Church Business Meetings
How do you strike the right balance between involvement and decision-making in your church members’ meetings? Ray Evans has some advice – especially if an increasing membership makes it hard to hear from everyone.
“This proposal pleased the whole group.” (Acts 6:5)
If only all of our church meetings were like Acts 6! But gaining genuine consent and ownership of decisions is a challenge many leaders face. Do you often feel you fail? Members meetings can become conflict zones rather than places of gospel envisioning. Worse still, you are the one who has to pick up the pastoral casualties from wounds caused by unhelpful words (Eph 4:29-32).
So how can we see progress? There are lots of issues at stake. This short piece looks at just one aspect – the changing dynamics of involvement as the number of members increase.
Mrs Thatcher reputedly said that in a Cabinet of 20 people not everyone can have their two minutes on every issue – you can’t run a country like that! Some small churches try it and it can create a lot of involvement, although in my experience this generates a lot more heat than light.
As a church gets to 50 members or so that kind of ‘every-member say-so’ participation becomes more difficult. There may be an opportunity for any to comment on a proposal but usually only a minority do. These may be the most Biblically informed and gracious members of the church helping the youngest, inexperienced, and less mature people of the congregation to follow the leaders.
But you will have experienced the opposite of that, too!
Many churches at this point use a ‘one person, one vote’ means of decision-making. For some it is a constitutional requirement. It seems to me that the New Testament presents a variety of ways for coming to decisions. Acts 6 for example, seems more descriptive and suggestive of good practice than prescriptive or a requirement for all decision-making processes in church.
But it’s important to say that majority voting is never explicitly commanded.
The argument for it seems more an inference from other considerations; the priesthood of all believers being the prime one. There is a hint in Acts 14:23 when Barnabas and Paul ‘appointed’ elders, for the original word suggests a gaining of consent through a public expression of support. But they obviously took a strong lead too, as the text indicates.
Be that as it may, many churches use voting as their primary means of gaining consent and ownership. My observation is that it brings varying degrees of ‘buy-in’.1 Usually as churches grow there seems a lot less ‘space’ for open consultation at members’ meetings. Those who joined when the church was smaller can feel they have lost their voice or that members’ meetings are now just about sharing information.
This is partly inevitable. A large church has a lot going on which needs sharing, but also has appointed leaders and teams to make the decisions that were once made at a ‘whole church’ level. Many of these decisions do not need whole church approval either. Senior leaders need to know the difference so that they neither run the church as an oligarchy without any membership ownership, nor are paralysed by a cumbersome decision-making procedure (see Acts 15:12 and esp. v22).2
Are there other hints and tips that could help? Two ideas may:
1. Keep encouraging members to approach leaders to talk to them personally, while leaders discuss with members as much as they can about the church’s plans to go forward with a gospel-driven vision. This has to be intentional, otherwise leaders discuss ideas in detail among themselves and can get way ahead of the membership. Leaders can soon can feel remote and unaccountable.
You have to decide to talk to more people than just other leaders you get on with.
2. A process tool we have regularly used at members’ meetings is this: we get members into small groups discussing ideas, proposals and vision, during the meeting.
It doesn't have to be micromanaged along the lines of, “We have allocated every person by name to a particular group with an elder acting as a controlling chairperson!” We tend to say, “Just get in groups around tables, appoint someone to record the ideas, and take 20 minutes to discuss this issue. Write down the plus and the minus you come up with and feed back to us.”
As a leadership, we then write it all up and circulate to everyone. It means that all voices can be heard, honest disagreements can be aired, and the leadership can hear a cross-section of views. Its use mirrors a little bit of Jethro’s advice to Moses about getting the people in groups of tens (Exodus 18:21).
Do these ideas mean that all issues are discussed as deeply as some would like? No – and that is where the first step mentioned above is crucial, but it means members’ meetings are not just listening meetings.
If you have never tried to give it a go, you might find members feel more involved and you could end up with the experience of Acts 6:5!
1. See Ray Evans, Ready, Steady Grow (IVP, 2014) pp 54-59 for a discussion of other kinds of difficulties associated with majority voting and alternative ways forward which reflect a Biblically informed ‘balance of power’ between elders and members.
2. See William Cunningham, Historical Theology (Banner of Truth, 1979) 1st edition 1862, vol 1, pp43-78.