Much of the conflict that churches experience today arises because they have not clearly established and communicated how they will govern their affairs and relate to one another. As a result, there can be significant confusion and disagreement among both leaders and members over how a church will function and act. When members’ expectations are not met and they are treated differently than they wish or expect, they can become deeply offended. All too often this leads them to move from church to church, and in some cases to file retaliatory lawsuits.

One of the most important steps a church can take to prevent this type of confusion and conflict is to adopt clear and comprehensive governing and relational policies. Traditional church governance documents include a constitution and bylaws, which are sometimes linked to a denominational book of church order.

These types of documents are crucial to establishing a church’s legal right to govern itself. Courts strongly support the “right of association,” which involves, among other things, a right to associate for advancement of common belief, a right to establish standards for members, and a right to exclude and expel persons from membership.

Most courts will uphold reasonable practices conducted pursuant to clearly established religious beliefs. Therefore, clear and detailed governing documents can play a decisive role in conflicts in which a court is asked to scrutinize a church’s conduct.

Even the best of church documents almost always fail to fully address crucial relational issues that can lead to devastating conflicts or legal liability. These issues include:

  • conflict resolution and lawsuits against the church
  • marriage, divorce, and remarriage
  • preventing and responding to sexual abuse
  • biblical counseling
  • confidentiality
  • accountability and church discipline.

Each of these issues is specifically addressed in Peacemaker Ministries’ model Relational Commitments (Acrobat file). These Commitments pull together key relational principles from God’s Word and serve as relational guidelines for a particular congregation. These Commitments accomplish several important purposes:

  • They remind church members of their mutual commitment to work together to pursue unity, maintain friendships, preserve marriages, and build relationships that reflect the love of Christ.
  • They help to prevent surprises, disappointed expectations, confusion and conflict by describing how church members and leaders expect to relate to one another within the church.
  • They provide a clear track for a church to run on when conflict threatens to divide them, and they show how to move quickly toward reconciliation.
  • They establish guidelines for how the church leaders will counsel others, guard confidential information, and protect children from abuse.
  • They define and limit the spiritual authority of the church leaders and thereby insure that all members are treated fairly.
  • Finally, they reduce the church’s exposure to legal liability by clearly establishing its relational practices and by affirming a mutual commitment to resolve conflict biblically.

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Although these commitments could be added directly to a church’s bylaws, Peacemaker Ministries recommends that they be organized in a separate document that is referred to within the bylaws. This approach can simplify efforts to educate people and obtain informed consent on these issues. A separate Relational Commitments document provides four benefits:

  • It prevents these important concepts from being buried in and obscured by the more general governing provisions of your bylaws, thus increasing the likelihood the people will actually read and understand them.
  • It presents these concepts in a more personal, pastoral and appealing form, thus increasing the likelihood that people will have a positive impression when they first see these commitments.
  • It provides a simple and winsome way to let visitors know how the people in your church love, encourage, support and minister to one another; this may lead visitors to think more seriously about joining your church.
  • It allows you to present these concepts to attenders and let them know that these commitments apply to all the people who regularly worship in your church, whether they are members or attenders. In other words, a separate Relational Commitments document, properly used, can help you to obtained informed consent to your practices from every person who regularly attends your church, regardless of whether they become formal members.

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Posted on

September 22, 2014