Church Government, Policy Governance for Church Leaders

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Part of ministry resources on Church Administration and Plural-Elder Church Leadership


Most materials on this subject apply the model on non-profit board governance by John and Miriam Carver. This should not be equated with Plural-Elder Congregational Polity, as Carver is not based on biblical assumptions about how churches should be led. Instead, they assume that churches, as non-profits, have board governance of some kind, and focus on the effective and efficient functioning of those boards. Some more relational types may chafe at the “detached” or “cold” corporate language until they discover that the policy governance model may actually provide an efficient way of focusing on what really matters.

The essential idea behind the Carver model is policy governance. The board devises a written statement of organizational purpose or policy (the “ENDS”) that guides all of the mission-related decisions and activities of the congregation (“MEANS”). They devote their energies to devising and continually refining policy and organizational purpose, not necessarily to all the individual decisions at the various levels of the congregation that may express that policy/purpose, but to the policy/purpose itself. This also tightens the boundary of board meeting agenda, as they delegate all decisions that are not policy-related. They work to make sure everything in the congregation expresses the purpose.

Another feature of Carver is the relationship between the board and the CEO or staff. In churches, this requires designating one of the staff as the CEO, usually a “senior minister,” who is the chief delegate that oversees the work of the staff. For this reason, strict plural-elder congregational polities where all elders are equal in authority such as those by Alexander Strauch and Richard Swartley reject Carver (see Strauch, 77-78). Carver is probably more compatible with plural-elder understandings that welcome a primary leader, such as Gene Getz Elders and Leaders, as well as Aubrey Malphurs, Leading Leaders. But with some adaptations, it is probably useful for a variety of congregational leadership structures.

To the extent that Carver is applicable to churches, it focuses almost exclusively on congregational oversight, or the episcopal function, but not so much on the relational, mentoring, or shepherding function. As such, it does not adequately express the full wealth of the elder role, but may help with corporate oversight. Many elderships use Carver to streamline the congregational infrastructure and administrative dimensions, giving them more time for relational and spiritual needs of the flock. When used in this way, it may be compatible with the philosophy of shepherding in Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep.

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