5 questions pastor candidates must ask MQ3: Now, about the by-laws
The time for questions is before the final details of the call to a new pastoral situation are settled. MQ3 is the third MUST QUESTION that should be asked before an agreement is reached. As a question it may be, "does the church have a constitution and by-laws?" Since you already know most do have governing documents, the request would be, "show me your constitution and by-laws". If, in a rare instance, they don't have them, your request should be "show me the door."
We could chase a couple of rabbits in this field. On the one hand there's the argument that Scripture is the only document binding on Christ's church. Then, there's all the blather about the separation of church and state and those purists who wish his church was free of the imprimatur of the state on anything touching his church. They are all interesting arguments and Baptists are good at running in circles like them. The truth is that if the church is to be legally constituted as a tax exempt organization it must file constitutional and ruling documents with the secretary of state where they were planted and therefore serve. So, today most churches have a document that authorizes a legal name and method of governance, what constitutes membership, and broad ruling guidelines to enable the church to function. Asking to read, examine, and study the constitution and by-laws of the church should be pro forma in the arrangments of calling a new spiritual leader. If he is to be an officer of the corporation, it is a must. That's why I refer to it as MQ3. It is a step that must occur before a pastor is called. Not to do is problematic and may result in difficulty at some point in the period of his leadership.
Five lens shoud define the review.
1. The pastoral candidate needs to know the legal operating status of the church---the constituted name, date of constitution, and form of congregational governance at the very least.
2. The date of the last update or congregational review should be evident somewhere in the document. If the church was constituted in 1845 and has never updated, amended, or revised their system of governance, there may be serious internal functions that pose a threat to the operation of the church. One friend leads a church like that. Now, they've discovered that most of the members are in violation of the mandated parking plan. They can only park their horses and buggies under the large oak tree at the rear entrance of the church. Don't laugh, it's true.
3. The candidate must determine if the coinstitution and by-laws is actually that, or a church operating manual designed to restrict and limit the influence and authority of the church staff, committees, or ministry organizations of the church. Operating manuals are good. But, the ruling document should define broad operational authority and boundaries and not serve as a step by step guide of church operation.
4. If the documents have been amended or changed on a regular basis, the pastoral candidate should determine the method used to appoint by-laws review committees or work teams.
5. The pastoral candidate should ask if the church abides by the by-laws. I'm reminded of a situation where the church documents hadn't been reviewed in more than 100 years. When the pastor asked about this over a year into his pastorate, one of the older members said, "Don't sweat it, we don't abide by them anyway". In a litigious culture, operating outside the guidance of ruling documents is trouble waiting to happen.
Church governance and the documents that define it are one of the trouble areas for many congregartions today. It's a world of extreme's, and neither of them are good. Far out in one polarity are those who try to operate without governing documents. I remember an instance involving one of these congregations fifteen years ago. It was a tragic circumstance that ruined many people. A child was struck by a car in the parking lot of the church. Their constitution and by-laws were archaic, and their operating procedures just as dated. The officers of the church, including trustees, were long deceased, and their insurance coverage was minimal. They were not incorporated and the individual active members were potentially liable for enormous medical expenses and legal fees. Only the good heart and gracious spirit of the child's parents gave them a way around complicated legal matters.
On the other extreme are the true legalists who are members of most churches. They always have a copy of the by-laws in their back pocket to insure that the pastor, staff, or ministry organization leaders are operating in bounds. This is often where operating procedures are incorporated into the constitution and by-laws so that ministry leaders have limits about decisions, spending, workers, and many other mission functions. Many of these governing documents are so restrictive that the church can't make decisions quickly or respond to human needs when they occur. I remember when South Carolina was the victim of Hurricane Hugo and the coastline was decimated. One church wanted to send a ministry team to provide showers and food for emergency workers in the area. The legalist said they would have to present their program to a duly called business meeting that had to be announced a month in advance. Interested parties skipped the meeting and funded the project out of pocket.
The constitution and by-laws of a local church are designed to develop a legal framework from which the mission of the church is launched. Mission should be the central aim of the governing documents and should provide church leaders with a broad platform for fulfilling their mission. Pastor candidates should know the structures, procedures, and legal processes defined by the ruling documents.
MQ3 is the third most important question a candidate should ask a committee. Failure to do so may indicate that the candidate is lacking wisdom or experience. Committees could forsee this dilemma in their candidates, and provde an information packet that includes the governing documents, the ministry organization, a recent church budget, the official values, vision, and mission of the church, and everything that may help candidates make informed decisions.
Show me the constitution and by-laws.