The envelope please! Runner-up for Most Influential Book as rated by American clergy is …

“Ladies and gentlemen, will it be a book on spiritual practices? Biblical studies? The ever-popular ‘How to Blame Lay Leaders’? No, the topic of the second most important book this year is [drum roll] congregational administration!”

Who’d have thought it? For many seminary students, the course on administration is a pothole on the road to glory as a preacher or a pastoral caregiver. We all know great and successful clergy who never say “administration” without wrinkling their noses.

Rick Warren, among others, changed all that. Riding on the coattails of his phenomenally successful 2003 book The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren’s previous and little-noticed book The Purpose-Driven Church by now has sold more than 100 times as many copies as there are congregations in America. In a 2005 survey by George Barna, U.S. pastors ranked Warren’s books first and second in their influence.

“Administration” is too horn-rimmed a word for the brawny, visionary style of leadership Rick Warren has in mind. He talks mostly about the pastor and the “ministries” the pastor leads, and not much about the role of other players: boards, committees, bishops, and the congregation itself gathered for business.

And yet, when leaders follow Warren’s model, the shift in the pastor’s role causes what amounts to a new polity: a strongly pastor-led church with a small board, few committees, and a multitude of “ministries” that run with a minimum of organizational overhead. The vision as articulated by the pastor is the unifying force, not bylaws or bureaucracy or voting. This is more than streamlining—it’s an essential shift in governance.

Warren’s ideas have fed a growing hunger among leaders who sense that the old ways of governing and managing aren’t working. Many leaders long to streamline structures so that deliberative processes don’t get in the way of ministry. One congregation coined a slogan to describe its governance reforms: “Fewer meetings, more ministry!”

We live in an extraordinary time of risk, reflection, and experiment in congregational governance. Congregational leaders strain against the force of habit and the requirements of their denominational structures and risk conflict in the hope of overcoming difficulties and frustrations that have dogged synagogues and churches for a long time.

Why Now?

Why this sudden interest in governance?

One reason is that it’s about time. The model of governance in most congregations dates from the latter half of the 19th century, and its weaknesses have become glaring. Compared to successful businesses or charitable groups, the majority of synagogues and churches are sluggish, overcautious, change-resistant, and wasteful in their use of volunteers. Across traditions, long-established congregations are more similar than different, with many common stultifying features:

  • A governing board that spends most of its time listening to reports, rubberstamping proposals, and arbitrating conflicts rather than envisioning the future, creating long-term goals and policies, and ensuring organizational performance.
  • A long list of standing committees, each of which makes policy for a program area and also has to do the work. This combination creates a bias against new ideas, which have to be approved by a group too busy to take on anything new.
  • The “map” theory, in which every inch of programmatic territory belongs to a standing committee: if an idea involves music, then it has to go before the music committee, and so on. This extends the bias against change to the entire institution, and makes outlaws of creative people who bypass the committee system.
  • A short list of “power” committees—usually including finance, personnel, and property—that hold an effective veto over any new idea that encroaches on their turf. A new idea has to be approved by up to four committees and a board, each of which has the power to say “no,” but none of which can utter a decisive “yes.”
  • A miserly approach to delegation, in which projects are approved provisionally and then come back again and again for criticism, reconsideration, and approval of next steps. Since no one has full authority to accomplish anything, there is always an excuse for delay.
  • A paid staff whose members connect to their committees more than to the staff team. Too often the result is disconnected fiefdoms with no accountability for overall results.

None of these familiar traits of congregational life is mandated by the Scriptures. Religious institutions borrow organizational forms from the society around them: the early church was organized like a Hellenistic mystery cult, the medieval church resembled monarchy, New England Puritans cloned the structure of an English town. The most important influences on the structure of the contemporary American church or synagogue date from the 19th century, when the nonprofit corporation emerged as an all-purpose container for benevolent work. But while other nonprofits have changed, too many congregations still live in the Victorian world of Robert’s Rules.

People are Impatient

No wonder The Purpose-Driven Church has found such a large audience! Leaders have lost patience with the plodding pace of the conventional congregation. Spending an evening talking about tiny budget items, listening to reports, and making group decisions that could easily be made by individuals has little appeal for people who can hardly find time for their families. Even young retirees, our only growing leisure population, are now baby-boomers who ask, “How does this meet my needs?” In such a situation, it is not surprise that leaders look for something better.

