Church Reform When You’re Not (Necessarily) the Pastor

Article
06.16.2014

All these come from my own experience as one of several men who have worked to reform Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville.  I don’t claim universality for any of these; some of them might be helpful to you in your situation; others might be positively unhelpful.  You’ll have to use your own wisdom as you think through them.  But I hope that the lot of them will provide some helpful perspective as you try to navigate the admittedly tough job of trying to steer a church into a more healthy direction.

1.  Reform is easier in a small church than in a large one.

In some ways, this is patently obvious.  There are fewer people one has to persuade in order to change the church’s direction.  But there are other things about a small church that make it easier to reform than a larger one.  First, a large church is likely to think of itself as already being somewhat successful in what it is doing.  They’ve adopted a certain model, used it, and the result has been a large crowd that shows up for its services, attends its classes, and participates in its ministries.  In short, there’s usually in a larger church little or no sense of crisis, and therefore little or no openness to the new way of thinking that church reform requires.  If you are in a church that does not preach expositionally, does not practice church discipline, and is not elder-led, but is nonetheless large and happy, you’re going to have a hard time getting those brothers and sisters to give up an understanding of church life and practice that, in their view, probably seems to have worked pretty well so far.

Not only so, but in a large church you are much less likely to be recognized, whether formally or informally, as a leader.  Now being in leadership may sound like a fairly Machiavellian goal to set, and I’ll defend it in more detail later, but suffice it to say now that if you are one church member of several hundred, you’re going to have a hard time turning the church’s culture unless you are somehow and in some way recognized as one of the church’s leaders.  And that’s going to be much more likely to happen in a church of 50 or 100 than in a church of 700 or 1000.

2.  Do what Christians do—love.

The part of church reform that we usually think about when we talk about “church reform”—the adoption of constitutions and statements of faith, the election of elders, and all the rest—is really only a fraction of it.  At the end of the day, reforming a church is mostly about doing the things that Christ expects of his people:  loving the saints in your church, pastoring them even when you’re not the pastor, teaching them publicly when you can and with your life and words all the time, and sharing life with this group of Christians with whom you have covenanted.

Reforming a church can take years, and it is never something that happens easily.  So settle in for the long haul.  Love, teach, exhort, encourage.  Share burdens, sorrows, and joys.  Talk about the gospel, and help to apply it to your fellow church members’ lives.  There’s a real danger in trying to reform a church that it will devolve in your mind into a project—a series of parliamentary steps that have to be run through—rather than a group of people who have professed faith in Christ and are struggling to be like Him.

Ultimately, the reason you are a member of a church is to encourage your fellow saints, to be encouraged by them, to spur them on to good works, to be spurred on by them, and finally to see everyone—yourself included—grow to maturity and completeness in Christ.  That’s the goal.  Formal church reform is merely a means to that end.

3.  Make yourself a help, not a problem, to your church’s leaders.

I’ve noticed something peculiar about myself lately.  When I’m sitting as a member of some deliberative body—say, the Southern Baptist Convention—it occurs to me that I tend to be a flaming populist.  I sit in my chair hoping desperately that some matter will be thrown open on the floor, and that the body as a whole will decide to do something against what was recommended to them by their leaders on the platform.  Now mind you, it’s not that I have any particular dog in the fight, usually.  It’s just that I want to see it happen, probably because some part of me—for whatever fallen reason—finds some glee in seeing authority get rebuked.

But it’s funny:  As an elder at my church’s Members’ Meetings, I am most certainly not a populist.  And I positively do not root for the congregation to overturn a recommendation from its leaders!  Quite to the contrary, in fact.  There really is a world of difference between sitting in front of the podium and standing behind it, isn’t there!  It’ll change your whole outlook….

I’ve wondered before which of those attitudes is the right one.  I guess if you push either of them too far, they can both be right and both be wrong.  Populism can be a check against fallen people abusing authority, but it can also betray an ungodly distrust of authority.  Strong authority can provide good and godly leadership, but it can also betray an ungodly authoritarianism.

