need be. All the churches I have ever attended offered copies of these in their “getting to know our church” classes, but most churches are forthcoming with theirs upon request. Some even post them online. Ask your pastor to point you in the right direction.
Because after all, what you don’t know can hurt you. So don’t let it. Get to know your church.