Church Structure – Where the Biblical Meets the Legal

Church Structure

Church Structure can be a hot topic when a leader is trying to determine what that structure should be. The issue that must be addressed is how the governance of the church will be handled. I will not address any biblical issues around these two main structures, as I do not want to dive into the theology, but needless to say, there are some very strong opinions on both sides. However, in the context of forming your church, one of the questions every pastor asks is, “How do we get the church up and running?” I will answer that question, but first I want to address the different structures that churches typically operate from and provide practical steps to get your church formed and growing. The main two structure types are:

1. Hierarchical-led Churches

2. Body-led Churches

Lets look at both of these, and discuss some of the good and bad that come with each one:

The hierarchical-led church would be one that has a higher authority helping choose the pastor, and that authority would position the pastor in the church.

The Catholic Church is an example of this type of structure. While the larger church body controls the local church, the local pastor still has some autonomy but is going to answer to the larger church. One of the benefits is that the larger church body often supports the church financially. However, it can be difficult when decisions are made from a position of the “larger” church than from the position of the local church serving the local body.

The body-led church is different in that control comes from within the membership of the church. This is a membership driven, body-led church. Selection of pastors is often done by a pastor search committee and then ultimately confirmed by a church vote. In the body-led church, control is generated within the church, and while there still may be a larger religious affiliation, there is almost complete autonomy for the church.

How does this play out in a church start up? A hierarchical church startup is probably going to be the easiest simply because the larger church generally appoints a pastor and a church plant and then funds it. Most of the time, the new pastor is serving where the church tells him to go, and that pastor will find parishioners within that community. While there are challenges with being placed, the security offered by the larger church body adds some security to the pastor.

Now the harder one to address: How do you, as a pastor, start a body-driven church when you are planting a church without the body being there? Now that we have just scratched the surface of the forms of leadership the church can assume, I want to talk about the process of going from nothing to having an operating church body. How do you get from one to the other?

One of the issues that many churches have had to address is, “Which comes first in the process, the pastor or the church body?” How do you as a new pastor get members, much less board members or elders, to join your church and lead? One of the biggest problems can be the lack of a core team when plant the church. Not having a local group to help lead the church can be a lonely and daunting task for the pastor and his family. One solution to not having a membership body to help lead the church is to set up in the church covenant or by-laws (click here for a discussion on which is right for you) a transitional plan for the formation and operation of the church. One kind of transitional formation for the church is to start with the planting pastor and a board of directors/advisors governing the church body until you have established a membership body around you, and then transition to more local control of the church.

One of the first things that can cause problems with a church plant is the selection of leaders within the church. With the thrill of a new church, one of the things you have be aware of is that you are doing something exciting, and often, new members who are joining your church are eager to get involved but they are also quick to fall away. This lack of stability can cause issues in a church plant, so as a pastor, it is always best to make sure the people around you in leadership positions are committed for the long haul and not just caught up in the excitement.

This is why a transitional board of directors/advisors can make sense, and as long as your covenants or by-laws allow this, you can transition in the governance of the church effectively. Because as a pastor you have shared your vision of what God has given you to do, many times you have had a vision team – people to pray with you, to give financially to your church plant, and to mentor you though the process. These people should be the ones on your core leadership team. They are invested in the city you are in, and they are the ones you want walking though the challenges of the church plant. Even if you want to quickly transition to a true body-led leadership model, you need to have time to not only make sure your elders and deacons are qualified in the biblical sense, but are also committed to help lead the church.

These are just a few ways to operate your church. The biggest issue is that you need to make sure your organizational documents are clear on how you select your church leadership, and for that matter the pastor, if you were to ever leave that church.


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