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The five models of church governance (and how they cope under pressure)

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Published Date: 31 Mar 2022

Presentation Date: 01 Apr 2022

In the wake of recent high-profile leadership failures, both overseas and closer to home, average churchgoers are becoming much more interested in the boring (but important) issues of church leadership and governance. When choosing a church, newcomers increasingly ask questions born of sorry experience: not just ‘what is the music like?’ and ‘is there a kids program?’, but ‘how are finances managed?’ and ‘who can hold the lead pastor to account?’

In this article I am not going to lay out the biblical principles of church governance, nor will I seek to explain what goes wrong and why. Instead, I want to consider structurally how different models of church governance work and how well they cope under pressure. My questions are: where is power distributed? how are decisions made and reviewed? and what happens next when a leader is forced to move on?

Full disclosure: I’m an Anglican. But I’m going to try to be as neutral as possible, because I recognise that there isn’t one perfect model of church.[1] There are numerous biblical principles to be followed, but no one right embodiment of those principles that work in all times and places.

Church and State

Before we get into the details, it’s worth explaining why we have such diversity of governance structures in Australia. There is a well-established principle in our legal system in Australia which protects the internal regulation of the church from interference by the secular legal system. This is true both of well-established, older denominations (which are established and regulated under their own legislation), as well as newer movements (which rely on the various incorporation and trusts legislation for their establishment and regulation).

A church is, in the eyes of the law, a voluntary unincorporated association of people who make up the congregation. It is separate from whatever incorporated entities and trust structures they use to operate their temporal business (bank accounts, property, etc). Churches have for a long time availed themselves of this important feature of the legal regulation of voluntary organisations, which has seen a system of secular law sitting in parallel with a system of what is referred to as ‘canon law’ or ‘church law’. This gives churches freedom to have their own constitution (written rules) governing their spiritual life together.

To clarify, this does not prevent leaders being accountable to the laws of the land (churches must, for instance, obey tax laws, labour laws and report crimes to the authorities just like anyone else). But it does mean churches can manage their own internal processes in their own way.

Balancing good principles

All church governance models aim to be shaped by biblical principles, but they each sit on a spectrum in terms of which principles they embody and how they work in practice.[2] Three questions are helpful to ask when trying to understand any church structure:

    1. Where is power distributed: with the local congregation, or a centralised structure, or somewhere in between? (If a retail analogy helps, is it a local co-op, a franchise specialty store, or a supermarket chain?) Local autonomy is a good thing, and so is broader cooperation and accountability. Local congregations know their ministry context best. On the other hand, it is hard for local congregations to do everything well (training ministers, worldwide mission, resolving conflict, and making difficult decisions about resource allocations in response to threats and opportunities at a state-wide level).
    2. Who makes and reviews decisions – a single minister, a small group of pastors or a large group of church members? Working to establish broad consensus is a good thing, but so is making hard decisions in a timely fashion. An unaccountable single leader can move quickly but nobody can call them to account. A democracy where everyone gets a voice is great in theory, but nothing gets done. Different people have different gifts and capacities, so responsibility needs to be divided somehow for the spiritual and temporal work of a church. Churches need to decide how many leaders they want at each level (an individual, a small group or a large assembly) as well as the balance between ordained (clerical) and non-ordained (lay) leaders. They need to decide not just who makes decisions, but also how those decision-makers will be held accountable, and how they’ll manage conflicts of interest and competing duties. All this will determine where they land on the spectrum from clerical leadership to more congregational leadership.
    3. What happens next when something goes wrong? Who steps in when there is a crisis, conflict or change of leadership? This might be an unexpected crisis, such as a breakdown in pastoral relationships or moral failure of the Senior Pastor. It might be a slow-building conflict that involves one or more leaders and so cannot be resolved without outside help. It might also be an inevitable change, such as the transition from founder to sustainable succession. Most church models have some ‘accountability group’ who hold the leadership to account, and who appoint or elect the leadership. At one extreme this responsibility resides totally in the local church gathering, at the other it lies with a central authority. If it has sufficient breadth of representation and perspectives it can be an effective balance to otherwise centralised power and decision making.

The five models

The way most churches in Australia answer these questions tends to spread out on a spectrum, from highly centralised clerical systems at one end, to loosely associated congregational models at the other. Here are some of those common models, and what some of their distinctive strengths and weaknesses might be.

