Leading a Congregational Church Through Constitutional Change


Church members have varying opinions about their church’s constitution. One of our members showed me that she keeps a copy in her Bible case. Many members, I suspect, forget that the constitution even exists, despite the fact that they were forced to read though it when they joined. Then there are those members who scrutinize the constitution so they can police the minutia of church meetings. Perhaps they hadn’t thought about it for a long time, but a contentious issue provoked their attention.

As leaders, we recognize the value of our church’s constitution. It articulates our collective beliefs and practices. Nevertheless, it’s members who have the authority to approve and amend a constitution, and so they should care about it being rightly ordered.

In the past decade, my church has undergone two changes to our constitution. Through the first change, I served as a staff pastor; during the second, a non-staff elder. The first change was a major transition from being deacon-led to elder-led; the second dealt with a number of important church practices (e.g., voting, membership, discipline, articulations about societal issues, etc.).

As leaders, we did some things well and some things poorly in both changes. I think we did significantly better the second time around. Changing a constitution is never easy, but navigating these changes has additional difficulties in a congregational church. When the elders have thoroughly worked through the document and agreed to a proposal of changes, the process is just beginning. Now they must present the changes to the congregation, show them their importance, and lead them in enacting the changes in everyday church life.

Below are eight pieces of counsel for an elder-led, congregational church in the midst of constitutional change. This isn’t a definitive list, but I hope it will prove useful.

1. Appoint a Leader Among the Elders

For a few years, we talked about the constitution as elders. Then we broke into subgroups to evaluate certain sections. These steps generated some ideas, but we didn’t make substantial progress until we agreed to appoint an elder to lead the council of elders in this process. This leader is not the decider, but he is expected to propose a schedule, assign tasks, facilitate elder discussions, and keep the process moving forward.

For us, we didn’t choose the chairman or the senior pastor. When the time comes, this person might also communicate these proposed changes to the congregation, as he will be most familiar with the process and rationale.

2. Create an Annotated Document

After the elders have agreed on proposed changes, create an annotated document that features descriptions of the discussion, alternative proposals, and the rationale for the proposal. This document is an internal document for the elders. Creating a historical record will help with present-day decision-making and future communication.

In our church, the makeup of the elder council is rarely the same year-to-year. An annotated document helps new elders catch up. The need for an annotated document should also shape our expectations that changing a constitution isn’t a quick process.

3. Aim for Unanimity in the Proposal and Super-Majority in the Specifics

Every elder has input in crafting proposed amendments to the constitution, so it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise. The constitution represents our collective commitments, and everyone might have articulated any point in a different way.

When disagreements arise in the process, the leader could assign various parties the task of crafting specific wording. These proposals can then be brought back to the elders for a vote. Elders should not be dismayed by split votes about wording. We aim for a super-majority in wording with the goal of unanimously recommending the proposal as a whole.

With a matter of this significance, it is likely that the congregation will ask how strongly or unitedly the elders are making the recommendation. Even though I prefer to avoid disclosing the details of elder votes, it is helpful to be able to state that the elders are recommending this proposal unanimously to the congregation.

4. Consider Phases of Change

For some members of our congregation, the idea of changing the constitution at all is a difficult challenge. In their minds, when Christian institutions change, they typically drift. To shepherd members through that impulse and to reduce the impediments to needed change, we considered three phases: (1) typographical and grammatical changes, (2) practice and procedure changes, and (3) doctrinal changes.

I recognize these distinctions seem artificial, but they were helpful in leading the congregation. In our second revision, we combined the first two categories. We’re currently in the process of considering if anything from the third category needs to be amended. This approach pursues unity, as most members will be inclined to vote “yes” on merely typographical changes.

5. Consider Discussing with the Deacons Before the Congregation

Some practices and procedures outlined in the constitution might be enacted mainly by the deacons. It could be valuable to hear from them early on. This discussion also provides the elders insight into how those not in the elder discussions might read the proposal. Additionally, it honors the deacons as trusted congregation members whose thoughts are especially valued.

6. Get Legal and Outside Counsel Prior to Presenting to the Congregation

Every writer knows that another set of eyes sees things he missed. In elder discussions, there’s a shared understanding of terms and concepts that might not be so clear to others. Remember, the congregation isn’t privy to those conversations.

Since the constitution is also a legal document, it’s helpful to hear from a Christian lawyer who can ensure the language of the constitution represents both the covenantal and legal aspects of the document. In crafting some of the language in our appendix on “Moral and Societal Issues,” we consulted with some Christian experts in the fields of ethics and bioethics to ensure that our language was accurate and consistent with the current conversation.

It is also helpful to hear from pastors of other churches. This can enable you to share with your congregation typical practices of like-minded churches for things that are matters of wisdom rather than biblical mandate (e.g., what constitutes a quorum). When questions arise, the elders can respond, “Christian legal counsel recommended. . .” or “The prevailing practice of like-minded churches in our area is. . .”

7. Present and Then Discuss with the Congregation

For our first articulation of specific changes, we presented a draft to the congregation without question and answer. This time gave the elders an uninterrupted opportunity to communicate changes while expressing a pastoral heart and intent behind the proposal. We also recorded this presentation for those who weren’t in attendance.

In subsequent congregational meetings, we provided times for Q&A. After these interactions, the elders met again and revised the proposal. This might not be a necessary step, but in our case, we needed to clarify some language. It also allowed the congregation to shape the final proposal.

8. Enact Changes in Unity

After one church voted to adopt an elder-leadership structure, one of the staff elders said about those who voted against the motion, “Now it’s our chance to prove them wrong.” While I appreciate the forward-pointing sentiment, this comment missed the mark of true spiritual leadership. Our goal is not to demonstrate that we were right, but rather to function pastorally in a biblical structure.

After changes have been made, pursue unity. Pursue more conversations with those who dissented; they’re worth it. Changing the constitution does little good if we leave behind a fractured church.

Leading a congregation well through change requires genuine love, godly character, and a full array of leadership skills. When done carefully and wisely, it can be a catalyst to increase unity and clarify mission.

Trent Rogers

Trent Rogers is assistant professor of New Testament and Greek and dean of the School of Biblical and Theological Studies at Cedarville University. He is a member of Grace Baptist Church in Cedarville, Ohio.

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