Bailing on Bad Polity – Part 1

Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 60

Have you ever left a church leadership meeting and wanted to quit church altogether?

Dysfunctional leadership is a common problem. In fact, for every church with a healthy leadership structure, there are likely dozens with leadership challenges. So if your church’s leadership structure makes you want to pull your hair out, you aren’t alone. 

You can take solace knowing that leadership dysfunction isn’t a recent phenomenon, either. It’s as old as the church itself. Paul dedicates much of his writings to solving leadership dysfunction and flawed polity. You’re in good company, or at least ancient company.

God’s design is for your church to have healthy, Biblical leadership. You are not fated to operate under bad polity. You can choose to develop more effective and efficient leadership structures that empower your church to have a more significant impact.

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In order to bail on bad polity and build a better, biblical leadership structure that works in the 21st century, you need to acknowledge three challenges and navigate three action steps. In Part 1 of Bailing on Bad Polity, we detail the challenges your church must boldly confront to transition to a better structure for the future.

Challenge 1: The Past

You cannot develop a new leadership structure without acknowledging the past. Depending on your tradition, you may have immutable constraints to your polity due to a Book of Order or other denominational framework. Most churches have a degree of latitude to structure their leadership but may have internal constraints guided by tradition more than an external mandate.  

In either case, your church must confront the past with humility and honor. Acknowledge why things are the way they are and assume the best intentions. You will not be able to win others to a new way of doing things by denigrating the past. However, you must also be able to articulate the shortcomings of your current structure.

The most effective way to lead change is to articulate how the church’s past structures fail to live up to the original intentions. For example, past generations developed committee-driven models to activate a large number of people to do ministry. But most church committees are filled with discussion, not decisions, and with apathy rather than action. Therefore, a shift in the structure that activates more people for ministry implements the original intention. In this way, the change honors the past rather than denigrates it.

Challenge 2: The “Need” for Democracy

Churches, especially Western ones, must acknowledge an uncomfortable truth. Our polity is primarily modeled on American ideals, not Biblical ones. You will not find congregational votes in Scripture. The instances of “democracy” in the Bible are usually cautionary tales. The people wanted to go back to Egypt. The people wanted an earthly king. The crowds abandoned Jesus. 

Hard as it is to say as a freedom-loving American, but when it comes to spiritual leadership, God prefers a theocracy to democracy.

Recognize that a shift to more effective leadership will require teaching what the Bible says about leadership. Indeed, the structures of leadership in the early church are not incredibly clear and are more descriptive than prescriptive. But the principles we do see exhibited in the church are decidedly undemocratic.

Scripture is clear that God appoints, qualifies, and empowers leaders to guide the church in often unpopular ways. Therefore, creating an effective 21st-century leadership team is less about innovation and more about looking to the Bible and contextualizing its guidance.

Challenge 3: The Talent Pool

Churches generally elevate leaders based on longevity and seniority. Yes, there is a cursory nod to the Pastoral Epistles’ qualifications, but otherwise, churches select their leaders based on age or how long they have attended. Worse, some churches choose their leaders based on their influence, status, or wealth. These are low standards for leadership.

As a result, church leadership teams are generally ineffective. Healthy churches select leaders based on their character and their capacity. The Biblical qualifications for leadership include both standards, yet most churches only pay attention to the character aspects–not the capacity requirements. 

Recognize that your church’s leadership talent pool might be shallow when you initially make a change. Don’t let this discourage you. Be forward-thinking and recognize that a commitment to a new structure and process for leadership development sets you up for success in the future. Indeed, the church’s leadership can thrive for generations to come.

In part two of our Bailing on Bad Polity, we outline three action steps your church must take to implement a better leadership structure.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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