Six Common Problems with Church Bylaws

Church bylaws are a necessity, both from a legal and an organizational perspective. They provide the framework from which the organization exists and operates.

So, hear me well. I not advocating the elimination, eradication, or minimization of church bylaws.

But I am suggesting church bylaws are often used in ways that hurt churches. Indeed, some churches use bylaws well beyond their original intent. Let me briefly touch on six common problems with them.

  1. Some bylaw provisions are reactions to issues that should have been addressed outside of the bylaws. Let me give you a real-life example, one that I heard from a member of our Church Answers community. The students in the church were meeting in the worship center on Wednesday evenings. One student brought a soda into the worship center and spilled it. Within one month, the church had a new bylaw provision: Thou shalt not bring drinks in the worship center (Okay, I made up that verbiage). Wouldn’t it have been better for someone simply to ask the students not to bring the drinks to the worship center? Sometimes bylaws are used to attempt to idiot proof anything that can go wrong.
  2. Bylaws are sometimes used as a weapon. Here is another true example. The treasurer did not like the executive pastor. He constantly tried to derail his leadership and ministry. The treasurer’s most used weapon was a provision in the bylaws that required a two-thirds congregational vote for “major administrative decisions.” The problem is that no one knew the definition of “major,” but the treasurer used the wording to hinder the work of the executive pastor.
  3. Bylaws can become obstacles instead of order. When bylaws are used properly, they bring legal and organizational order to churches. For that reason, they are vital and helpful. Too often, though, bylaws become obstacles for churches to move forward. In more than one church the bylaws are used more than the Bible to make decisions. They become the metaphorical “tail wagging the dog.”
  4. Bylaws can become means for control and consolidation of power. As I consulted churches over the past three decades, I have been fascinated with the history of specific church bylaw provisions. It is not uncommon to learn that bylaws were used by certain power groups in the church to gain or consolidate control. In one church, the bylaws required every undefined major decision to go through a church council. That provision was added fifteen years earlier when the chairman of the church council tried to usurp authority from the church staff. Today, that former chairman is no longer at the church, and the church council is not a functioning group. But the bylaw provision remains.
  5. Bylaws can be a distraction from the main thing. Here is another consultation example from my past. The pastor of the church asked me to attend the monthly business meeting. He also asked me to listen for the word “bylaws” in the meeting. There were no further instructions. Within five minutes, two church members referred to the bylaws as reasons for inaction. By the time the 70-minute meeting was over, the bylaws had been referenced twelve times. There was no mention of evangelism, discipleship, the Great Commission, the Great Commandment, or any other biblical mandates.
  6. Bylaws can be sources of division. This last point is obvious in light of the previous points. In many churches, you can read the bylaws to learn stories of church fights, church splits, factions, and power plays. We were asked in a church consultation to interview departing church members to learn why so many were leaving the church. While the overall issue was infighting and division, one woman specifically referenced the bylaws: “I had to leave the church; it was not good for my spiritual health. There is so much division in the church, and every division becomes a bylaw battle. I think the church should change its name to The Church of the Bylaws.”

Good church bylaws provide structure, organization, and legal protection.

Bad and overused church bylaws can be divisive, distracting, and even disastrous.

Posted on May 14, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Linden Frank says on

    Your take on the bylaws is another reason I don’t darken any evangelical door
    anymore. I was involved for 20 wasted years of my life. Now that I’m out
    I’m growing more spiritually and in God than I ever did in the movement.
    My God says what you can not what you can’t.

  • Mary Abraham says on

    My church hired a new pastor. He has taken all of the duties upon himself. He is operating outside the realm of our bylaws. The members are not going to address this because most of them are terrorized by the pastors behavior. They talk about the situation and are afraid to confront him face to face!!!
    Is there any hope of saving the church??

  • alfred bradley says on

    My church recently called a new younger pastor as Senior Pastor. The bylaws outline the duties of the Senior Pastor which are simply to preach God’s word, baptize, do communion and be the “spiritual leader.” The new pastor has been given the title Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Senior Pastor with duties which basically include running all aspects of the church, i.e., financial oversight, hiring and firing staff and ect. We are a nondenominational congregational church whereby the bylaws call for congregational votes to change the bylaws.

    Is changing the pastor’s title and duties a violation of the existing bylaws which do not include CEO or the expanded duties? We do have a board of directors but they have done nothing to address these bylaw issues. Existing bylaws are filed with IRS and the state of Virginia.

    • Ken Peterson says on

      In our denominational church, all pastors as shepherd leaders are EXOFFICIOs of the Board. As pastor/shepherd, leadership and oversight is spiritually provided but not legally. Those positions are held by a Board of Stewards among others. As one called by God, I labor for Him as one among God’s people in leadership. The local, legal requirements are best left to the church board. Again, as an Exofficio, I call the meetings but have no voting power. IF ever a said local church is out of line by using its legal authority against full-time spiritual leadership such as myself, then it would become necessary to humbly move on. I work for the Master AMONG the body of Christ. I’ve never had any trouble where this position is made clear. Both must TRUST GOD. Let Him lead and convict and remove when necessary. He does and will do it if His blessing is to remain.

  • Alice Lee says on

    My church, a southern baptist church in Southern California with a membership of about 400, is caught in an unique dilemma and I hope Mr. Rainer or someone who has gone through similar experience could share some advise for us. We were in the process of voting on approving the hiring of a Senior Pastor in March right before our state went into shutdown. We were only 20 votes from the quorum. Our church bylaws say that voting can only be done in person, and by now the call for the Senior Pastor candidate has expired so we have to reinstate the call before we can vote. But if we can’t meet in church since the church is closed, and we can’t gather in any place with over 100 persons due to the state mandate during the pandemic, could we meet using virtual meeting app like Zoom legally to reinstate the call of the Sr. Pastor candidate? Some member has raised the risk of lawsuit if we violate the bylaws. Thank you and God bless!

  • J.Dios says on

    Do Church Bylaws need to be dated? Do they need to show when they were last amended? Our current bylaws have neither which concerns me because really anybody could have made adjustments without any kind of accountability and just told the board these are the current bylaws. Our Paster left our church last year, we have gone nearly a year without a Pastor, just an interim who was in training at the time the Pastor stepped down. What the Pastor did before he left was form a separate “Pastoral Search Committee” to work in conjunction with our Church Elders. This Committee is not in our Bylaws. The hindrance in our Bylaws is that it states that the Board forms the “Search Committee” and out of the potential candidates they see they have to narrow it down to ONLY ONE candidate to present to the voting members of our church. At which point the church votes. If the church does not select this ONE candidate then the process starts all over again! I have been a member of this church for nearly 30 years and have gone through 4 Pastors. I have not seen the selection process conducted in this way before, which means at some point someone amended the Bylaws, or perhaps our church was never acting based on the Bylaws. I know that there is Biblical mandate that shows a church how to select a replacement, as the disciples did when selecting a replacement for Judas. They narrowed the selection down to two potential replacements, prayed, and fasted over their decision and cast lots. While of course, we don’t cast lots, I feel our church is being robbed of selecting candidates by only being presented with one. We are not being given a choice and not being given the opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to the right choice, giving the board basically all the power to think and choose for us! It has been an exhausting and prolonged process unnecessarily.

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