With those qualifications in mind, though, it seems to me that in the church, the normal attitude of a godly church member should be to trust his leaders and to help them—not to appoint himself to the role of check-and-balance against the leadership.  The book of Hebrews puts it better than I ever could:  “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:17)

One way to become a force, a center of gravity, in a church is to set yourself up as the loyal opposition to the leadership, the guy who questions every recommendation, pokes holes in every idea, probes for weaknesses in every new ministry, and generally becomes known as the guy who doesn’t like or trust the leaders and would take the church in a wholly different direction if he had half a chance.  Do that, and you’ll probably gather around yourself a small and devoted group of followers, and you’ll certainly become a focus of attention at every business meeting.  But good luck persuading the church’s leaders—much less the church as a whole—to give your ideas any credence.  The loyal opposition is seldom invited into leadership by those he loyally opposes.

So don’t do that.  Even if you are in a church where you cannot give yourself completely to the directions the leadership wants to go, you can still find ways to support them. (If you can’t find anything worth supporting, you’re probably not in a Christian church, so what are you doing there anyhow?)  Yea, maybe you wouldn’t do this evangelism outreach exactly like it’s being done if you were leading, but still there’s nothing unbiblical about it.  So jump in and get busy!  Be energetic, be happy, and don’t be a complainer.  Learn how to solve problems without making a scene.  Offer yourself to your leaders to help in whatever capacity they need you.  In short, make yourself a joy to lead, not a burden.  That, Hebrews says, will be of great advantage to you—not least because in the process of trusting your leaders, your leaders may begin to trust you just as well.

4.  Aspire to leadership.

I realize I’m in danger here of sounding like I’m calling for some Macchiavelli-style takeover of a church.  I don’t want to do that, which is why I posted numbers 2 and 3 of this series before this one.  As a faithful church member, your goal isn’t to weasel your way into leadership and start issuing diktats.  It’s to edify the saints.

That doesn’t mean, however, that leadership—and aspiring to it—isn’t important.  I’ve known a few men in my life who have seemed to eschew leadership in the church, having no interest in it, not aspiring to it, and generally treating it like politicians treat questions about a vice-presidential nomination:  haven’t thought about it, thanks for asking.  I can understand that.  There’s definitely something unseemly and subChristian about a person who claws after positions of leadership and whose ministry would evaporate if he weren’t nominated as a leader eventually.  What you want in a leader is someone whose motivation for ministry is not desire for recognition but rather love for the saints.

But here’s the next question:  What if your motives are right, at least as far as we can talk about right motives in fallen creatures?  What if you’ve spent time in prayer and self-examination, and you’ve worked hard to eclipse any motive for personal aggrandizement with a desire to lead God’s people for their good?  Is it still unseemly to desire to be in leadership?  Should every Christian be indifferent as to whether he’s ever recognized as a leader or not?  I don’t think so.  “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer,” Paul writes (1 Tim 3:1), “he desires a noble task.”  So long as you’re aspiring to leadership for the right reasons—that is, for the good of the saints and not your own honor—wanting to be a leader in the church is not some breach of humility or evidence of pride.  It’s an honorable, noble desire to use your gifts for the good of God’s people.  After all, as Paul writes, leadership exists “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” (Eph 4:12)

Practically speaking, too, it’s just a fact that you’re probably not going to be able to reform a church unless you’re a part of that church’s leadership.  Congregations will follow their leaders, but they’re not very likely to adopt sweeping changes that someone throws at them from the floor of a business meeting.  If you’re recognized as one of the church’s leaders, then you can persuade, you can teach, and you can even challenge from a position of recognized trust.  Not only so, but in most churches the processes of change usually run through the leadership.  They’re the ones who have to recommend, or enact, or nominate, or whatever.  If you’re outside the leadership, yes, you can make suggestions and let the leaders know what you think, but you’re not able to be part of the conversation when decisions are actually being made.  But if you’re part of the leadership, then you’re able to talk and persuade all the way through the process.  In trying to effect change, that’s invaluable.

