Dealing with Bad Documents
What do you do with bad documents? I don’t mean an eviction notice or a parking ticket. I’m thinking about beginning a new pastorate and finding a convoluted constitution or a vague statement of faith.
Before the other elders and I led Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, through several significant reforms, we were faced with a pretty common situation: the church’s governing documents—the statement of faith and constitution—were in dire need of change.
The constitution was a mess of outdated policies, most of which the church had long ignored. The statement of faith was even worse. Read honestly and straightforwardly, it could have been affirmed by someone who was either modalistic or Trinitarian. It read, “We believe in one God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Does that mean God is three persons, or that he’s one person who reveals himself over time with three different hats? The statement was also completely unconcerned with defining key issues. “We believe in justification,” it said, which is great, but not very useful. Roman Catholics believe in justification, too. On top of all that, the fourteenth article of the statement of faith said something like this: “This statement of faith can never be changed.”
Now what do you with that?
Sometimes Providence smiles on a new pastor, and he digs into the church’s archives to find that, lo and behold, his congregation long ago adopted a nice Reformed-leaning-but-not-too-much statement of faith, a constitution that’s well thought-out and still serviceable, and a covenant that avoids any patent weirdness. Sometimes that happens.
But not always. Very often a new pastor will find a statement of faith like our church had—unclear at best and heretical at worst. He’ll find a constitution that reeks of having been written by a century’s worth of committees reacting to one little bicker after another, and a covenant that will yield a community about as loving, holy, and happy as an episode of Happy Days.
So what do you do in that situation? How do you live with church documents that are flat bad, and how do you go about changing them? I can’t speak to every situation, but let me offer three strategies I learned through our experience at Third Avenue:
You don’t have to use a church document just because it’s there in the old minutes. If you come into a situation where the statement of faith hasn’t been used for decades, and you find out that it’s intractably modalist, you don’t have to excommunicate everyone who’s not a modalist! You also don’t have to panic and rush the church into changing it before they’re ready to think about such things.
Let sleeping dogs lie, as they say. As a Christian pastor, you ought to have a good grasp on the gospel and on the whole counsel of God as it’s taught in Scripture. Teach your congregation that truth. When the time’s right, bring up the old statement of faith and help everyone recognize the need for changing it.
Of course, sometimes a bad document is actively used, and you can’t leave it in the dusty minutes. In that case, your options are more limited. You can resign, you can teach, or you can try to convince the church to change it. That, by the way, is a good reason to take a close look at a church’s governing documents before you accept a call to pastor it.
It’s important to say here, too, that living with a bad constitution is harder to do than with a bad statement of faith. You can safely lay aside a statement of faith for awhile. With a constitution, however, legal issues come into play. In most organizations, ignoring a rule that’s written in a constitution can only be done by unanimous consent. You can ignore a bad rule until someone calls you on it, but then you’re bound by your organization’s rules. At Third Avenue, for example, our constitution called for a six-month waiting period for amending the constitution—not to mention the eternal waiting period our founders tried to stick on the Statement of Faith! Well, no one in our church wanted to wait that long, in either case, so we moved forward by unanimous consent with a shorter and better process for amendment. Had anyone objected, though, we would have had no choice but to wait the required six months.
Ignoring can be a useful strategy sometimes, but you have to be careful with it, especially when it comes to standing rules. The culture of your church, the use or disuse of the document in question, and even the level of unity that prevails in your church on the particular question will determine whether this is a strategy you can safely—and honestly—adopt.
If you have to use a flawed document for a while, put the best possible spin on it. That modalistic article in our statement of faith, for example, didn’t have to be understood that way. If you worked hard enough and stuck a few extra words in brackets, you could cram it into an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. So that’s what we did.
In our new member classes, we would explain that, yes, the statement could be read in a certain way, but that we as elders and we as a church did not in fact mean it that way. And that was true—none of us did. We’re also quite sure the founders of our church didn’t mean it that way, either, given who we know them to have been.
We also made it clear that just because a modalist (or a Roman Catholic, in another article) could affirm our statement of faith, that didn’t mean a modalist (or a Roman Catholic) could join our church.
It wasn’t a perfect solution, nor a permanent one, but it was sufficient until we could adopt a better statement of faith.
We handled the modalist statement of faith, really, by augmenting it. Where the statement read “We believe in one God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we asked for something more than those bare words demand. We asked for a belief in one God who in fact is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and who reveals that truth in Scripture.
We did something similar with our statement on justification, which said, curtly, “We believe in justification.” Those words, taken alone, don’t demand much. But as church leaders we simply decided that we meant something really, really specific with those words. We meant justification by faith alone. And when a prospective church member came to sign the statement, we made sure they meant the same thing.
Another example of augmentation: In Third Avenue’s constitution, the role of the deacons was clearly laid out. They were to distribute benevolence funds and pretty much nothing else. At some point along the way, however, it became clear to everyone that the church was going to need strong leadership from an elder-like group of men. Therefore, we as deacons started functioning like elders. The constitution didn’t call us elders, and it didn’t explicitly give the deacons spiritual oversight of the church (that was reserved for the senior pastor). But the pastor wanted us to function like that, and so we did.
Again, you have to be wise and careful here. But there are often many things a pastor can do to begin changing a church’s culture that don’t involve the difficult process of changing the documents.
If you can, you ultimately want to change your bad documents for good ones. Often this is a long, laborious process, one filled with conflict after defeat after disappointment. That’s how it was for us at Third Avenue. The first time we tried to change our constitution, it failed—and it took us another year to recover from that failure. I still remember laying on the floor at the home of a fellow deacon that night after the meeting, staring at the ceiling and wondering what on earth we were going to do.
Then a little over a year later, after the constitution had finally passed and we wanted to change the statement of faith, we ended up having to pull our new statement of faith back after formally introducing it, starting the whole process over again. Some of our difficulties were born of pure stupidity on our part. But others were just part of the normal, difficult process of leading a church through change.
When it works, though, reforming an old church is sweet. I remember the night that we finally implemented Third Avenue’s new constitution. We’d adopted it two months earlier, and the last step, which would truly kick the new document into gear, was to elect three elders. When the vote tally was read, the man who had been chairman of our deacons and moderator of the “business meeting” called a five minute recess so the new elders could hastily elect a new chairman, who was now constitutionally directed to moderate the meeting. When we reassembled, the old moderator stepped down, the new moderator stepped up, and the church—now assembled in a “Members’ Meeting,” no longer just a “business meeting”—applauded, long and loud.
What a sweet moment that was!
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