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Management Principles
To Effectively Govern Church Life

By T. Ray Rachels

This issue of Enrichment is part one of a two-part series on church management. The goal of these issues is to better equip pastors and church leaders to successfully navigate through the oftentimes complex matrix of church-management issues.

The following article serves as our primer on the subject of church management. It summarizes a variety of management issues that will be covered in greater detail in subsequent articles in this issue as well as articles appearing in part two—the winter 2004 issue.

Finally, topics are cross-referenced within and across the three major sections of the issue giving multiple entry points on subjects of specific interest to you.

The closest I have come to seeing a perfectly managed organization was on a downtown sidewalk in Visalia, California. There were 20 preschoolers, walking single file and accompanied by 4 teachers—one teacher in front, one at the rear, and one on either side—boxing them in. Down the middle was a rope held by the teachers in front and back. Twenty preschoolers, 10 on each side, held the rope as they walked, talked, laughed, and looked around. It was a perfect system for getting preschoolers in a difficult environment safely from point A to point B, with minimal disturbance.

The teachers were competent in their task and the kids happy to be led. With everybody going in the same direction, it was management by walking around; all parties had a hands-on relationship to the task. And those who looked on applauded the event with appreciation.

John Kotter of the Harvard Business School says, "Management is about coping with complexity. Without good management, complex enterprises tend to become chaotic in ways that threaten their very existence. Good management brings a degree of order and consistency to key dimensions."

Those 20 preschoolers, led by 4 wise managers, is an example of how to deal effectively with a group that has a high potential for disorganization.

Managing The Local Church

As pastor, you are called to manage your church. Whether you have a large or small church, paid or volunteer staff, leading and managing your church effectively remains at the heart of ministry.

Don Cousins, in Mastering Church Management, says: "The term administration, itself, hardly sets feet dancing. In many people’s minds, administration stands precipitously close to bureaucracy. It smacks of endless details, rigidity, red tape, and routine.

"Yet, administration—managing the affairs of a church—often spells the difference between pastoral effectiveness and ineffectiveness."

Managing Through Church Governance

The single most effective strategy for building public confidence in organizational church life is accountability. Without openness and transparency that provides disclosure of decisions and actions, a pastoral leader invites suspicion and mistrust. One of the important ways to build trust is to have good church governance. (For a thorough discussion on this subject, see the section on managing church government beginning.)

Constitution and Bylaws

Part of church governance includes proper organizational structure. Every congregation needs to be accountable to its constitution and bylaws. If these documents are well-written, they will provide structure for responsible accountability for everyone within the organization. Bylaws set up procedures by which the church operates. These procedures are not obstacles to effective ministry but an aid to getting things done right. It is important to cultivate congregational respect for its bylaws. The foundation of accountability is a uniform governance standard to which everyone must conform.


Decisionmaking at the board level is hard work. It is a process that requires asking questions and insisting on answers. It requires evaluating facts and information, weighing risks and rewards, and reviewing alternatives. It may also require consulting experts such as accountants, attorneys, fundraisers, engineers, and financial planners.

The board must have freedom to discuss and debate issues, deliberate, and then make decisions. The board can make responsible decisions only if it has its eyes open and has access to all relevant information. If a pastor discourages board members from asking questions or characterizes reasonable inquiry as negative, he* fails in his responsibility and does not serve the best interests of the church. Board members cannot fulfill their duties if their pastor refuses to provide answers to reasonable questions.

Where only views supporting or approving pastoral decisions are permitted, truth and reality are suppressed. Where differing views are discouraged or characterized as negative thinking, accountability is also suppressed. The result is poor, ineffective, and unaccountable board decisionmaking. The better rule is to encourage open and free discussion where all views are heard and respected.

There is no reason why a split decision is always unacceptable. Where there is freedom to vote against proposals, accountability abounds, and effective, positive board decisions are possible.

The Book of Acts relates how Paul and Barnabas had a sharp difference of opinion (Acts 15:36–41). Although Paul and Barnabas disagreed, it worked out well for both.

Unanimity was not necessary for their ministry to continue. In fact, unanimity, had it been the rule, would have frustrated any meaningful missionary activity by either Paul or Barnabas.

