Why bother updating your constitution?

Nov 17, 2016

Bishop Mike Rinehart

I get it. In some senses, a constitution is not going to move the ball down the field. Confession: In two decades of parish ministry, I didn’t care much about our congregation’s constitution. I paid attention to what it said, so we were in order, but I never understood that we needed to update it after every Churchwide Assembly or why it mattered.

I also felt, for most of my pastoral life, that constitutions were irrelevant to the health and growth of the congregation. A constitutional change would not garner one more new member, nor would it deepen my congregation’s spiritual life. Preaching the Word with fire and equipping people for ministry, these were the things that would grow a congregation deep and wide. I still believe this.

But I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. The constitution sets up the leadership structure and mission of your congregation. Here’s why it matters:

  1. You won’t always lead this congregation. What embedded leadership structures and governance will you leave behind? How do you set high levels of accountability for those who lead when you’re gone?
  2. At one point in a former congregation, it became clear that our committee reports to the whole governance was not working for us. But it was built into our constitution. Instead of a council of committee chairs protecting their turf, we created a council, somewhat smaller, that managed vision and set policy. This allowed us to attract leaders by their gifts, rather than a political process and election.
  3. Changes to the model constitution often reflect these shifts in helpful governance structures by offering different models. It’s worth observing these and considering them.
  4. Required provisions (those with asterisks, *) are legally in effect for your congregation whether you acknowledge them or not, so it’s better to be aware. If you’re working from a 1990 constitution, you might be making decisions based on requirements that are no longer in effect or missing new ones that are.
  5. Because required provisions are in effect, if legal matters arise (we hope they never do), having outdated information in your constitution will only confuse those who brandish that constitution and wave it in front of your face. It’s best to have an updated constitution when things go crazy. I have noticed that congregations understandably ignore their constitution during the good times. But when the bad times come, people dig it up and quote it chapter and verse. How do we make this decision? Who decides? Congregation meeting? Who can attend? Who can speak? Who can vote? Who is a member? Who are these people at our meeting? If they haven’t worshipped in a year but haven’t been formally removed, can they vote? How do we get rid of a dysfunctional member? Pastor? What is our relationship with the rest of this church? How do we raise up leaders?
  6. Good governance is good leadership. It’s important to have clarity on how we get things done. Who decides what? What requires a congregational vote? What requires a council vote? What requires no vote? How can we organize in such a way that we have maximum accountability and also maximum flexibility for a rapidly changing mission context? Why are some things a 2/3 vote and some things are a majority? How much spending authority does the council have over a budget approved by the congregation? How much debt can we acquire as a congregation without a congregational vote? It seems none of this matters until the roof caves in, literally or figuratively. People don’t care when all is well. But good leaders know better. They look ahead to the future.
  7. Your constitution establishes the non-negotiables. What is non-negotiable in the church? For example, the paragraph on the Trinity is a required provision. You cannot be an ELCA congregation without it. This speaks of what is central to the church.
  8. Finally, updating your constitution keeps your leaders up on what is going on in the church. What’s all this stuff about deacons? Why must we consult with the bishop before we can vote to “fire” our pastor? What do these asterisks mean?

The model constitution offers lots of options and freedom.