Another reason leaders are dissatisfied with the old ways is that religion can no longer count on general goodwill to bring them members. At the peak of congregational participation in the 1950s, all nice people knew that all nice people attended and supported the church or synagogue of their choice. Today most people feel quite free not to join a congregation, and almost everyone feels free to leave one congregation for another.

In this environment, each church or synagogue has to articulate its special calling and actively say why it deserves support. It then needs to produce the promised results. That kind of clarity, accountability, and efficacy requires far more focused, streamlined organizational behavior than most congregations are accustomed to.

Congregations are Larger

A third reason for the recent interest in governance is that the average congregation is quite a bit larger. The larger a congregation is, the more of its behavior is explained by formal documents like bylaws, books of order, job descriptions, and budgets. A small congregation may have all of these documents (though it may not know where they are), but it makes most of its decisions based on an informal pecking order based on seniority, relationship, and trust. Who happens to be a board member at the moment means little; who happens to be pastor, even less.

In a large congregation, formal understandings matter more. These understandings may or may not be in writing; I have noticed that by measuring the thickness of a congregation’s policy book you can estimate the distance to the nearest state or national capital. But in large congregations voting matters, written job descriptions more or less describe real jobs, and agreements about governance actually govern how governing bodies govern. One minister who has remained in place while his church grew from pastoral to corporate size said, “There are pe
ople in the congregation I’ll have to treat as though we were small until they die.” Even in a large church, relationships, longevity, and money still confer informal authority. But as a congregation grows, it can’t leave so much to chance. Leaders don’t bump into one another often enough to pass along information, establish an informal hierarchy, or smooth over conflicts by the influence of personal friendship.

Unfortunately, even the formal governance most congregations inherit is optimized for the small congregations of the past. Denominations that prescribe a universal “discipline” or “order” for all congregations generally require structures that work less well as worship attendance (or, in most synagogues, member families) passes the 250 mark. Beyond 400 they often stop working at all. Effective larger congregations have long made their own rules; as more congregations become larger, we need new norms of governance that work in larger groups.

Three Themes in Governance Reform

As congregations grow, they need to rely less on tacit understandings and more on written policies, consistent leadership training, clear delegation of authority, and regular evaluation of results. Roles need to be more crisply defined. In particular, effective congregations know the difference between governance (defining the mission, making policy, setting overall direction, and evaluating overall results) and ministry (program leadership, staff supervision, business administration). Typically the governing board is ultimately in charge of governance, and the senior clergyperson (sometimes as part of a management team) is in charge of ministry.

Clear role definition does not mean people work in isolation. On the contrary, the clearer it becomes where each buck stops, the more easily the players can collaborate without needing to worry about losing control of what they will be held accountable for doing.

Rick Warren’s model of the church is popular, but it is only one of several governance reforms explored by synagogue and church leaders. Three themes appear often in these efforts.

Pastors Who Cast Visions
Rick Warren, William Easum, Tom Bandy, and many others call on the head clergyperson to articulate the congregation’s unique calling loudly and often. The upside of this is efficiency and the potential to multiply opportunities for service unencumbered by board and committee meetings. The potential downside is that a congregation that relies so much on one person to provide leadership can become brittle and unstable. A congregation that builds muscle in its clergy leader needs at the same time to provide ways for the congregation as a whole to co-create the vision. It also needs to strengthen its governing board to act as a strong partner with—and, when necessary, as a counterbalance to—strong clergy leadership.

Governing Boards that Govern
The effort to strengthen boards is a second major theme in today’s ferment about congregational governance. “Boards” of 25 or even 50 members, which are not uncommon, cannot engage questions of purpose and vision with the depth that they require. Even more seriously, scandals in the secular nonprofit world have shown that members of large boards tend to feel less responsible for overseeing the corporation and ensuring compliance with the law. A board of seven to 12 members can represent the interests of a large congregation better than an oversize board.

In addition to reducing board size, many churches are eliminating awkward, multi-board arrangements and replacing them with a clear hierarchy where a single board holds ultimate responsibility for governance.

Sophistication about board governance has evolved greatly in the secular nonprofit world in the last few decades. A wide variety of resources have become available to help boards with strategic planning, staff oversight, policymaking, and keeping focused on top-level governance and out of management. The work of thinkers like John Carver and Richard Chait and resource groups like BoardSource and the Leader to Leader Institute have only begun to inform the work of congregation boards.