A caution is in order, however. Boards need to temper the pursuit of honest inquiry with a spirit of cooperation toward pastoral leadership to avoid an antagonistic relationship. When the spirit of cooperation is lost, the church’s pastoral leadership, ministry, and accountability will suffer.


Church finances are another area that must be managed well. Maintaining financial integrity requires full and regular disclosure to a competent church board and to the congregation at the annual business meeting.

A church’s budget should be analyzed for cost-benefit ratios, as in any effective business or organization. In ministry, organizational efficiency means positive, tangible outcomes resulting from investing funds.

If a church wants to regain lost credibility, it must make sure it keeps promises and does so within budget. A team of leaders that includes members of the congregation, not just staff, also enhances credibility. This process involves time and a long-term strategy. (Managing the Local Church, part 2 [winter 2004], will discuss church finances in much greater detail.)


Since a church is a corporation, accountable not only to its membership, but also to its legal charter, it must pay attention to paperwork. Corporate existence, health, status, financial condition, liability, and accountability all depend on written documents.

A key component of accountability for any church is an effective system of documentation. Without a proper paper trail, it is difficult for anyone to determine who made what decision, based on what information, and who was told about it. Good minutes tell the story.

Every good pastor needs accountability with a good board. "A board of directors," said Robert R. Thompson and Gerald R. Thompson in Organizing for Accountability, "acts only in the form of a resolution. If formal resolutions are not proposed, debated, and passed, the board has not acted. Moreover, if a resolution exists only in verbal form, every board member will have a different recollection of what it was. The virtue of putting resolutions in writing is that it helps end any dispute as to what action the board took." A rule of thumb: always put it in writing. (See sidebar, "Minutes of Meetings—A Guide," in the managing church government section.)

Managing goals and vision

The success of a well-managed church depends on how it fulfills God’s plans and purposes. In one of Annie Dillard’s books, she talks about life lessons on swinging an axe and chopping wood.

"Chopping wood," she says, "is best done when you aim for the chopping block. If you aim for the wood, you will hit nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block."

That idea holds a great lesson for building a healthy local church. When swinging your management axe, look past the present moment, past the little pieces of church life that may hold distractions for you, past the inefficiencies and poorly managed systems that may now be in place. Take the long view, the view that tells you and the entire congregation about a fabulous future that is available to express itself in biblical proportions, needing only a tough and tender guiding hand to point it toward a Christ-honoring future.

Big questions remain: What priorities must I employ that puts into motion a standard of excellence for my pastoral leadership? What management principles govern effective church life? Will Spirit-led people follow? How do I get people on board? Where do I start?

For a pastor to lead his church and manage it well, he must know where his church needs to go. This is accomplished through a vision and mission statement. This credo—a mission statement—will be a behavioral guide for every person in leadership, from the custodian, to the ushers, teachers, board members, to the lead pastor. Be specific and honest. Whatever success or failure you may have as pastor should tap into that credo/mission statement as the values that will be applied by every team member to every ministry in the local church, no matter how small it may seem. And your effectiveness will come only to the degree that people buy into your beliefs and purpose. If this is not in place, you will not be able to effectively lead your staff and church. Here are some areas that are important.

There should never be confusion about why your church exists.

Spell it out. Then include your well-defined purpose in every strategy the church undertakes. Your influence within and outside the congregation will grow as you present clear and compelling reasons for your church’s mission to the community.

Make sure everyone can clearly state the church’s purpose.

It’s one thing for the pastor to know what the church’s business is; it’s another to transfer that vision so the people have ownership of it.

Thomas Watson, Jr., founder of IBM in 1914, built the incredible success of IBM on the few words he wrote and distributed to each employee he hired: "One, the individual must be respected. Two, the customer must be given the best possible service. Three, excellence and superior performance must be pursued." These words are still in force at IBM and are at the heart of it’s Business Conduct Guidelines manual which is distributed to every employee once a year and is required reading.

When a church’s vision and core values are clarified, energy is infused into the entire organization.

Make sure your people know their role in making the church’s purpose a reality.

Cousins likens the church to a football team. The purpose is to get the ball across the goal line. But unless the wide receiver knows his route, and the left tackle his blocking assignment, and the center the snap count, they will trip over each other and go nowhere. Every player needs to know his specific assignment.

