How Strong Trellises Promote Strong Vines
A trellis is a framework built to bear the weight of a living vine so the organism can grow freely and bear fruit. If the trellis is too thick or intricate, it inhibits and chokes the vine. If the trellis is too thin or delicate, it collapses under the weight of the fruit. But a simple, sturdy, spacious trellis gives the vine a structure to climb, air to breathe, and room to grow.
The ministry structure of a church is like a trellis—a minimal framework built to facilitate the growth of the organism. The members and their discipling relationships among each other are the branches of the vine that produce the fruit of Christian convictions, new conversions, godly character, and holy conduct (John 15:1–5). The trellis is the institutional structure that holds or harnesses that organic growth so the fruit doesn’t fall to the ground and bruise or rot before it ripens. Here’s a sampling of some slats in the trellis and how they support the church’s vitality.
The mooring of any church, of course, is the person and work of Jesus as we find him in the Bible. But as soon as we try to describe who Jesus is, we’re articulating a statement of faith, however informal. To say “we believe in the Bible,” we have to be able to show people what we think the Bible actually says—about itself, God, Jesus, the Spirit, mankind, sin, salvation, holiness, the church, the ordinances, and other doctrines. So a statement of faith, ideally signed by all members, anchors us in our shared doctrinal commitments.
Then, a church covenant, signed by all prospective members, briefly delineates how we are committing to live together. This part of the trellis stabilizes our expectations of character and conduct among those who will call themselves members.
A church constitution explains how we intend to organize the institutional elements of the church and how we intend to get our shared business done. It will answer questions like: How do we make church decisions? How do authority relationships work in the church? Who votes? What do we vote on? How do we take in members, hire pastors, organize staff, and conduct church discipline when necessary? Will officers have term limits?
GOVERNANCE AND OFFICERS
A clear governance structure (such as elder-leadership with congregational governance) helps people see who is responsible for what. For example, in a congregational church, the whole church gathered is the final authority for doctrine (Gal. 1:6–9; 2 Tim. 4:3); dispute (Matt. 18:16–18), discipline (1 Cor. 5), and membership (2 Cor. 2:3). Yet elders are responsible to provide leadership as the main teachers, overseers, and equippers of the congregation (Eph. 4:11–16; 1 Tim. 3:1–7), while deacons are responsible to serve in physical and financial ways that promote, preserve, and repair church unity (Acts 6:1–7; 1 Tim. 3:8).
Beyond this, each member is responsible to pray, love, make disciples, give, attend, and serve, all under the caring oversight of the elders, and in cooperation with the whole congregation. Wisdom and necessity will often require us to have officers like a treasurer to handle the church’s offerings with integrity, or a clerk to record conversations and decisions from members’ meetings.
MEMBERSHIP AND MEETINGS
One of the most important parts of the trellis is local church membership. Clarifying the duties and privileges of membership enables people to see how the church understands the biblical means, metrics, and milestones for Christian maturity.
The weekly meetings of the church (e.g., adult education, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening prayer, a midweek study) provide programmatic opportunities to gather for feeding on God’s Word preached, read, sung, and prayed, and for seeing the gospel illustrated in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Periodic business/members’ meetings—for us, they’re quarterly—give the congregation regular access to the trellis and input on where the next sections might be built. New members’ classes teach people where on the trellis they can get engrafted into the visible vine.
STAFF AND SALARIES
Some of our brothers will become so fruitful in their teaching and discipling that we’ll want to set them aside for that work by paying them as staff pastors; in other words, their part of the trellis needs to be stronger to support more fruit. Others we’ll want to employ more specifically as associate pastors or train as pastoral assistants and interns. Still other members may show themselves skilled enough to be paid as secretaries or ministry directors.
Our staff are the living load-bearers of the ministry who support the vine’s growth and vitality, so it’s worth paying them well for their work so they can devote themselves to it without distraction (1 Tim. 5:17–18).
BUILDINGS AND BUDGETS
Thankfully, we don’t need to own a church building to be an effective church. But a church building does help provide a reliable gathering space and a visibly rooted presence in our community. In our own church’s experience, procuring a facility encouraged some distant members to move into neighborhoods closer to the building.
Church-owned residential housing, while again not a must, can provide longer-term hospitality otherwise unavailable to missionaries, interns, entry-level staff, or in some locales, pastors themselves. Budgets, while nowhere commanded in Scripture, help us plan our ministry expenses wisely while taking calculated risks as we trust God’s provision.
Ministry programs can be useful if they’re providing structure for what we find onerous to do naturally. Age and affinity-based relationships (singles, young-marrieds, golden girls, athletics, sowing) happen instinctively. Programs are usually best saved to prod us into ministries we find less natural or more demanding of congregational energy, whether that’s small group accountabilities, systematic doctrinal instruction, children’s ministries, or the like.
A vine will likely languish just lying on the ground, and its fruit can die on the vine. A rickety lattice will either blow over in the wind, or sag and splinter under the weight of the fruit. But if you drape your vine over a simple trellis with structural integrity, then its fruit is far more likely to mature without bruising.