The challenge of this work is to remember that a congregation is a congregation first and a nonprofit corporation second. A minister is not exactly like an executive director, and a congregation is not the passive “membership” of a museum or the alumni of a university. So the good new resources on board governance need to be supplemented by reflection rooted in the practical realities of congregational life and in the traditions that make each congregation special.

Congregations that Discern Together
Many congregations, dissatisfied with business meetings as the sole way for the whole membership to engage in its own governance, have implemented various methods of group discernment. Some of these, like Ignatian decision-making and consensus governance, as practiced by the Mennonites and Quakers, arise from Christian history. Others, like Future Search and Open Space Technology, come from the world of nonprofit, public, and business administration. Still others, like the family-system insights of Edwin Friedman and Ronald Heifetz’s work on building an organization’s “adaptive capacity,” have roots in the mental health professions.

Like clergy leadership and board governance, congregation-based discernment works best in combination with the others. Each congregation must reflect on its own.

Many religious traditions give lip service to the congregation’s role in discerning its own direction. Only a few (traditional Quaker meetings, for example) actually require enough time and attention from every member to bring the whole congregation into day-to-day decision-making. The new “technologies” of large-group planning and visioning enable large groups to enter into governance for one or two carefully planned days a year. Each congregation needs to balance the expectations it is willing to place on members with the amount of large-group participation it will lead them to expect.

How to Explore Governance

If your congregation wants to explore governance alternatives, I suggest you begin by designating a small Governance Task Group who will study books and resources like those in the list accompanying this article. I particularly recommend Edward Long’s Patterns of Polity, which may help you to identify the core values of your own denomination’s style of governance. The group might wish to interview past leaders to learn what was satisfying or frustrating for them.

Once the task group has a hunch about the scope and nature of the changes it wants to explore, it is ready to plan its process. The plan should specify the areas of governance that will be looked at, the concerns or goals to be addressed, the occasions when leaders or members can have input, the approximate date the task group recommendations will be acted on, and the body that will act. It is worth mentioning the hope that, by that time, every interested person will have had a chance to express his or her hopes and concerns, so that the vote itself will be an anticlimax.

Once the process is approved by the governing board, it should be widely and repeatedly publicized. It is always good to overdo publicity. I’ve found that people will accept a great deal of top-down decision-making if they know well in advance what is under consideration, when they can have input, who will decide, and when.

Next the governance task group should facilitate a series of sessions for the congregation at large and specific groups of leaders. Presentations on governance alternatives, denominational wisdom, and best practices from the nonprofit world should be mixed with liberal amounts of time for feedback and discussion. Between large gatherings, the task group needs t
ime to reflect alone. Periodically it meets with the board to share the questions it is struggling with. Sharing questions is a better way to elicit helpful feedback than presenting fixed conclusions.

Trial Run

Some congregations find it helpful to try out a proposed new system of governance for six months to a year before making it permanent. You may need to make small changes to your bylaws or other documents, but keep these to a minimum. Usually it is possible for your existing bodies, using the powers they already have, to act according to the proposed plan temporarily. The task group then evaluates the trial run, taking note not only of whether people liked or didn’t like it (some discomfort is inevitable) but whether it addressed the concerns and goals that motivated the inquiry in the first place.

Assuming all goes well, the task force then presents the proper motions to make lasting changes to the congregation’s governance. As with all actions that come after thorough process, wide discussion, and responsive leadership, one sign of success will be that someone asks, “Didn’t we vote on this already?”


Further Reading  

BoardSource. Many resources available at

Carver, John, and Miriam Mayhew Carver, Reinventing Your Board: A Step-by-Step Guide to Implementing Policy Governance. revised edition (San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2006).

Chait, Richard, William P. Ryan, Barbara E. Taylor, and BoardSource (organization), Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

Easum, William M., and Thomas G. Bandy, Growing Spiritual Redwoods (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997).

Friedman, Edwin H., Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, The Guilford Family Therapy Series (New York: Guilford Press, 1985).

Heifetz, Ronald A., Leadership without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994).

Leader to Leader Institute. Many resources available at

Long, Edward Le Roy, Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001).

Owen, Harrison, Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide, 2nd edition (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1997).

Steinke, Peter L., Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, 2nd edition (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2006).

Warren, Richard, The Purpose-Driven Church: Growth without Compromising Your Message & Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1995).

Weisbord, Marvin Ross, and Sandra Janoff, Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities, 2nd edition, updated and expanded edition (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000).