Policy Based Government in the Church is a Bad Idea, by Pr. Tim Rossow

(I recently received an e-mail from a BJS reader who was concerned that her congregation was moving to a policy based governance system (PBG). A friend of hers suggested that I had some experience with PBG and so she asked me my opinion on it. The following is part one of my response to her. PBG is a philosophy of governance that was created recently in the corporate world to give Boards of Directors guidance on solving the age old challenge of over managing the CEO. To implement PBG a corporate board develops a set of policies intended to create a fence around the CEO while at the same time giving him the freedom to manage the corporation without board interference as long as he stays within those bounds. The board focuses on larger issues, working with the CEO setting mission and vision for the corporation.)

The Problem of Oversight
Policy Based Governance (PBG) is attractive because it seeks to answer the age old question “Who is in charge in the church?” Its answer is neat and clean but very problematic. Most pastors would like PBG from a secular standpoint because it frees them from the oversight of a church council, voters assembly and committee and allows them to manage the day to day affairs of the congregation. (By the way, this can be achieved without PBG. My congregation allows me a lot of day to day management freedom because I respect the elders and they respect me.)

The problem is that this freedom comes with a price, a huge and unbiblical price. In PBG the CLT (Congregation Leadership Team, i.e. the Church Council) has ultimate oversight over the pastor. They do his performance reviews. This is very dangerous. The pastor is called by God and is responsible to God and his word, not to a church council, board of elders or voters assembly. Every self-respecting congregation should want nothing more. If he is accountable to any group or individual within the church he will now be tempted to adjust his goals and priorities to please them.

This is not to say that a congregation cannot hold a pastor accountable, but the way they hold him accountable is through God’s word, not through man-made policies. Christ and his word are ultimately in charge in the church, not the pastor and not the CLT, elders, voters assembly, etc. The problem is that PBG holds the pastor accountable for all sorts of “outcomes” (measurable check points) rather than holding him accountable for what the scriptures and confessions say he is accountable for, i.e. preaching the Gospel in its purity and administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command (Augsburg Confession VII).

Of course, most if not all congregations that are interested in PBG have fallen for the deception that the goal of the church is to grow the kingdom of God. This approach to the church lends itself to measurable things, e.g. visitors to church, prospects visited, adults confirmed (in many PBG churches adult confirmation is more about learning the workings of the congregation, particularly stewardship, more than it is about teaching doctrine).

To summarize this oversight issue consider that PBG gives a neat and tidy answer to a question that does not have a neat and tidy Biblical answer. Who is in charge of the church? PBG says that the pastor runs the church day to day and yet the laity is ultimately in control because they do the pastor’s performance review. (Can you imagine Moses, St. Paul, Luther or Walther ever talking about performance reviews?) The Bible says that the church follows God’s word. The pastor is the teacher of God’s word and the people are the hearers. (This is what Luther says in the Small Catechism.) If the people do not hear the word of Christ coming from the pastor then by all means they should rebuke him in love. This is a far cry from a performance review – but you see, in the PBG church, it is all about results and is not centered in teaching the faith. (The chart I will share in part two of this series highlights the fact that the word “Jesus” is only used once in a PBG document that I reviewed while the word “outcome” is used ten times.) Church structure is not about the law as in PBG which protects the authority of the laity while expanding the management authority of the pastor. Church structure is all about pastor and people living together in trust under the authority of Christ’s word each doing what God has called them to do.

This neat and clean answer to the authority question in the church according to PBG leads to some real problems down the road which will be the topic of our next post.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Policy Based Government in the Church is a Bad Idea, by Pr. Tim Rossow — 9 Comments

  1. “Of course, most if not all congregations that are interested in PBG have fallen for the deception that the goal of the church is to grow the kingdom of God.”
    It is startling how many congregations have indeed fallen for this deception, and would consider it heresy to say anything else.
    This is the heart of what ails the congregations in our Synod.

  2. Rev. Bergstrazer pegged it!! Consequently, we as a synod are “Ablaze” in this !%$*& (stuff)

  3. The problem in many large churches, is that so called “ministry councils”, and the like, have leaders that are in the business community. This is not a problem, in and of itself, but it is a problem when they try to run the church like a business. This reduces the Pastor to a middle-manager. In most business and corporate settings, middle-managers are usually have to adhere to a “performance matrix”. This performance matrix is not based on scripture.
    If an individual or individuals have a personal bias against their pastor, they can often times abuse this power to dismiss their pastor. The issue that they do not or will not understand, is that a Pastor is not a hired employee, in the sense that a company’s middle manager is. The Pastor is called by God to serve in that congergation, according to scripture and confessions. The only “performance-matrix” that a pastor is answerable to is Scripture. The only two scriptual reasons to dismiss your Pastor is 1. if the Pastor is teaching false doctrine, or 2. if the pastor is involved in unrepentant immorality. Congregations that practise left hand kingdom principles, instead of right-hand kingdom principles will find a revolvong door of weak Pastors, every 5 years or so they wil be dismissing a Pastor under an unscriptual basis.

  4. Two thoughts:

    1) What Jim mentioned. PBG leads to viewing the Pastor as an employee in a business, and therefore “fireable” for whatever “offenses” he might be perceived to have done, or not done, like not growing the church by a certain amount each year.

    2) Pastor Rossow points out: “In many PBG churches adult confirmation is more about learning the workings of the congregation, particularly stewardship, more than it is about teaching doctrine.” In some PBG churches, the adult confirmation is about leadership training, and/or finding out what your spiritual gifts are, so you can be plugged into the collective of the other lay “ministers.” That goal could be considered to contradict vocation.

  5. I’m confused… Should the “church” not have as a goal to reach the lost, thereby “growing” the Kingdom of God?

  6. @Rev Jason Auringer #6
    Of course the Church should try to reach the lost. However, to have measurable ‘performance’ goals in this regard, tying the pastor’s continued employment to the membership growth of the congregation, is going too far.

  7. @Jim Harter #3

    Good post, Jim. I couldn’t agree more with the danger of superimposing a business model onto the pastoral ministry. But I would suggest that the danger of such things happening does not only occur in larger urban churches. Small rural churches can adopt the same attitudes towards their pastor, too. Perhaps instead of seeing him as a middle manager, they see him as if he were one of their hired farm hands who they get to order around.

    A pastor in a small rural church once asked his elders if they thought that their pastor was their employee, and it was their job as elders to tell the pastor what he was supposed to do. Some of them raised their hand. When the pastor told them that they were wrong, the elders couldn’t believe that a pastor would ever challenge them and say such a thing! The pastor showed them that according to Jn. 10, the pastor is not to be seen as a “hireling” because the pastor who is a hired hand harms the sheep and leaves them for dead when the wolf comes. The board still couldn’t believe it. They decided that this was just the pastor’s failing for reading his interpretations into Scripture. True story. It happens in rural churches too. (God be praised I have 2 wonderful congregations where this is not the case).

    In Christ,
    Rev. Robert Mayes
    Beemer, NE

  8. I agree no performance-based criteria should be set other than the expectation of Biblical preaching & teaching. What I find from my own pastoral experience, however, is that the “old time” model of church polity leads to a misunderstanding of the role/position/authority of the pastor as well….which leads me to surmise that the problem is the people’s understanding as much as it is the form of the structure. I somewhat jokingly ask, “Do you think the Apostle Paul ask for permission from the deacons…?”

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