1. Catholic (congregations accountable to a bishop)

In the Roman Catholic model, there is a clear chain of accountability: congregations are accountable to the parish priest, who is accountable to the bishop.[3] The Bishop is accountable to the Vatican through the Nuncio (a kind of ambassador for the Pope). There are few opportunities for congregation members to be involved in the governance of their church. The Pope can call a Synod (a gathering of bishops, which can sometimes include congregation members, regular priests, members of religious communities and representatives from other Catholic institutions) however it is essentially an advisory body. The primary authority within a diocese is always the local Bishop, which means (for example) only the Pope can effectively investigate misconduct by a local Bishop himself.[4]

Strengths:

  • Clergy are relatively disciplined, with a clear chain of command and accreditation worldwide
  • Stability. Doctrine and practice is fairly consistent across the world

Weaknesses:

  • The model struggles to deal with corruption or abuse within the hierarchy, especially where the person accused is a bishop
  • There is little opportunity for lay involvement in leadership
  • There is very limited scope for partnership between men and women in ministry (and leadership inevitably suffers for lack of female image-of-God-bearers in the room – it is not good for the man to be alone, Genesis 2:18)

2. Mega-church model (congregations accountable to a senior pastor)

This model reflects American corporate governance where all power resides in the CEO/President who is also the Chair of the board of directors. It is most common in churches where the church is led by its founder and there has not yet been transition of leadership.[5]

In the mega-church model, power is highly centralised. The Senior Pastor leads the executive and also chairs the governing board. Executive staff and pastors sit on the board and sometimes outnumber non-executive directors. Most roles are appointed by and accountable to the Senior Pastor.
Where multiple congregations exist these sites or campuses have relatively little autonomy. Membership is tightly controlled.

Strengths:

  • The church with centralised power and founder control is very effective: it gets things done and can move quickly
  • There is less ‘sideways momentum’ – the church can establish and maintain a clear mission and distinctive flavour, without getting distracted by internal disagreements. Such strong direction and leadership are attractive to many church attendees
  • From the founder’s point of view, there is little risk of them losing control to competing interests and agendas

Weaknesses:

  • A governing board dominated by executives who are employed by and accountable to the Senior Pastor seldom is able to provide effective oversight, or manage conflicts of duty or interest
  • The model is structurally ineffective to deal with corruption or abuse in the leadership
  • It is difficult to achieve effective leadership transition/change and it is rare for the church to survive moral failure of the Senior Pastor.
  • There is minimal scope for congregational involvement in governance and leadership

3. Anglican (congregations accountable to a bishop and synod)

An Anglican Parish divides responsibility between spiritual and temporal matters. It is led in spiritual matters by one Minister (called the Vicar, Rector or Senior Minister) who is an ordained Priest/Presbyter (sometimes with a team of ordained and non-ordained staff). This single individual is theoretically the singular Elder of the congregation, though in practice pastoral responsibility is almost always shared to some degree amongst other clergy and lay leaders.

Responsibility for property and financial matters is handled by Wardens who are elected by the congregation at an Annual Meeting. A partially elected Parish Council provides consultation. Membership is broad (communicant baptised attendees) and allows voting at the Annual Meeting.

Authority within the Anglican Church begins outside the local congregation. Ministers are ordained by a Bishop and ordination is generally recognised across dioceses. Ministers are licensed by the local Bishop to a particular ministry and are accountable to them. Depending on the diocese’s particular rules, individual congregations have a significant control over who their next minister is, often through an elected board of nominators. Most dioceses have independent Professional Standards bodies who can initiate and investigate allegations of misconduct against any church worker (including the Bishop).

The overall ministry of the Diocese (including theological education, mission, support systems, youth ministry and schools) is led by a Bishop and governed by an elected Synod of clergy and laypeople. There is often some kind of Standing Committee or Council to which administrative functions are delegated by the Synod between its annual meetings. The Bishop is elected by the Synod (or a committee of the Synod), usually with a fixed retirement age. While in Australia each Anglican Diocese is bound by the Constitution which places theoretical limits on their autonomy, the diversity of dioceses within Australia on issues of doctrine and worship reflects their historical preference towards autonomy.

Strengths:

  • Significant local ministry autonomy
  • Plenty of opportunities for consultation between laity and clergy
  • Strong resilience and institutional ability to recover from moral failing
  • Scope for partnership between men and women, even within more conservative theological frameworks (as deacons/assistant ministers, parish councillors, wardens, synod representatives)

Weaknesses:

  • Things move slowly [EDIT: which as some friends have pointed out is not always a weakness, but can make problems in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex mission field]
  • Little uniformity across the country ¬– theology and practice varies significantly from parish to parish and diocese to diocese
  • The plurality of leadership in spiritual matters is not structurally guaranteed but requires a Minister who is willing to listen to their congregation and empower lay involvement

4. Presbyterian (congregations accountable to a group of local ministers and elders in the region)

Local churches are governed by a Session made up of the minister/s (teaching elders) plus the elders (mature church members who are elected by the members of the congregation). The Session is responsible for preaching, teaching, pastoral care and mission within the local congregation.[6] Congregations with a Presbyterian model can belong to one of the various associations, which cooperate on theological education, forming doctrine, mission, and so on.[7]

A minister and an elder from each local congregation in a region meet to form a Presbytery. They are responsible for overseeing the life and mission of the particular congregations in that area, including the ordination and (when necessary) discipline of ministers. They can sometimes remove ministers from their position.

