Is there any less desirable task for a church planter than writing a Constitution and Bylaws? If you are like most of us, I’d imagine that this task rivals the annual process of filing taxes on the list of things you’d rather avoid. For many, this work seems like an antiquated byproduct of the traditional church that we’d prefer to discard altogether. Why would we want to spend time developing an organizing document outlining the way in which our church will operate that may be seen by only a handful of people?
The early days of church planting may feel like you are playing football with a group of fraternity brothers. You draw up plays in the dirt and run them as best you know how. If one play doesn’t seem to work then you discard it and run another. This process is fun, fast-paced, and life giving.
Surely organizing principles and documents will merely slow this down and impede our progress. We’ve heard horror stories of churches embroiled in crisis and hamstrung from making the needed changes by their organizing documents. These fears may cause us to overcorrect and fail to develop important operating principles at an early stage in the life of the church. These documents, while time-consuming to create, can prove invaluable in the following situations:
When The Church Grows
The desired growth of the church will make it less likely that informal systems and structures can sustain the weight of equipping an increasingly diverse church.
A Constitution and Bylaws can help orient the members and the leaders to the way in which the church is organized to accomplish its mission.
When Conflict Arises
The need for formal processes often manifest themselves in the face of conflict, which are inevitable in the life of a developing church. Conflict over leadership, philosophy, and decision-making can be clarified (though not eliminated) through a well written Constitution and Bylaws. This is never truer than in the process of exercising church discipline – where a clear, objective written process will be vital to protecting the church and its leaders from some of the shrapnel that may result from this process.
When Leaders Need to be Appointed (or Removed)
A Constitution and Bylaws can also serve to explain the process by which leaders are chosen and appointed for roles within the church. Clarity in this pathway can protect from subjective processes that easily devolve into personality conflicts.
When the Church Undergoes a Transition
It’s hard to think about the days when you, or another key leader, may transition out of the church. These transitions, while common, may prove fatal to the church if there is not a clear plan by which new leaders are appointed and the church moves forward.
When the Church Faces Decline, Merger, or Closure
Not all church plants will survive. Faced with impending closure, many churches go into scramble mode trying to determine what to do next. This often results in squandered resources that might otherwise be used for kingdom purposes. A good Constitution and Bylaws will define what will happen in the event these situations develop long before they may become a reality.
Here are a few quick pointers if you are considering writing such a document:
Don’t say too little
Make sure the document is clear and outlines the major processes that need to be in place at the outset.
Assumed process and unwritten policies will ultimately cause you and your church more harm than you expect.
Don’t say too much
Avoid sabotaging your long-term health by adding unnecessary details that will impede the agility of your church plant. Remember, you can always add details later as they become necessary, but you cannot easily remove details once they are in the document.
Model your document after a church that you respect
Find a like-minded church, with a thoughtful leader, who has carefully crafted a Constitution and Bylaws. Ask three or four churches to share their document and use it as scaffolding to build you own. Consider finding a church that is only one or two life-stages in front of yours in order to avoid replicating a document that has become increasingly complex over the years.
We, at The North American Mission Board, are here to serve you in this work. If you would like to see a few examples, please check out what the Journey Church in Summerville, SC has posted on their site here.
Published June 4, 2015