It’s that time of year again when faithful church members might receive phone calls or emails with special invitations for the year ahead: “We’d like you to serve on a church committee or ministry team.”
The “we” in a traditional church being the Committee on Committees or Committee on Nominations or some similar body tasked with staffing the various committees or lay teams that serve the church.
Before you say “yes” or “no” — but especially if you say “yes” — it’s important to understand what you are and are not being asked to do. The answer most likely will depend on the size and staff structure of your church.
I write this as someone who facilitated the Committee on Committees in a large traditional Baptist church for the better part of two decades. It is common for nominating committees to make occasional mistakes — for example, recommending people because they have some professional expertise but not realizing they don’t work well in a group setting. But it’s also common for those who serve on committees to misunderstand their assignment and overreach.
I have worked in churches with only a single staff person, where committees must rise to a higher level of daily leadership, and in churches with a vast staff, where committees take on more of an advisory or oversight role.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: A committee never is needed to duplicate the work the church already is paying a staff member to do. For example, if your church employs a minister or director of education, the committee most likely does not need to be involved in the week-to-week administration or the education program or even the annual enlistment of teachers.
“A committee never is needed to duplicate the work the church already is paying a staff member to do.”
Yet in smaller churches where there is no staff person to lead in education, various committees might need to take on significantly larger roles, including teacher recruitment, curriculum evaluation and event planning.
I saw this differential wreak havoc several times in my career when well-intentioned people who had been raised in small churches did not grasp the difference in leadership required for a larger church. They wanted to run a 1,500-member church just like a 150-member church. It does not work.
Here’s another example: The very first church I served as a part-time youth minister employed only one full-time staff member — the pastor. Everything else — from running the mimeograph machine to cleaning the building — was done by volunteers. One faithful deacon served as the church treasurer, and in that case he was the de facto CFO of the church. There was no one else to keep the books, write the checks and record the offerings.
Larger churches most likely have one or more staff members assigned to financial duties — hopefully with strict separation of duties between income and expense management. In such cases, a Finance Committee is not needed to manage the day-to-day finances of the church and the Finance Committee chair may serve as the church “treasurer” in an oversight role more than a functional role.
In churches with paid staff to handle finances, there is no reason for a Finance Committee to spend its time reviewing every expenditure of every line item every week — or even every month. The role of the Finance Committee, then, is to provide high-level oversight and to set policies, not to personally audit the books.
If you don’t trust the staff you’ve hired, then hire different staff.
That leads to a second truth: Every church committee or ministry team — or whatever your church calls them — needs a job description. With frequent turnover in lay leadership (which is a good thing, by the way), each year’s committee needs to understand the scope of its work.
“Every church committee or ministry team — or whatever your church calls them — needs a job description.”
A good job description for a church committee should outline the tasks expected of the committee members and committee chair. It should be explicit, and it should mark both boundaries and areas of accountability.
The committee job description should indicate to whom the committee is accountable, whether that be a Church Council, a deacon body or the church as a whole.
Such job descriptions most often exist within a set of committee policies that outlines how committees are selected, terms of service and the division of duties.
And here’s a lesson learned the hard way: This same document should include a provision for how to remove a person from a committee. Sometimes people get on a committee who have a singular and destructive agenda previously unknown. Sometimes people get on committees and are not able to fulfill their responsibilities. You need to know how to remove someone in such unusual circumstances.
Not all committees are needed
Once upon a time, Southern Baptists promulgated a corporate-like structure for church governance that every participating church was encouraged to duplicate. The same is true for Methodists and Presbyterians and others. American Protestantism of the 20th century was built on corporate structures of hierarchy.
Here’s one way this runs amok: I have a pastor friend who arrived at his new post to discover his church of 75 members had 32 committees. Do the math.
“It’s OK to kill off committees.”
Churches large and small do not need the number of committees they once had. Some of the tasks of the old days have become make-work for committees without a purpose. And smaller churches cannot fulfill the expectations of a 1950s denominational flow chart.
Here’s the third truth: It’s OK to kill off committees. If it’s not needed, if it’s hard to get people to serve, if it’s only alive because of tradition, kill it off and move on. Enlisting laypeople for meaningless work discourages engagement.
Throw out the cookie cutter
Not only are all churches not the same, not all church committees are the same. Several years ago, when I was part of a church bylaws revision, we boiled down the bylaws to list only three committees deemed essential to fulfilling the bylaws. In our case, that was the Deacon Nominating Committee, the Personnel Committee and the Finance Committee. Every other committee existed at the recommendation of the Committee on Committees and could come or go. We actually killed off one committee that was not needed for a season, then brought it back when it was needed again.
“Adapt to your local needs and resources.”
This is not to say the work of one committee is more important than the work of another committee, but it acknowledges a few committees are essential to the bare minimum operation of the church. Those are typically called Standing Committees.
Thus, the fourth truth is: Adapt to your local needs and resources.
Rotate, rotate, rotate
Unless your congregation is so small that there are no viable candidates to relieve a person after a few years of service, all church committees absolutely should rotate their members. If you are being recruited to serve, be sure to ask the length of the term. It should be somewhere between three years and five years maximum.
Here’s the fifth truth: The surest way to lock down creativity, growth and health in a church is to let one person serve on the same committee — and especially chair that committee — for years upon end. This is especially true of those Standing Committees mentioned above.
“Sometimes it’s good to think outside the box when enlisting church committee members.”
The frequent fruit of non-rotating committees is fraud, manipulation and control. It does not matter how much money one person gives or whether they are the president of the local bank, that person does not need to be the perpetual chair of the Finance Committee.
A corollary truth is that sometimes it’s good to think outside the box when enlisting church committee members. Yes, it’s good to have someone with personnel management experience on the Personnel Committee, but it might be helpful to balance that logical expertise with a committee member driven by the gift of thanking or nurturing staff members too. Yes, you want some accountants on the Finance Committee, but they need to be balanced with some people who see the world not only through numbers.
In a true democratic form of congregational governance, lay committees are essential to healthy church life. Making that happen requires people being willing to serve and giving them meaningful work to do.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. For nearly 17 years, he served as associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where he worked as staff liaison to the Committee on Committees, which is so traditional that it is created by the Committee to Nominate the Committee on Committees. Yes, that’s a real thing.
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