So how do you do it?  What’s the right way to aspire to leadership?  That’s probably a good thing to think about at length, but I’d say  the best way to aspire to leadership in the church is to act like an elder.  So do the things that Scripture says an elder does.  Disciple younger Christians, help the church’s leaders think through how to get things done, solve problems, teach publicly when you can, take responsibility for some ministry.  Also, spend some time getting to know the current leaders—not all your time, but some of it.  Cultivate a desire for the good of the church, and let the current leaders see it.  Your goal should never be to pull together a large enough faction to
install you as a leader over the current leaders’ objections.  Your goal ought to be to earn the trust of the whole church, and of the current leaders in particular—so that they see the benefit you would bring to the church as one of its leaders, and so that they want to work with you.

I think this is true even if your church has a really deficient definition of Christian leadership.  Even if your church tends to put in leadership the men who are just financial or political leaders in the community, if it’s a Christian church there will still be a hunger, however buried, for genuine Christian leadership.  If you’re in that situation, you have a long, hard haul ahead of you, but I think what you have to do is pretty clear:  Model that kind of real Christian leadership, and pray that when the church sees it, they will resonate with it and recognize it.

There’s a reason we try to talk at our church about “recognizing” leaders instead of “making” them, or even “electing” them.  You don’t become a leader after the church puts you in leadership.  It’s the other way around:  The church puts you leadership after you’ve become a leader.  Even if your church doesn’t use that kind of language—“recognizing” leaders, for instance—that’s what it’s doing, really.  It may take some time, but earning that kind of trust and recognition as a leader is an important step in working for reform.

5.  Have conversations with people—lots of them.

Church reform does not happen in business meetings.  If church reform goes like you want it to, business meetings are just the moment of formalizing a congregational decision that has already been made.  When we went through the process of reforming Third Avenue in Louisville, the really exciting business meetings were the ones that didn’t go well.  All of us remarked over and over again that when the reform progressed in a good way, the actual vote at the business meeting was always a little bit of a let-down.  All the actual work of reform happened before the meeting—in conversations.

That’s how church reform works.  You change people’s minds and shape people’s views in private–over coffee, a good book, and a Bible.  You don’t change them by offering hostile amendments and making speeches.

So make it a point to try to meet with as many people as your schedule will allow, and do it regularly.  Read through books with people and talk about them.  Mark’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church would be a good place to start, or back issues of the 9Marks Journal, or even maybe a selection of old and recent resolutions of the Southern Baptist Convention if you think that would help.  The point is to get people thinking about what a New Testament church really looks like, and to let them do so when they’re not under the gun of having to vote on something in the next few minutes—or even the next few weeks.

Schedules are what they are; we all know that.  So you’re also going to have to be strategic in deciding who to try to meet with.  Unless you’re in a really small church, you’re just not going to be able to meet with everyone.  So try to figure out to some degree who the church’s opinion leaders are, who are the people most likely to spread enthusiasm for reform among other members, and who would really cause a congregational sigh of relief if it turned out that they agreed with the reform.  Then meet with those people, over and over and over.  Be a friend to them, care for them, and at the right time, start asking questions and teaching about the nature of a Christian church.  In time, you may find that you have more allies in reform than you thought—or, perhaps even better, you may find that you’ve created some.

6.  Train other leaders.  Aim for majorities.

One of the things I’ve learned in my few years working on reforming a church is that congregation-wide agreement does not fall out of the sky on a silver platter.  Reforming a church is a long process that requires a whole lot of conversations, a whole lot of persuasion—and a whole lot of votes.  And at the end of the day, if you’re going to facilitate reform, you need majorities that will vote for it.

Once you’ve been recognized as a leader in your church, the next step is to work on discipling other men who could also be recognized as leaders, and who, eventually, could join you in forming a majority of the leadership that wants to press for reform.  As in so much of the Christian life, that’s a long process of identifying men whom God has gifted for leadership, spending time with them, teaching them, and preparing them spiritually and otherwise for leadership.

When I came to Third Avenue, there were three men (including Aaron Menikoff who blogs here occasionally) on the board of deacons who were in favor of change.  But there were three other men on the board who were not.  When I was elected as a deacon, after several months of serving as a member in the church, all of us knew that my becoming a deacon made it 4-3 in favor of reform.  And so we started reforming the church on a series of 4-3 votes.

