Administration,  Church,  Ministry

Towards a Healthy Church – The Constitution and Bylaws

Over the past several weeks, I have been discussing the need for church documentation. As I have tried to clearly convey, THE document of (and for) the church is the Bible. If a church places emphasis on any document (or book) above the Bible, then that church is in dire straits. However, having other documents to guide and govern the church is important. And these other documents should find their basis in the Bible.

When most people think of a document that is used by the church, they might think of a bulletin, or perhaps, a newsletter. These documents are not the types of documents I am highlighting, but a weekly bulletin does have a parallel to the types of documents I will differentiate below.

Consider what a bulletin is intended to do. The primary purpose* is to provide some sort of order to the service. The content of the service itself changes weekly, but for most churches, the construct of the service changes little. If we look closely, the Bible does not prescribe HOW the service should be ordered, but it does provide a WHY (focus our worship on God) and a HOW (elements such as discipleship, fellowship, worship, prayer, etc. are mentioned in Acts 2.42-47, and other passages such as Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5). Thus, churches all over the world have these elements as part of their service, but, particularly in the western world, we like to know the general order, so many churches provide a guide for what will be happening (generally) in the service on a particular day.

*Of course, bulletins also provide a list of ministry opportunities and other information, but that information can often be found elsewhere, and thus I say the primary purpose is to provide the order of service.

As important as some consider the bulletin, other documents are even more critical. The bulletin may provide an order of the service, but how is the church ordered? That is, how will the church function? What will the church believe? How is the church organized? When will the church meet? Who makes the decisions? What is the name of the church? Etc. For most people, these questions are not really considered. For instance, the church’s name is “ABC Church.” OK, but why? Well, because the church (at least most churches) have filed documents to have that name registered.** Furthermore, this name is recorded in the church’s constitution. Many people are confused by the idea of a constitution and a bylaw, and, indeed, many people, and thus churches, blend the two. However, the two documents are distinct, so let me provide a little clarity.

**Some of this week’s post will not apply worldwide. For instance, my brothers and sisters in the Bush in Kenya do not need to file a name of their church/fellowship. However, having a set of guiding principles (ideally as documents, in some form) can limit other headaches that could arise later.

The Constitution is a legal document regarding what “constitutes” the church. This document can (and truly should) be short. Some church constitutions will have a preamble, but all should include the church’s name, the purpose of the church, and something about the what the church believes. As I mentioned above, the church should be guided by the Bible, but to say that you believe the Bible is rather ambiguous. The point of this section is to state what your church BELIEVES about the Bible, AND who gets to decide that. For instance, does the congregation decide what is to be believed? Are the leaders responsible? Does a statement of faith exist related to a denominational affiliation? These are some of what can be covered in this section.

Additionally, the constitution should specify how the church will be governed and any affiliations that are important for its purpose. Again, denominational characteristics are important here, but other strong connections might be important to list as well. These “connections” are meant to be binding at some level because, after all, this information is being included in a document about what constitutes the church.

Finally, a constitution should specify how the document (the Constitution) can be adopted and amended. Again, this document is meant to be semi-permanent, and therefore, these considerations should be fairly strict and not necessarily easy. For instance, you do not want someone changing the name of the church every few weeks!

What I have mentioned thus far are matters that should truly be considered for a church’s constitution. I would add a couple of additional items. First, how would the church dissolve? I realize no church begins with the intention of closing, but someday the church will close, merge, etc. When this happens, what is necessary? What happens to the assets (including the building, if one exists)? This item may not be necessary upon the initial creation of a constitution, but it should be added.

Related to the constitution, and often confused with it, are the bylaws. The word itself should provide an idea of what this document does – it provides a guide of how the church will operate. That is, the church will function “by” this set of “laws.” So, the constitution is the WHAT and WHY of the church, and the bylaws are the HOW at a very high level.

The bylaws will contain high level information about items such as:

  • membership (who is a member, how to become a member, responsibilities of being a member, etc.)
  • business meetings (when they are regularly scheduled, how they are conducted, and a minimum number of people required to be present)
  • staff and church officer information (how they are called/hired, general qualifications and responsibilities, term-lengths, etc.)
  • ministry teams/committees
  • adoption and amendments of the bylaws.

These items are not overly detailed. Some detail is important, but the main purpose of the bylaws is to provide a firm basis for the how of ministry with the policies and procedures (next week’s topic) providing more focus. The importance of the bylaws is to ensure the church (as people) understand how the church (as an organization) will operate. The reason the bylaws are important is, once again, in the term used – they represent the laws of the church. If a church does not have bylaws (or has insufficient bylaws) and an issue goes to court, the law of the land will be applied. As I mentioned last week, a church’s bylaws are not to contradict government laws, but the courts generally respect (and are supposed to respect), the governing documents of any organization as long as they are reasonably outlined and a generally respected guideline for a particular type of organization.

This review of two key church documents – the constitution and they bylaws – is not extensive. But the information should bring some clarity. Many churches post these documents online and many denominations have examples (or even templates) that are commonly used within the denomination. Next week, I will share about the last major set of documents – the policies and procedures – and the role they play for a church.

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