The General Assembly of each state (made up of ministers and elders from churches across the state) has responsibility for ministries across the state such as training ministers, youth work, charity work and education. The General Assembly of Australia (made up of ministers and elders from the six-state churches across the country) makes decisions on the application of doctrine, worship and the overall mission of the church.

The Presbyterian model of governance majors on the ‘plurality of elders’ — a principle that leadership at every level should be shared by a group. A Moderator for each level is elected for a one-year term, but unlike a Bishop, their role is limited to a chairperson with casting vote (and occasionally acting as spokesperson).

Strengths:

  • As with the Anglican model, this model attempts to balance local autonomy with some broader stability and cooperation across congregations
  • Plural eldership means team leadership and accountability are part of the structure at every level, from the local parish to the national assembly
  • Local fellowship encourages cooperation in prayer and joint mission across congregations
  • Ministers are ordained, appointed and accountable to the regional Presbytery (rather than their own congregation as in a purely congregationalist model), which gives ministers freedom to preach boldly without fear of losing their job if they offend the wrong people. At the same time, congregations have a right to appeal against ministers to the Presbytery providing accountability

Weaknesses:

  • A small group of ministers down the road is not usually well-placed to handle the discipline of a peer or arbitrate conflicts
  • Change happens even more slowly than the Anglicans [EDIT: my Presbyterian friends rightly point out that this might sometimes be a good thing!]
  • The high value on doctrine and relative local autonomy has allowed significant variations in theology and practice and even splits into multiple Presbyterian denominations in some countries (though less so in Australia)
  • Finding opportunities for partnership between men and women is a challenge where (as in all states except NSW) eldership is restricted to men
  • Elders are ordained for life, making ineffective (but not immoral) elders a potential barrier to effective leadership

5. Baptist/congregationalist

In a typical Baptist or Congregationalist model, God’s leadership is discerned by the local congregations of members. Unions of Baptist churches at state and national levels allow for cooperation with like-minded congregations, but each congregation is basically autonomous.

Because each parish is largely autonomous, leadership structures are diverse. Pastors may have some form of accreditation by a denominational body, and ordination is sometimes done by the denomination and sometimes done by the local church. The local church calls its own pastors (over the teaching and direction of the church), as well as other offices which might include elected deacons (over the administration of the church) and elders (involved in personal and spiritual care of individual members). All these leaders are accountable to the church members who will often meet to vote on important issues.[8]

Strengths:

  • High level of local autonomy
  • Robust discussion on most issues with potential for diversity of perspectives
  • Strong engagement of lay people in decision making
  • Doing anything is slow, requiring consensus

Weaknesses:

  • Doing anything is slow, requiring consensus
  • Local autonomy means potentially a wide variety of leadership structures and theological distinctives within an association, and there are multiple associations as well as non-association (independent Baptist) churches
  • No authority outside the local congregation. When relationships break down the church must be willing to accept help.
  • Pastors can be held to ransom by vocal unaccountable authority of members

Conclusion

The challenges of church leadership and governance are increasingly complex and rapidly changing as we seek new opportunities for mission, adapt to a changing social and legal landscape and try to learn from the mistakes of the past. More than ever it pays to look under the floorboards, and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the structures we have inherited.


Rev Dr Andrew Judd
Lecturer in Old Testament

This post was originally published on 23 March 2022 on AndyJudd.com.


[1] Thanks to my friends from all traditions who have given helpful insider knowledge and feedback on this article. All errors and infelicities are my own.
[2] Laying out the biblical basis for these principles will have to wait for separate article, as it would be impossible to do in a neutral way and would blow the word count anyway.
[3] Other Catholic organisations, including religious congregations or orders, schools, universities and hospitals, have their own structural connection to the Vatican, sometimes via the diocesan Bishop.
[4] Depending on the issue, some authority may be shared with the diocesan Curia (a group of church officials supporting the diocesan bishop), or judicial bodies such as the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
[5] This is, for example, the model Mars Hill in Seattle moved towards from 2013 onwards.
[6] There is also a committee of management elected to look after finances and property.
[7] Unlike the USA which has multiple Presbyterian denominations, most in Australia are part of one called the Presbyterian Church of Australia. By being a member of an association like this, local congregations agree to work together and give up some of their autonomy to regional, state and national Courts (assemblies of ministers and elders).
[8] Given the significance of the congregational vote, church membership is therefore a more formal status reserved for attenders baptised as believers who agree to be bound by particular beliefs, values and processes.

 

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