Now one can argue that this was somehow unethical, and that it would have been better to try to persuade one (or even all three) of the other men to agree with the idea of reform, rather than just electing one more person to make a majority.  I agree that would be great, but the reality is that unfortunately it’s not always (or even usually) possible.  Churches can be held hostage for years by a philosophy that the only way to reform is by changing the existing leadership’s mind, rather than electing new leadership.  I truly believe our church would have died—and fairly quickly, too—if those three deacons had not decided to create a majority on the deacon board and move on ahead.

But that all started—and it will start with you, too—with the foundational step of identifying and training up men who will join you in leadership.  It bears being explicit, even though it ought to be obvious:  Your goal isn’t just votes.  It’s genuine, full-on, 1-Tim-3 leaders who long for God’s glory and the church’s good, and who recognize that church reform is a means—a good means, yes, but nothing finally more than a means—to both.

NOTE:  I should give you a heads-up that there’s going to be something of a change in this article from this point forward.  I’m primarily going to be talking from the perspective of someone who’s already in leadership.  I’m guessing, therefore, that insofar as these next few nuggets of experience are helpful to anyone at all, it’s most likely to be for young pastors who are moving through a process of reform, or laymen who find themselves in a position to help lead such a process.  That said, I know there are lots of people out there longing for reform in their churches who aren’t recognized as leaders, and who may already have spent years serving and loving their churches as members.  To you guys, God bless you.  You’re in the hardest, most thankless part of church reform.  Keep praying for God to pour out his Spirit on your church, keep loving, keep serving, and keep aspiring.  Faithfulness is a long hard road, but it’s a good one, too.

7.  Show up to the meeting with a completed idea.  Then let go of it.

In some ways this is just a basic principle of any good leadership.  Have you ever been to a committee meeting where everyone came empty-handed, expecting to build a program or compose a document from the ground up?  It’s excruciating.  No one knows where to start even thinking about this, and you end up pawing around until someone, almost by default, says something like, “Why don’t we start with Church A’s constitution, and go from there?”

I know at first blush it might seem very open and fraternal for everyone to show up with no preconceived ideas.  That way everyone can put their heads together and come up with a truly community-created, we-are-the-world idea, right?  Eh, no.  The fact of the matter is that just about every committee will work better and more efficiently if someone shows up with a completed idea, and then lets the committee rework and rethink it.  So let’s say your church has appointed a committee to write a new constitution that will be presented to the church.  And let’s say you’re on it. You have two ways of approaching that responsibility.  You could show up to the meetings with nothing in hand, no ideas on paper, and just see where things go as the committee talks—or where they don’t go, which is more likely. 

Or you could show up with something that will serve as a jumping-off point, even a draft constitution that you present to the committee for consideration.  The benefits of doing this—or at least of somebody on the committee doing this—are enormous.  You save time; everybody sees a direction to go and you don’t waste time sitting around waiting on someone to take the lead.  You facilitate others’ ideas; the wheels start turning because suddenly there are some ideas to build on.  You set direction (that is, you lead); the draft becomes the fundamental structure on which other ideas hang.

But here’s perhaps the most important part.  Any time you show up to a committee with a draft in hand, you have to do so with a great deal of humility—that is, you have to be willing to give the draft up to the committee.  Let go of it; it’s not yours; it’s your gift to the committee, and they can accept it or not.  Don’t show up with a draft and then get offended when people want to change it.  Don’t go in with the attitude that everyone should just agree with your ideas.  Show up with your draft and say, “Here’s an idea of where we might start.  Read through it and see what you think.  If you want to completely toss it out and start over, that’s totally fine, but I thought this might give us a head-start.”

Nine times out of ten (eh…or at least several times out of ten…), your fellow committee members will breathe a sigh of relief.  They won’t like every one of your ideas, but they’ll appreciate your leadership.

8.  Decide what’s crucial.  Be willing to compromise on the rest.

I remember having a conversation with another then-deacon of 3ABC, right in the middle of the reform there, in which we agreed that we just might vote against our own proposed constitution, and recommend that the entire church do so as well.  It wasn’t that we didn’t like the finished product we’d proposed, and it wasn’t that we’d changed our minds.  It was that there had arisen a possibility that something we considered crucial to the church’s well-being would be changed.  And we decided that it was actually better for the church’s well-being to send the constitution down in flames than to allow the reform to proceed on those terms.

