Ecclesiastical Authority of the Pastor!

Protecting Your Ministry is of Absolute Importance!

A few days ago I had a conversation with a pastor who was ousted from his own church by the church membership because they did not like the way he was running the church.  After 19 years of ministry experience, I have come to learn that when church government empowers the members to vote in and vote out their pastors, they usually vote him/her out for the silliest of reasons.  Moreover, the pastor also has a higher tendency to become a hireling and not a shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep. 

Recent history has been showing a dangerous trend of hyper-increased lawsuits against churches and pastors.  This trend is higher among churches who have poorly written bylaws or bylaws that do not give the pastor ecclesiastical authority.  The bylaws (more accurately known in churches as the Constitution and Bylaws) create the government structure of the church and need to protect what the pastor feels is the best interest of the church.  No one will lay down his/her life more than the founder and pastor of the church.  Therefore, he/she is the one called by God to govern the affairs of the church with wisdom and counsel.

The recurring problem in many churches is that the bylaws they adopt are deficient and do not contain the necessary provisions to properly give the pastor the authority to run and manage the church as the Lord directs.

What Exactly is Ecclesiastical Authority?

In short, ecclesiastical authority refers to a set of ideas listed in the constitution and bylaws of a church or religious organization that courts interpret as the religious organizational structure and decision making process of the church.  When properly structured, the courts will always draw the line and not delve into those matters.  Lawsuits that challenge properly established ecclesiastical authority always get thrown out because courts cannot decide upon the matter using neutral principal of law.  It is important to note, however, that proper ecclesiastical authority in our bylaws is based on biblical conviction and backed with Scriptures.  Many churches try to give the pastor control, without properly establishing an ecclesiastical government.  It usually results in deficiencies in the bylaws that can be pierced in court.  The language of the bylaws has to be very carefully worded so that it clearly establishes an ecclesiastical order in your church government with the pastor as the head of that government, relying on the counsel of the board of directors.   In the case of Watson v. Jones, the court ruled that "Whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, of ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest church judicatory to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them . . ."  In addition to creating an ecclesiastical government, the bylaws need specific language that declares the pastor as the highest authority of the church.  One example that we recommend is as follows:

"Any disputes that arise over the interpretation of these bylaws shall be deferred to the highest authority of this church. In this case it would be the Pastor, with the advice of the Board of Directors. The Pastor shall be responsible for the day-to-day decisions and shall run the affairs of the church."

What Ecclesiastical Authority is Not!

I have read many church bylaws that give the pastor complete and total control of the church with very little regard to doctrine, Scripture or other theocratic government structure.  That is not ecclesiastical authority.  Because of recent changes to non-profit, tax exempt regulations, those type of bylaws do not qualify any more for tax exempt status.  Moreover, churches that got approved for 501(c)(3) status before the regulations changed DO NOT get grandfather status.  They, too, must change their bylaws. 

How Do We Create an Ecclesiastical Government for Our Church/Ministry?

Younger churches have a little bit easier time establishing a scripturally based ecclesiastical government structure that gives the pastor the day-to-day control of the church as well as final say so over most desicions.  As the church grows, the culture of the church continues out of respect and admiration to operate in a way that honors the pastor's desicions.  Whether you are considering starting a church now or just recently started one, let us take a look at your bylaws.  Now is the best time to ensure that you get off to the right start.  We will gladly review them and propose the changes or completely overhaul them to ensure that you get off to the best possible start.

Churches that have been in existence for an extended number of years will have a more difficult time making these changes.  The reason for the difficulty is that it is hard changing the mindset of a congregation that has operated under a certain government structure. Regardless of the age of your church, it is possible to make sequential changes over a longer period of time.  This makes the changes more pallatable and less stressful on the church.

We strongly believe that creating a proper government for your church is so vital that in all of our Church Management and Ministry Empowerment Conferences we continually stress that certain clauses or articles need to be included in the bylaws.  Some of those artciles are as follows:

  • Ecclesiastical Authority
  • Prohibited Activities Clause
  • Scriptural Standard of Living Clause
  • Accoutability Board Article
  • Compensation Committee to Give Pastor Significant Influence
  • Numbered Officers Clause
  • Member Privacy Article
  • Financial Privacy Article

There are many more, but I think you get the point.  Bylaws are not bylaws.  It is important to be certain that your governing document is set up to protect the longevity of your church. 

Final Thought

I have often assisted churches and ministries that hired an attorney or other professional preparation service to set up their paperwork, such as the incorporation, bylaws and 501(c)(3) status.  Throughout the process the preparation service advises to keep the application simple by adopting bylaws that are seriously deficient in ecclesiastical government, but IRS friendly. This is a disservice to the church because it does not take into consideration the uniqueness of an ecclesiastical organization where rules and customs must be in place to ensure churches special protection and recognition not otherwise afforded to other non profit organizations.  Do not compromise your position and unique status.  Go for it all and make sure you properly set up your church government.  It is better to take a little bit longer in getting final 501(c)(3) approval than to get it and have to go through a complex amendment process later because of the inherent weaknesses of your church government.

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