Churches – Who Makes the Decisions that Matter?

Those familiar with questions of churches and governance know that each denomination has its own approach to decision-making – typically with a theological rational about where decision-making is and should be located.   Congregational systems emphasize the congregation as a whole as having “authority”.  Presbyterian churches locate authority with the synod or, in similar structures within other similar denominations in the board or elders or the church council.  And Episcopalian churches locate authority with the ‘episkopos’ – that is, with the bishop. 

And yet, either way, the question remains:  where are decisions made?  Where are they located – that is, where does decision-making authority reside and what is the process by which those decisions are made?  The four key questions are these: 

Programmatic – that is, who decides and how is the decision made regarding the program of the church and I am using the language of “program” in a comprehensive manner to cover the whole range of what we do and where we focus our attention and energy.   When does public worship happen?  If we decide to have an additional service, who makes this call?  what is the content of public worship?   What other activities and priorities will be affirmed, including the focus of mission? 

Financial, which in the end is most crucially the annual operating budget but also the range of discretionary decisions that inevitably come up during the course of the fiscal year. 

Facility and campus – the grounds and the way in which the facilities serve [or do  not serve] the mission and vision of the congregation. 

And finally, the personnel question.   who makes the appointments of key leaders and staff, along with who and how a person is elected or appointed to the governing board or council of the church.

Every pastor and church leader should know three things about these key decisions:

  • Who has the authority to make the decision and who has the right or authority to recommend that the decision might be made [thus, for example, who proposes that Sunday worship happens at 10.30?].
  • Who has the right or the authority to make the recommendation or nomination with regard to the final decision? [that is, one body might elect board members our council members, but who is it that has the authority to make the recommendation with regard to this decision].
  • Where and in what circumstances does the pastor have the authority to act? – to choose the course of action [with accountable for the overall vision of the church, no doubt . . . but the decision still rests with his/her office [though typically where the pastor has the right to act on something the expectation remains that appropriate consultation will happen and thus we do need to ask . . . who has the right to be consulted even if they are not making the final call or decision?].

Thus, for example:  the US president nominates a prospective justice to the supreme court; the Senate does the actual election and appointment.   

Pastors should be able to answer the question, then:  with regard to this or that or the other . . . where do I have the authority and requirement to act, to provide appropriate leadership for this situation and this action item, and where do I need to work with the recommendation process [perhaps a nomination committee] with the understanding that the final authority for the decision or action is located elsewhere? 

We will not be effective in providing pastoral leadership until and unless we know the system – the system of governance in his place, in this church, in this denomination.

 

Author

Gordon T. Smith

Gordon T. Smith is the president of Ambrose University located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Ambrose is an institution owned by the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. It includes a whole range of undergraduate programs, including education, business, music, behavioural sciences an biology, as well as history, English and psychology. Ambrose also includes an undergraduate school of ministry formation. And, last but not least, there is Ambrose Seminary, a fully accredited graduate level institution of theological formation. Gordon has been the president since August of 2012.

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