Bull-headed?  Uncompromising?  Yea, I suppose so.  But that’s not always bad in a leader, at least not when your motives are right.

Of course, that’s not always the case, either.  Anybody who’s ever spent time and sweat thinking through and developing something—whether a business plan or a church constitution—knows that there’s a natural tendency to take inordinate ownership of every line of it, to impute some mystic, poetic beauty to the whole and think your opus is being marred if anyone tries to change anything.  Natural or not, though, that’s a tendency that deserves to be fought against, because it’s just not true.

A constitution is not a work of art.  Every line of it is not equally important, and you’ll save yourself some heartache if you spend some time thinking about which parts of your plan are truly non-negotiable, and which could be given up without doing any real harm to the church.  So in our case, for example, we decided that one crucial matter for the church’s well-being was that new elder nominations should be made by the existing elders, and not from the floor of the church (maybe that’ll be another post later).  That requirement caused no small amount of conversation among the church, and we decided that if the church finally voted to amend that section, we simply couldn’t support the adoption of the constitution.  It was a crucial matter, we thought—a deal-breaker even.

But there were all kinds of other matters that weren’t crucial, even matters that were important.   And in the interest of protecting those things that were crucial, we found ourselves compromising on things we thought might be importanteven wise.  Don’t make “wise” your criterion for non-negotiability.  For one thing, if you wrote the thing, you’re likely to think all of it is wise.  And besides, “wise” is very often a sliding scale.  You may not think a certain idea is as wise as your original one, but if you’re a good leader, you’ll realize that “less wise” is not necessarily “wrong,” and that it is imminently worth it to give in to one or two points of less wise in order to preserve the crucial.

Two things are at stake here:  On the one hand, by defending those issues you truly think are crucial for the good of the church, you show strong leadership and deep care for the church.  But on the other hand, by being willing to compromise on alot—even most—of your plan, you show that you’re not just being bull-headed and territorial.

The overarching point here is to keep the goal in sight.  Your goal isn’t to push your particular plan through so you can get your name on a pew; it’s to establish a structure that will tend to the church’s good.  Some parts of your plan will be absolutely crucial to that goal.  Most parts won’t.  Your job is to pray the Lord would help you to know the difference.

9.  Talk a lot with those most opposed.  Make a good-faith effort to alleviate their concerns.

I suppose the alternative to this advice would be simply to count noses, see if you have enough votes to pass your reforms, and then rest on your laurels if you do.  I think a leader in a church, though, needs to do a little more in the interest of showing love and of preserving the greatest degree of unity possible.

If you find yourself deep in a reform process in a church, you’re pretty quickly going to find out that most of your time is spent talking with people  who don’t like what you’re doing.  (That’s just life, by the way.   How many calls do you think cell phone customer service folks get from people who just want to thank them?  Hmmm….might be a nice surprise for someone today if you have a free five minutes….)   At any rate, you’re going to spend alot of time talking to people who, for one reason or another, are not fully on board with the reform.

There are essentially two kinds of people who have “concerns.”  In the first category are those who are simply intractable.  They’re not interested in having any particular concern addressed.  They’re just concerned by the whole idea of reform, and no amount of persuasion or concession (short of throwing in the towel) is going to alleviate those concerns.  In the second category are those who really are bothered by a certain issue, but whose concerns can be alleviated either by a little persuasion or by a little thoughtful given-and-take.

It seems to me that it’s best to begin with the assumption that every concerned person you talk to is in the second category, until they prove otherwise.  Merely concerned until proven intractable.  Innocent until proven guilty.

