Saturday, April 05, 2008

Church Constitutions

Church constitutions are notorious for being poorly written. Most are copies of some older document that are taken and modified by people with no legal or parliamentary experience. That seems to be the way with the whole discipline of parliamentary procedure. It is not a profession. It is a body of quasi-common law that hovers out there. There are a few savants (I would not really classify myself among them at this time!) and a lot of people that dabble and think that they know something about it. There was a time when I fell in love with parliamentary law. I was doing a lot of mock politics in high school and college and I enjoyed the way that procedure allowed a group to discuss matters in an orderly, well-regulated manner. In college I took 3 semesters of Parliamentary Procedure (PP) from one of those true savants I referenced above and went on to complete my Certified Parliamentarian (CP) credentials with the American Institute of Parliamentarians (AIP). For a time I considered if there might not be a way to earn a living in the field. But then I graduated college and got married. There are very few jobs for parliamentarians and most of those are political patronage posts so I gradually moved away from active involvement in PP and eventually left the AIP and dropped my CP credential.
All that to establish where I am coming from as I talk about church constitutions. I am no longer certified. I am not an expert. But I know enough to know that too many people who think they know a lot know dangerously little. These are often the ones who write, revise and interpret church constitutions. This came up this week when I read an article over at 9Marks written by Greg Gilbert. I interacted with the author some this week and thought I would just write out a few things that I have said to different people in various churches over the last 15 years.
1) Every church should spend some money and have a certified parliamentarian read over their constitution. If you are actively planting churches this is especially vital so you do not transplant poor aspects of your constitution into the fledgling churches or saddle young congregations with your documentary problems. The AIP and the NAP are the two US bodies that certify practitioners of PP in the US. It is also good to have a parliamentarian around with whom you have a relationship. You never know when you might get into something and need advise.
2) Constitutions are often filed and forgotten. Church leadership should routinely read through the document and see how the church is following it or not. If you go to court that document is going to be the standard that the court uses to decide a case. It doesn't matter if you have been doing something for 50 years and no one has ever complained about it. If your documents say "We will do A" and you are doing B you are opening yourself for some disgruntled member to sue you. In this regard many church constitutions have way too much stuff in them. For instance, the document SHOULD have how the church goes about hiring staff. It SHOULD NOT have individual sections about hiring a secretary, a janitor and a pianist. The more you have written the less consistent it will be and the less consistently it will be followed.
3) Constitutions should be frequently (not annually but frequently) revised. We have a view in the US especially of the constitution being an old piece of parchment that is hermetically sealed in a glass case in the National Archives. This sacred document should be messed with as little as possible. Now, while I am a strict constructionist when it comes to the US Constitution, I do not think that that is a reasonable way to view your church constitution. Churches grow and change. This is a fact and not a bad idea. We need to have things that hold us to orthodoxy and arrest any impetus to move away from the Truth of the Bible. At the same time our culture is in constant flux. A constitution that worked for a church off 300 in the 50's is probably not going to work for a church of 900 in the 21st century. It should be thoroughly revised on a fairly consistent basis. Parliamentary authorities (i.e. Robert's Rules of Order or my preference Sturgis Standard Code) have long advised against having a Constitution and Bylaws. In many organizations what is called C&BL is really just one document. I think that most churches should have two separate documents. A constitution should have most of the stuff that really is not going to change like the Confession/Articles of Faith, qualifications for leadership and basic congregational polity. The Bylaws ought to be something that is more easily amended and revised that covers committees, services, business meetings and other matters that need to be spelled out but that might change over time.
Thankfully, most people that get disgruntled with a church just leave. But churches every year do get sued and I believe the difference between losing or having the case thrown out can largely be mitigated by these suggestions. A belief that sincerity and spirituality will protect you from sinful men may leave you with egg on your face if you get sued.