A Problem of Polity

A Problem of Polity

Controversial Seattle megachurch founder Mark Driscoll will step down for at least six weeks while church leaders review formal charges lodged by a group of pastors that he abused his power. source

Most people seem aware of the situation with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. However you feel about the situation we can all agree on one thing: It’s a mess.

There’s little doubt that this has cast a shadow over a ministry that’s bigger than it’s leader. I can’t imagine trying to recruit people to check out a small group. “Yes, we’re a small group of Mars Hill. No, we’re not a cult. It’s just that… Yes, I understand. OK, thanks for listening. Goodbye.” I’ve heard from staff people who’ve lost their jobs. And I know other people who once went there and are hurting.

But this post isn’t about Mars Hill, really.

Turning Towards the Mess

If you’ve read about the Mars Hill mess and others like it, you’ll see that there’s a point in the growth of a church that people point back to as a turning point into the mess.

And that point is when the churches by-laws are changed.

Up until about 15 years ago most of these non-denominational, conservative evangelical churches had a church polity of congregational rule. Autonomous congregational rule is something of a baptist distinctive. Part of being baptist, or baptistic, as non-denominational churches like to set themselves apart by saying, is:

  1. autonomous – they don’t want anyone beyond the local church to have outside power, such as a denomination. But they’ve also been very shy about outside influence, as well.
  2. congregational rule – 15-20 years ago it was normal that a major part of membership at a baptistic church was voting rights. You’d go to congregational meetings, there would be presentations, things would be opened up to the floor for discussion, and if there needed to be, a vote would be taken.

Sometimes this autonomous congregational rule was very healthy. And other times it was really problematic for the pastors. They had a hard time getting people onto boards, getting people hired, or keeping people from getting fired. In unhealthy situations, a small group of people could call a meeting, they could make a case, and force a vote to ouster the pastor or change the direction of the church altogether.

But, as church polities go, the traditional baptist church polity did a fairly good job of providing checks and balances for the pastor and staff. They were largely able to do their work under the authority of the deacons or elders, but were always mindful that they could get questioned in a congregational meeting. It was a double-edged sword, but it was still a sword… the congregation had power.

There have always been hot shot, arrogant staff members. Heck, I’ve been one and a bunch of my friends have been that person, too. But the checks and balances of the church polity always managed to balance things out. A person got too brash or sloppy or whatever: The congregation fired them. Want to continue in ministry? You learn real quick.

The Making of a Mess

But, about 15 years ago, autonomous congregational rule started to fall out of style. 

I don’t remember where it really got going or who originated it. But I remember that by about 2005, our staff fell in love with a series of podcasts/books by Andy Stanley, and the point of emphasis for their entire case was built around moving away from autonomous congregational rule and moving your congregation to an elder rule, staff lead polity.

“If you want to get stuff done and your church to grow, you’ll first need to get the congregation out of the way.” Not the exact words, but definitely the message conveyed.

What does “elder rule, staff lead polity” mean? That means that, in most instances, the bylaws of the church are changed so that the congregation loses voting rights over the activities of the church. Instead, if they are asked to vote at all, they get to vote on elders. But ideally– the goal, in a true elder lead polity, is that the congregation doesn’t have any voting rights and essentially the pastor and elders of the church completely control the church.

Why would a hot shot pastor want that? Practically speaking, this means that a relatively small group of hand selected people act as general oversight but the staff make 100% of the daily decisions for the church. In some megachurches, these elders aren’t even people who go to the church at all, they are essentially board members and friends of the pastor/church. So why would I want that type of polity? Because if I want to be the captain of my ship… it’s a whole lot easier to dominate 8 of my friends than it is 2,000 voters. 

When making the change, the argument that’s made is a simple, yet powerful one. They reason that the average person in the pews can’t possibly understand the rigors of vocational, professional ministry. “So why let them make decisions?”

And, if you believe in the priesthood of the staff, that’s a perfectly acceptable position. (Whereas, another baptist distinctive is doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.) And if you’re a hot shot pastor what’s a little Scripture-twisting to get what you want? People are eating up my messages; I can say whatever I want!

See, here’s where the mess happens. It’s relatively easy to convince non-professional, non-vocational church attendees that the staff is best prepared to make all the day-to-day decisions of the congregation without any non-professional help. It’s particularly easy to convince 51% of the congregation that they aren’t highly trained, vocational church staff.