So how do you deal with a person’s concerns?  Really, it’s not rocket science, nor does it require Solomonic wisdom.  Start out by listening.  Try to figure out what’s bothering them.  Try to see the theological or practical objection they’re making, and try hard in your own mind to make it bother you, too.  If you can do that, if you can make yourself feel the problem, then you can start to address it honestly and effectively.  I think there are several ways to approach it at this point:

  1. You can try to persuade.  Show them other parts of the reform plan that will head off the problem they’re fearing.  If they think the elders have too much authority, show them the section of the constitution where the congregation can remove elders unilaterally.  Don’t just go at the person with a logical sledge-hammer.  Try to see the root of what’s bothering them, and aim your persuasion at that.
  2. You can make concessions.  This is where the previous post in this series comes into play.  Be willing to concede something that will both alleviate this person’s concern and preserve what you are convinced needs to be preserved.  At Third Avenue, for example, in the debate over who would nominate elders, we made a concession in which we added a clause to the constitution that once a year, the elders had to publicly solicit elder recommendations from the congregation (the recommendations had to be given in private, on paper).  That preserved the crucial (in our minds) provision that elder nominations would be made by the elders, but it also alleviated the concern that the elders would make that decision as a sort of secret cabal, without input from the congregation.
  3. You can change the plan.  Start out with the theological conviction that the Holy Spirit works through his entire church, and you have a strong justification for listening carefully to those who come to you with concerns.  Do that, and you’ll also find that the church will very often be able to improve what you’ve put together.  More than once, I listened to a certain person and wound up saying, “Yep, I agree.  That’s a problem.  Let’s change it.”

And what if none of that works?  What if you give it a good-faith effort and still come to no agreement?  In some cases like that, you’ll realize that you’re dealing with a truly intractable person.  In other cases, you’ll realize that the other person is working just as hard as you to come to agreement, and you’ve just come to an impasse.  In either of those cases (though the spirit will certainly be much different), I believe you just have to press on.  Eventually, you have to make a decision and move forward.  That’s not always fun, but sometimes good leadership requires it.

10.  Don’t insist on unanimity.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul mentions that the Corinthian church had punished a man who had been caught in sexual immorality—and that they had done so by a “majority.”  Presumably, the fact that Paul had to use the word “majority” means that some of the members of the church voted against that action, and that they were, finally, simply outvoted.

There’s nothing unbiblical about outvoting people.

During the reform of Third Avenue, we received advice from at least a couple of people that a church should never move forward on important issues unless everyone is in agreement, unless there is unanimity.  Given the Bible’s exhortations to church unity, there’s obviously some initial appeal to that advice.  After all, if the Holy Spirit wants a church to move in a certain direction, surely he’ll lead all the members of that church to be happy with that direction, right?  And don’t love, compassion, and mutual submission mean that a church ought to wait until all of its members can be unified in taking a certain step?

I can understand the appeal of that argument, but at the end of the day I don’t think it holds up.  That’s for a few reasons, the easiest and best of which is simply Paul’s use of the word “majority.”  He was quite happy for the Corinthian church to move forward with something less than perfect unity, because moving forward was the right thing to do.  Besides that, there’s also the simple fact that we still live in a fallen world, and it is thus a category mistake—a forgetting that we haven’t yet been glorified—to think that Christians will always come to agreement, even on very important matters.

In all likelihood, there will come a time in a process of reform when all the arguments have been laid out, all attempts at persuasion have been made, all reasonable compromises have been worked through, and yet still some members of the church are determined to oppose the reform.  What do you do then?  Do you simply press forward and outvote the people who are opposed, or do you put the reform on ice and wait?  Which of those is the more loving thing to do?

Let me make an argument that love means pressing forward.  Waiting may very well seem like a kind and loving thing to do for the opposing person.  But you also have to remember that your responsibility is not simply to that person–it is to the entire church.  And if the reforms you are introducing are biblical and good for the church as a whole, then love for the whole church compels you not to hold up reforms that would be good for them simply for the sake of a few.

Besides, love ought to take a long view, and if these are good reforms, then they will be good also for those who are opposed to them, even if they don’t recognize it right now.  At Third Avenue, there is one particular older couple who endured the reforms we made, pretty staunchly opposed to them the whole time.  But God bless them, they stuck it out, stayed in the church, and now even tearfully thank God for what he has done in their church—and in their lives.  This dear and wonderful brother told me just a few weeks ago in fact that he has grown more as a Christian in the last few years than in the whole rest of his life.  Pressing on with the reform of the church, even over his objections, turned out to be one of the most spiritually beneficial things we could have done for him.

