Church Constitution and Bylaws — what works, what doesn’t?

conbyI’m on the Constitution and Bylaws committee of my church. We’ve had many issues over the past 5-10 years with a set of legal documents that are too complex and detailed in some areas, and don’t say enough in other areas.

For example, it states that the full slate of officers will be presented at the February voter’s meeting; our election meeting is held in May, and the new officers take effect in July. Now I’m sure many of you have been on nomination committees and know that it’s just getting more and more difficult to get people to say “yes” when called on. It used to be that we had 2 (or 3!) people slotted for most of the positions; now we struggle until the weeks prior to the election meeting to fill the slate. So the last time I was on the committee, I stood up at the February meeting and said we are working on it, and basically begged people to be open to saying “yes” if we called them. We had very few positions filled at that point.

My point is that our constitution has several things like this where it goes into details that change over time and are no longer relevant.

So … what I would like is to open this up to as many people as possible — can you send me your church constitution and bylaws? Can you discuss below what types of things should be found in them, what should not be there, what works well or works especially poorly in your church documents? What do you wish had been there?

I’ve asked this a few times in different areas of facebook and gotten some good comments back, including to look at the Synod Recommended Guidelines for constitution and bylaws. We are also looking at Bethany Lutheran in Naperville’s Constitution and Bylaws.

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Church Constitution and Bylaws — what works, what doesn’t? — 14 Comments

  1. This is a great thread to start. On the issue of elections I struggle with that so much. Our people would be like involved in activities that are beyond meetings, but we find good people to serve. We have elections and some of our positions are contested, but who wants to come to church and lose? Once I had two fine men “defeated” by two fine men. Two were hurting. Somehow there has to be a better way.

  2. A friend of mine told me that either the constitution or the by-laws for one of his congregations prohibited the Baptism of converts who had not previously been baptised, in that it specified that having a least one parent or grandparent holding membership in the congregation was a requirement for Baptism …

  3. @Tim Klinkenberg #1
    I have heard of one congregation who gets a slate of qualified candidates for each position, and rather than have campaigning or disappointment, they draw the name of the new office holder out of a hat. This seems a nice practice in the case where you are actually having contested positions. I think many congregations have the opposite problem of not finding anyone or just finding one person for a given position.

  4. Great suggestion Joshua elections lead to politics and that is almost always divisive.#

  5. Norm –

    Even there, way back when, I advocated “let the first volunteer serve” if qualified. When I was at St. J’s, the officers were the cream of the crop, and as I recall, all pretty much volunteered and were simply approved by acclamation. Fr. Scheer’s suggestion works if there must be a political model in play, but I have never been comfortable with that model.

    Joe Pew-sitter works up the courage of faith to take on a special responsibility. That should be lauded, and rewarded (so to speak) with the opportunity to serve the Lord, the Church, and fellow members. Filling a slate with names of those actually “opposing” one anther for a given office or task seems – at least within the Church – self-defeating. It is hard to avoid the appearance of a popularity contest.

    It is no small step of faith when a member decides to step things up a notch and serve the whole flock in a certain capacity. Wiser heads can help guide and direct, and make one’s offer of service of real benefit to the flock.

    Draw lots, if need be. But pitting one faithful member against another in a “vote” is, IMHO, self defeating on several fronts. My two cents worth.

  6. Regarding drawing names out of a hat: Make sure they’re qualified for the job before you put their names in the hat. You don’t want a Treasurer who can’t balance his own checkbook. Trustees should know something about repairs, or at least where to go to get them done. Lay Elders should know Scripture and the Confessions better than most. Recording Secretaries should know how to record and type minutes.

    I think Walther wrote that the Constitution should be very brief, so that matters that are not addressed can be referred to Scripture and the Confessions. Unfortunately, members today want every little thing in writing.

    I liked Bethany’s when I read it a few years ago. That was what I would have submitted to my congregation if we were going to write a new one.