It’s the same in the church, notes Cousins. If the worship leader doesn’t know how much time he is allotted in the service, or if the youth leader doesn’t know what activities he or she is expected to plan, or if the ushers aren’t told about special events, there will be disarray. In the well-managed church, these players not only know the overall purpose, they also know what they can do to contribute to the goal. (See the section managing the church office and managing church staff.)

Put your best foot forward by having a neat, clean, and attractive facility.

This is especially true for those areas people pass through on Sunday morning—"Main Street," as Don Cousins calls it.

Main Street is the corridor from the parking entrance, through the parking area, church entrances, lobbies, and main halls, to the auditorium—the portion everybody, especially visitors, passes through on Sunday. They may not see the offices or rehearsal rooms, but people at church will walk through Main Street.

Neglecting Main Street speaks volumes about church management. Pastoral managers who are careful about these details will likely have other aspects of ministry under control. (Managing the Local Church, part 2 [winter 2004], will discuss managing church facilities in greater detail.)

"Management helps us make the most of the light we have," advises Cousins. "Organization helps us enhance our capabilities. If we order our lives well, and carefully manage those placed in our charge, our churches will shine brightly, as lights set on a hill."

Decisionmaking is easy when values are clear. A church’s core values are the basis for church leadership decisions. Nothing feels better than playing on a team where everyone is trying to move the ball toward the same goal. Few experiences are more stressful than working with a group whose values are moving them in opposite directions. (See sidebar "Developing an Outstanding Staff" in the managing church staff section.)

Managing change

A museum in Corpus Christi, Texas, contains an exhibit of a mockingbird skeleton. Inside the winged skeleton is a huge eggshell. The bird produced an egg too large to lay and died trying to lay it. A leader who emphasizes or promotes teachings that do not match the theological selectivity of most people in his congregation understands how that mockingbird must have felt.

When you feel change is needed and seek to initiate that change before bringing your board and congregation alongside you, then, as the premedieval mariner’s maps warned about unknown territories: "There be dragons."

People will follow a good pastor almost anywhere when trust is established. And trust takes work and time.

When working toward change, a wise pastor’s most important role is to determine the parameters in which committees or task forces do their work. The idea is to give away tasks to competent people. Let them know what needs to be done and when, empower them, and release them to fly. When you cast your bread on waters like that, it usually comes back buttered, with jam on it. (See sidebar, "Finding and Discipling Quality Volunteers." Choose article "Managing the Church Office: An Ever-changing Challenge.")

The most common mistake is trying to change too much, too fast, too soon. We overestimate what we can do in 1 year and underestimate what we can do in 5 years.

In guiding people toward a realistic pace of change, Paul Mundey, director of the Andrew Center, a nondenominational agency for helping church leaders, suggests that effective pastors and lay leaders follow these principles:

Affirm that grandiose is not always grand.

Overambitious, big-time plans do not always serve the best interests of a local church. In many instances, small is beautiful, beneficial, and better. Management guru, Charles Handy, reminds us that it is often the seemingly insignificant things that alter life most profoundly:

"The chimney, for instance, may have caused more social change than any war. Without a chimney, everyone had to huddle together in one central place around a fire, with a hole in the roof above. The chimney, with its separate flues, made it possible for one dwelling to heat a variety of rooms. Small units could huddle together independently. The cohesion of the tribe in winter slipped way."

Where do you need to build chimneys, rather than bonfires, in the life of your congregation?

Affirm that a journey of many miles is taken in many steps.

Most change efforts need to be undertaken step-by-step, plank-by-plank. Three years worth of change can’t take place in 3 months. But it can be broken down into a series of smaller incremental changes. A sequence of multiple steps gives people time to adjust to each smaller change as it comes.

Affirm that one size does not fit all.

Congregations can be seduced by the notion that a successful change effort in one place will automatically work in their church.

Each congregation has its own unique identity and fingerprint, defined by its culture, systems, and temperament. Church size affects the programs and ministry approaches a leader should attempt. For instance, it might not be wise to force highly structured programming on a smaller, relationally based, family church.

Affirm that addition is better than subtraction.

Change happens best as we multiply people’s options, rather than pulling the plug on cherished activities. Adding a Saturday morning small group for working women is preferable to disbanding the Tuesday morning sewing circle (no matter how gossipy they may have become).

