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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  • Brandon McClain Sr says on

    I have some questions concerning Incorporation Law..

  • Russell Wakefield says on

    To all this, I would say, why not follow the biblical pattern God gave us in scripture? but then again is anything we do today done by the word of God. I’ve heard it often said the church has evolved and this is the way we now do church. To this again I would say, this is what is wrong with the body of Christ today…we have drifted so far from what God would call worship and obedience and moved to a form of pagan worship within the body of Christ…I’m not saying it should be a free for all…but a question I have to ask…is Jesus the head of the body today….? Remember we do live in the church age of Laodicean and God’s word said we would be here. As a man saved at 50yrs of age and now 55yrs old…as I read the word of God, I see an immense departure from God and His holy Scripture…

    bylaws turn in the leagalism real fast and when you mix the pure holy water of God’s word with mans legal ways it turns to mud in the blink of an eye…

    Follow the Lord and let Him lead you and guide you and when you fall and we all will for we who are redeemed by the blood of Christ are just sinners saved by God’s glorious grace. We must remember we are blood bought slaves of Christ.

    • Tammy Wanless says on

      Bylaws are mandatory for a nonprofit entity

    • Linden Frank says on

      Jesus dealt pretty severely with LEGALISM in his time. He knew all about it. No it’s not about Jesus any more…It’s about what I/me do for God…well God really doesn’t NEED US…we NEED HIM…wow that’s real earth shattering…but in a lot of circles and among former Christian friends I’m considered lost and gone off to the heathen just because of the way I vote…that’s the never Evangelical Church for you..

  • Gary Mink says on

    The church where I am pastor is not incorporated. It is an association of Christians meeting together (in the state of Tennessee). We are a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We did not have to incorporate to become a nonprofit with the Federal government nor with the state, county, and city governments where we are. Do not permit a lawyer to dictate what your church can and should or “must” do.

  • Do a church have to pass out their by laws to the whole congregation or can they just have each congregation review them in the office?

  • Ernie McCoulskey says on

    As an Associational DOM I often deal with churches in conflict or transition. One diagnostic question I often ask is, “If your church needs to make an important decision, what would be the process to follow?” It is amazing how few church leaders can answer that question and even fewer groups have full agreement about the answer.

  • Doug Miller says on

    I was once blessed to serve in a church where a major simplification took place. The church didn’t have a constitution and the by-laws were 39 pages long. A committee was appointed and the resulting document was a constitution and by-laws that printed on a total of nine pages. The ministry of the church was freed up and business meetings (which went from monthly to quarterly) became significantly shorter. Praise God for major miracles in our churches.

  • Many churches are slaves to their bylaws. In my consultations, I have stated that the bylaws should serve the church and not vice versa. One area where I see how churches are spaces to their bylaws is in dealing with their board sizes. Many church bylaws were written when a church was in its heyday when they had 150 in worship. Church leadership boards were designed according to its size. The problem is when a church has experienced years of decline yet still have the same size boards. I consulted one church that averaged 25 in worship but had 18 on their boards! Another church’s bylaws that I recently heard about stated that a quorum consisted of 50 persons but only had around 20 in worship. Another church that I dealt with had not updated their bylaws since 1969!

    Another issue that I have seen, which was alluded to in the article, was the problem of micromanaging. One church I consulted with had 107 pages of bylaws along with policies and procedures. It even had the number of cups of coffee the church coffee maker should brew at church functions. Of course, if any changes were made, it had to go to the board. In reality, the church did not pay much attention to these outdated and cumbersome bylaws. Nevertheless this church continues to struggle and much of that is due to a leadership structure that has run its course.

  • Cotton Mathis says on

    A very prominent senior pastor of a large church told me once:
    “Churches need bylaws, but by the time they are needed, it is too late.” His point was well taken.

    There was a time in my ministry when I had to study bylaws and parliamentary procedure more than I did the Bible :-). Our business meetings became a battleground for a “control or destroy” faction.

  • Ronald Lee Deal says on

    Well I was in church and then in by laws that did say that you need to change the ways and more if not we will force to convert you by force even if you was gay and lesbian and if not you not welcome or serve then plus too then u was to be killed off by force too then cover it you that you killed yourself and such then others shot u then claims that you shot yourself or od on drugs or alcohol possions and or you was thrown off the bridge or they control your life until u are force to marry a woman who is in love with you and or be killed off by whatever means possible then plus was stoned to death or electricuted to death and brain washed and or drowned to death or such if you don’t follow the doctrine and then plus there Drs appointment then said that you are cursed to hell and we are here to kill you then took Bible serious out of servere context and preach hate not love or love but in hate from Mormon and Jehovah witness and Southern Baptist Church and cathlic churches then several states still act upon it as laws too state of Kansas still practicing it then law is enforce too there with Florida and Kentucky and Indiana and Ohio and North Carolina and South Carolina and Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and Arizona still have intact of laws that are not yet changed yet then the Bible thinks is real and serious about it then still have laws that are in eforced to hurt and kill others because of being gay and lesbian and bi and transgender and more then think it’s a lifestyle but you was born like the same sex God made you who u are and knows all about you before you was even born then how you face challenging times struggle then such I been victum since infant and childhood and such and sold out right of identity theft then child porn then sold for sex trade to many times then from abuse and battered domestic volience and sexual abused and molested too then plus too the church’s still practicing this problematic persistent behavior and harmful behavior against others like me for example Montana is like in middle of this issue now then such well the right wing religious beliefs and more then welcome luminosities and such to have others killed off I witnessed my own family kill men hold men’s hands to women and children that kiss the same sex then steal identity from them and use it then it like them and miss use money and power and such to harm other men and women and children that they think being gay is right then says it’s wrong and harmful then false accusations against them saying there child molester and such then force pain and suffering and false accusations against them and long time hurt and mental anguish and then said with performance arts people too think it’s gay and such and then ones do crafting too then such well believe me I don’t like all doctrine of any form at all then all need to change as such

  • Mike Moran says on

    We are a chrich in the EPC so liberty and charity are important. Is it your recommendation that leadership boards should use administrative authority as much as possible and that by laws should be limited to corporation and state legal purposes?

  • Ron Whited says on

    If your church has a by-law for every conceivable issue that might somehow arrise, or is determined to create such a monstrosity,I would first suggest that a call for repentance is in order. Secondly,a return to the biblical mandate of governance should be next on the list. The very notion that people know the church by-laws better than they know their bible smacks of a heart that has grown cold to the Spirit of God.

  • Please note that in most cases by-laws should only be enacted to comply with state laws , tax law, and for lawsuit protection.