As in so many of these points, being willing to press forward on something less than a unanimous vote is a matter of remembering that you are ultimately working for the good of the whole church.  As a shepherd, your responsibility is for the whole flock, and if one reluctant sheep decides to stay in the desert, loving that  sheep does not mean you keep the whole thirsty flock there with him.  Maybe it does mean that you trek back to the desert to go find that lost sheep.  But any shepherd worth his salt will get the rest of the flock to the pasture first.

11.  Be very careful with supermajorities.  Know what they’re for.

The constitution of Third Avenue failed the first time our congregation voted on it.  It wasn’t that a majority of the church wasn’t happy with it.  In fact, more than two-thirds of the church voted in favor of it—70%.  But we’d set an approval threshold of 75%, so even with seven-tenths of the church in favor, we had to slog along for another year under an old, unworkable system.

I’ve heard some church leaders talk about supermajorities as if they are a tool for showcasing a church’s unity.  “If we pass this over a supermajority of 90%, they say, we’ll show the world much more unity than if we only pass it over a simple majority.”  Honestly, I don’t think that argument holds any water.  Here’s why:  If you get a vote of 95% on a certain matter, you can showcase 95% unity to the world no matter where your approval threshold was for that matter.  If the threshold was 90%, you passed it with 95%.  Great job.  And if the threshold was 50%, you still passed it . . . with 95%.  Equally great job, and equal display of unity.  But if you had a supermajority requirement of 90%, and you only got 89%, you wind up showcasing to the world 89% unity in your church (still pretty darn good) but failing to move the church forward.

That’s the thing about supermajorities.  You have to know what they’re for.  Supermajority requirements are not for showcasing a high degree of unity—the actual vote count does that.  Supermajorities are for protecting a minority of the church—for keeping the church from moving if a certain-size minority disapproves.  What that means is that you have do some hard thinking before you start requiring supermajorities for things.  How many people would have to be opposed before you’d think it best not to proceed on something?

Take a constitution, for instance.  If you set an approval threshold of 75%, you’re saying essentially that if just one out of every four people are opposed to it—25.1%—then you’ll think it best not to proceed.  Maybe that’s exactly what you think, and that’s fine.  But make that decision carefully, and keep a few things in mind before you do.  First, you’re saying that you would hold back 74.9% of your church that wants to press on in reform.  I’m not saying that’s never a wise thing to do, only that it should weigh heavily on you.  Second, you really should do some thinking about who those 26% are.  Is 26% of your church just kind of not happy with anything?  And are you willing to say to 74.9% of your church, “We’re going to hold up this reform just for Mr. and Mrs. Unhappy, Mr. No-Change, and Madam We’ve-Never-Done-It-That-Way”?  Third, remember that, especially if you’re in a small church, it doesn’t take many votes to kill something if there’s a supermajority.  If you have 40 people at your business meeting, and you’ve got a supermajority requirement of 75%, it will only take 11 “no” votes to stop the reform.  In many churches, that’s one extended family.

So when should you require a supermajority?  Some suggestions (you can argue about these in the comments):

–  On a constitution, maybe.  Depends on how desperate your church is for reform.  I don’t think it would be wrong to say, “You know what?  We need this desperately, so we’re going to move forward with a simple majority.”  Just be willing to lose people if you do that.
–  On elders, probably.  I’d think an elder who is rejected by 40% of the congregation is in trouble.
–  On amendments to the constitution and statement of faith, probably.  You don’t want a 49% minority to get railroaded by the 51% who really want to be pre-tribulational, supra-lapsarian, hyper-Third Wave cessationists.

Bottom line:  Use supermajorities when you absolutely don’t want the church to move forward without a huge degree of unity.  Don’t use them, though, when you’d only like to have broad unity, but you also think it would be best to move forward even without it.  If you list out the expected “no” votes and think, “Yep, I’d still want to move ahead even if these folks vote against it,” it simply would not be wise, or loving to the church as a whole, to give those people the right to short-circuit the reform.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.