A church that is not following the provisions of its bylaws could certainly run into trouble. Bylaws are a critical component of church operations. Yet, in many churches, they are filed away, forgotten and ignored. Church bylaws spell out who will run the ministry and how it will operate. Key organizational issues typically addressed in the bylaws include:
- Who in the church is authorized to make various decisions, including major financial decisions;
- How the governing board is organized;
- The relationship between the governing board and the congregation;
- Who has authority to make hiring and firing decisions involving pastors and staff;
- When and how meetings of the governing board and the congregation will occur;
…And much more.
An initial set of bylaws is generally adopted when the church is first formed. As time goes by, however, ministry operations change, and a church can find itself to be out of step with its own bylaws. When this is discovered, one of two things should happen as soon as possible: The church should either revise its practices to conform to the bylaws, or the bylaws should be amended.
Because church bylaws represent an important legal document, any change should be done in consultation with an attorney. The bylaws will usually contain a provision stating how they can be amended. This sometimes involves a vote of the governing body of the church, sometimes involves a congregational vote, and sometimes requires both. Your attorney can help walk you through the implications of any suggested change to the bylaws, and the steps that should be taken to ensure that the bylaw changes are done in a way that is legal and binding.
Every ministry organization should review its bylaws every three to five years, or more frequently if it is growing rapidly or changing the way it operates. Again, having an attorney involved in the bylaw review is important to ensure that it’s done properly. Bylaws can be complex, and they differ dramatically depending on whether the church is incorporated, the type of governing approach it uses, the role that the pastor plays in the church, and numerous other factors. Since reviewing and amending bylaws is important to the life and health of the organization, having a legal professional involved in the process is a must. This is akin to having a physician involved in a medical assessment, whether it’s a regular check-up or a more significant medical procedure.