  7. In my parish the “candidates” are chosen by the leadership of the church and no one can be nominated from the floor. Sometime before the annual meeting the board members are announced and a report printed on the budget. At the meeting we can only affirm the members by voice vote. No new business. Why bother to show up is a common statement.
    Hard to believe this form of polity is tolerated but understood why they like it.

  8. I think the flaw is in the assumptions of the political system at its root. The Protestant methodology of constantly democratically electing officers for various aspects of the church, is found nowhere in the Scriptures.

    What is found, is a much more robust usage of the office of Deacon. In the early church, and through the Reformation period as I remember my readings, it was common to train certain volunteers for particular services in the church, consecrating them to various tasks. This provides stability, competence, volition, and supervision by the presiding clergy.

    Just my two cents, but I think this whole democratic structure has been undermining the efficient working of the congregations for a long time, from the proper execution of parish education, to worship, to the pastoral office, and even to how districts/dioceses or the Synod is executed. I’ve been shocked over the years, how many parishioners have grown to think of the Kingdom of God as a democratic republic… and we have taught them this by our very Protestant and American approach to the Church.

    No wonder, our Confessions prefer the canonical rules and rites of antiquity. Returning to them would help us a great deal, in my opinion.

  9. Get rid of all committees except council and elders. Pastor chooses Elders and they are ratified by the voters. They handle right-hand matters and closely related items. Elders identify twice as many nominees for council as will serve, and the slate is ratified by voters. Then, they are drawn out of a hat. I think our previous year’s council selects 2 nominees for church president, and that is drawn out of hat.

    Special purpose committees can be delegated by the council. The only other votes for voters is usually the budget.

    Works fantastically.

  10. BJR,

    Yes! But I would add a couple of things that take it even further.

    Forget the Church Council and have a Board of Trustees instead. This is what Walther had – Trustees to manage the temporal affairs and Elders to assist the pastor as he makes his plans for administering word and sacrament.

    Also, do as Walther did and name the chairman rightly. He is the chairman of the voters assembly, not the chairman of the congregation or a council. His job is to see to it that the voters get to vote on those things that are in their purview.

    We got rid of our council years ago and it has worked wonderfully. We have four boards: Trustees, Finance, Elders and Day School Policy. It works well but would work even more efficiently if Trustees and Finance were combined.

  11. Pastor Tim Rossow :BJR,
    Also, do as Walther did and name the chairman rightly. He is the chairman of the voters assembly, not the chairman of the congregation or a council. His job is to see to it that the voters get to vote on those things that are in their purview.

    That might have been more widespread than you think. Some of the older members of my congregation, whose fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, etc. were always congregation officers for as long as there’s been a Missouri Synod, have stated to me that the board of elders were more like the Executive Branch (not pastoral assistants) rather than the congregation president, who they’ve stated–as you did above–is basically supposed to be a meeting chairman.

    Still, as state corporations, the officers legally responsible are the President, Secretary, and Treasurer, not the elder or trustee boards.

    Our congregation’s constitution has the Vice-President as Chairman of the Council, and the President as the Chairman of the Voters’ Assembly. I’m assuming that in the old days this was to let the President participate in the discussions. It really causes some confusion regarding who is supposed to be in charge, though.

  12. I would recommend that you contact Immanuel Lutheran Church in Terre Haute, IN. It is quite different from other churches I have been to but I really appreciated there constitution and why they did what they did.

  13. Thanks much for the comments so far! Special thanks to Pastor Heinecke for the pointer to the constitution / bylaws that are very refreshing to read!

  14. There are many facets to the polity of a congregation and not all congregations are the same. I would offer that agreement can be made on that point. Having said that I believe there are common principles that apply in almost all cases. For example, it is important to denote in some way what is a left hand and what is right hand and to make sure the left hand never drives what the right agrees to do. Another big concern has always been proper checks and balances over those who exercise authority, including the control and spending of the congregations money. Check out Organization of LCMS Congregations and the part dealing with constitutions and bylaws found under the Resources from CLCC – Seminars on the CLCC Wesite.

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