Affirm that God’s provision accompanies God’s vision.

Dream the dreams, but count the cost. Challenge committees or task teams with a fundamental question: "Do we have the minimal resources necessary—in terms of time, money, people, and energy—to undertake this effort?" There will always be tension between vision and provision. Even the best idea, pushed at the wrong moment, can be a disaster.

Managing time

The term time management may seem like an oxymoron to most pastors. But meeting the challenge of time management is not impossible.

Pastors work with five resources: time, people, money, buildings, and equipment. Of these five, time is the hardest to manage because we cannot see it. Yet this invisible resource determines what we accomplish with the other four.

In recent years several effective time-management principles and methods have emerged from the business and church world. As you review the qualities/characteristics of thinking and behavior patterns for keeping control of the things that can be controlled in your schedule, ask yourself: Do my time-management habits help or hinder my productivity as a church leader?

Leaders often lament their need to find time to effectively accomplish their ministries. Finding time is a picturesque metaphor but a less than precise phrase. Time is never lost, only poorly used. If pastors see themselves as stewards of a precious gift and build on that perception with effective goals and habits, effective ministry results.

First, decide your life and ministry priorities. Second, decide to use your time to accomplish those priorities, instead of the dozens of other important matters that clamor for your time. Function from this perspective and you will find the time about which other people only dream.

Improving managerial skills

In a famous comic strip, Charlie Brown is forlornly explaining to Lucy the scientific details of why kites fly. As he’s busily winding up his kite string, he says that the ratio of weight to surface area is known as sail loading. Lucy listens to his technical explanation about kites and praises his knowledge. In the last frame, Lucy asks him why his kite is down the sewer.

Most pastors and church leaders recognize that, despite countless books and articles on the art/science of management, something is still missing. How do you keep your kite in the air and out of the sewer?

Many pastors may not know their management style and how if affects their role as pastor. Once they determine their style, pastors also need to understand how effective their style is and how to change their style to be most effective in every situation. To understand more about management styles and how to use them effectively, visit:

Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001, presided over that company’s rise to become the largest corporation in the world. An interviewer in Harvard Business Review asked him how GE was able to maintain its growth momentum, given the complexities of the organization, its size, and the need to discipline spending.

Welch’s answer: "GE is big in its overall size but small in its execution."

Question: "What are three or four things I can do right now to make my company small in execution?"

Answer: "Get information from every person so each knows his/her ideas count. Celebrate small successes. Evaluate people down to the lowest units, so they know their achievements are constantly being measured and that they count. It’s critical that people know their contributions matter. It’s critical that they know what they do will be seen and rewarded."

Welch further said that you should "always overstaff an opportunity. If you believe a business is critical to your future, put better people on it than it seems to deserve. If it’s a $5 million business, put a $300 million person to work on it while it’s still $5 million, and they will make it $300 million. You put a $5 million person on it, and it will stay $5 million."

That same principle applies to church management. If your church is located in a community filled with young couples with small children, the most valuable staff person will be one whose expertise is ministry to young families with children. (Read the section "Hiring Eagles—One at a Time" in Dan Reiland’s article "The Art Of Managing Church Staff.) Good leaders/managers must point their knowledge toward the right goals.

"Talent, like muscle, grows through exercise," advises Kenneth Hilderbrand. "If we fail to extend ourselves and merely go through the motions while we wait for something more fitted to our abilities to come along, we are headed for continual frustration. We may think we have ability enough to warrant starting at the top, but the only chance most people get to start at the top is digging a hole."

God has never put anyone in a place too small to grow. Wherever our place may be—on a farm, in the office, behind a counter, at a teacher’s desk, in a kitchen, wearing a uniform, caring for a child, or behind a pulpit—when we fill that place to the best of our abilities, personal growth is inevitable. Three things being to happen:

We do a better job of what we’re doing.

We expand our talents through vigorous use.

We fit ourselves for larger responsibility and wider opportunity.

You reap what you sow. It’s a principle so elementary that all other factors, without exception, pale in comparison.

T. Ray Rachels is superintendent of the Southern California District Council of the Assemblies of God, Irvine, California.

*Use of the masculine pronoun for pastor is used throughout this issue and should be understood to include both genders.

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