And so they vote away their voting rights and the staff takes over. 

Is It Always a Mess?

Of course not.

Thousands of congregations have made the move from congregational rule to elder rule and not had problems. For many of them, a self-governed staff has lead to brand new and powerful seasons of ministry. They are thriving under this new polity. So I want to be cautious and make sure I’m not painting a picture that the new fashion-forward-look of elder lead polity is necessarily bad.

But, at the same time, I want to bring up two points of caution:

  1. Putting all of the political power of a large, religious organization into the hands of a very small group of people is risky. As an outsider it might not seem like a lot of power, but to a vocational staff person, it is. It can be glorious and it can be a disaster. Either way it is risky.
  2. I think fostering a congregation whose only voice is whether or not to show up or whether or not to give financially is a short-term strategy. The most concerning thing you hear, as a congregant, in how people talk about this on the inside is a staff attitude of “if you don’t like it, find another church.” That gets to the heart of the matter: Pride.

Also worth pointing out? This style of elder lead, staff ruled polity has taken off at the same time as the church planting movement. Thousands of church planters look towards these folks as their heroes and have set-up their church polity exactly as their heroes have told them, meaning the conditions for a mess to develop could be incubating right now in lots of congregations around the country and you’ll never hear about them.

Avoiding the Mess

I don’t know how you can read 1 Corinthians and come to the conclusion that 1% of people can make 100% of the decisions for a congregation. Call me old school, but even as a staff member I really liked the traditional congregational rule. (I like the way Presbyterians handle polity, too.)

But if you’re going to operate this way, here are some suggestions.

  1. Require the congregation to get financially audited by a group like the ECFA every year.
  2. Term limits. For elders, specifically. But I’d be open to exploring the impact of term limits for pastoral staff. That’d certainly cut down on the pride issue.
  3. Create and foster a specific place the congregation can be heard. The Holy Spirit isn’t limited to speak just to the staff, give the people of your congregation a real voice… not a microphone in a room of 1,000 people. Maybe this is a non-staff lead committee?
  4. Create and empower a staff relations committee. The stuff I hear about the hiring, firing, and staffing conditions of people who work in churches is often times appalling. I can’t believe that if a congregation really knew what was going on that they’d stand for it. I’m not saying a larger church shouldn’t have an HR person, but I am absolutely saying that the HR practices should not be a staff-only thing. They need outside help to prevent abuses.

In short, if you are going to govern with an elder lead, staff-driven concept: Don’t set yourself up to fail. (Morally, legally, functionally)

You have the power to create  transparency, fairness, and internal controls… so don’t abuse the power given to you.

Obviously, this is all just my opinion. It’s not well-formed or anything that I’d call “an official position on church polity.” But it is environment I see that’s fostered some of the abuses in the publics eye right now.






3 responses to “A Problem of Polity”

  1. mathetos Avatar

    Amen, amen, and Amen! Power corrupts, and church leaders somehow attract the worst kind of power-addiction. But you ended with “This is just my opinion…” but you actually cited 1 Corinthians and the Presbyterian model. Those are two strong, authoritative examples that support your opinion well. This is part of my long-standing criticism of non-demoninational churches: They are a church unto themselves, accountable to no other, and the doctrine and beliefs can change with every new leadership. How can they be connected to the long-standing Body of Christ without accountability to its History? I wouldn’t go so far as to say non-denominational Churches shouldn’t exist, but I do really struggle with how they fit appropriately into the ecclesia.

  2. David Brinkley Avatar
    David Brinkley

    I have served in that practice congregational rule. I think the New Testament is clear that churches should be led by multiple elders (not just the common one senior pastor) and that those elders are qualified via Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. The catch is that these elders do not all need to be paid or be “professional.” Furthermore, I think a church can have this type of multiple, servant leadership and still have a model where the congregation can vote on important issues and their voice can be heard. I am not convinced it has to be an either/or. I fully agree with you that the churches polity led to some of the issues at Mars Hill.

  3. xjm716 Avatar

    As a person who recently came out of a situation dominated by a jackwagon, I agree with this post. Yesterday, I created the following “rule”: “The longer you have a single unchecked person in power, the revelation that they are a malignant narcissist approaches one.”

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