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Thursday, October 17, 2013

On the Baptist Church Committee System

I enjoy college football very much. I will watch any college football game on any day and often lose entire Saturdays to random games with inconsequential outcomes.[1] As all college football fans are aware, the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system that is currently used to “determine” the national champion is being replaced with a 4-team playoff. The selection of these four teams will be up to a 13-member committee.

One storyline coming out of the transition from the BCS to the playoff system has been the inclusion of Dr. Condoleezza Rice as one of the committee members. Some sports commentators have criticized Rice’s inclusion on such an important committee, claiming that Dr. Rice has no experience in the game of football and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to make judgments about which four teams are the best.[2] Rice responded to the criticism by saying that she is a “student of the game.”[3]

This committee is important to me as a college football fan. Rice’s inclusion will certainly influence the outcome of the college football season. Should a non-player be included? Should a woman be included? Many of the opinions on this issue have revealed sexist perspectives or, at the very least, the notion that a person cannot make informed decisions about something like college football without having actually played college football.

 The discussion of Rice’s inclusion in the committee got me thinking about the importance of committees in Baptist congregations and the decisions we make regarding who should serve on certain committees in our fellowships. We annually place people on committees that manage ministries and the administration of the church, but what are we requiring of the people who serve on those committees?

I am fortunate to be involved in two congregations that have excellent committee structures. Northminster Baptist Church is a committee-led congregation in the strongest sense of the word; the ministerial staff is beholden to the committees of the church and the committees take their responsibilities seriously. Madison Chapel has a strong tradition of whole-church decision-making (because of its small size). The ability to come together as an entire congregation to prayerfully decide congregational action is impractical in larger churches, but for our small fellowship it is a wonder to behold.

I have worked with churches that had relatively impotent committees, non-meeting committees, and too many committees. In one case the congregation decided to make a rule that a person could only serve on one committee per year, which necessitated the reduction of the number of committees by half!

The committee structure of Baptist churches is often at odds with other powers in the congregation, especially the deacon body or the pastor. There are certainly faithful Baptist churches that are led by strong elder or deacon groups that function as a board of directors. Similarly there are Baptist churches that function well with authoritarian CEO-style pastors who determine many of the church’s decisions.[4] There is certainly Biblical precedent for many types of church organization, so let us not be too hasty to either condemn or condone one form over another.

For Baptists, church organization and polity is based upon the principle of the Priesthood of the Believer.[5] Since we assume that the gift of salvation is offered to all and that the Spirit of God is pored out on all people who believe on Jesus Christ for salvation, the Church must be the collection of those people gathered together in the name of Jesus Christ to do the work of God’s Kingdom in a specific place and time. The Church is, therefore, an exercise in democracy: with Christ as the head of the congregation and the members rendered equal by the outpouring of the Spirit we gather to make decisions as peers.

Direct democracy is cumbersome and slow, though, and often impractical. Baptists have adopted the practice of forming committees to deal with certain aspects of congregational life, ranging from bereavement and ministerial visitation to figuring out who should mow the lawn. These committees are formed out of the congregation and are beholden (usually) to that congregation rather than to the pastor or the deacons.

So who serves on our committees? In a perfect church I suppose the committees would be made up of the wisest, most mature, most committed members of the congregation. What I have found, though, is that in many cases the committees are filled with the first people who agreed to serve. Further, in smaller churches people are required to serve on multiple committees because of a simple lack of numbers.

A fellow pastor told me a story over lunch recently about one experience he had with a committee in his church.[6] A group in his congregation had been tasked with the formulation of a statement of faith that was more appropriate and relevant to the congregation than the one presently in the church’s Constitution. After weeks of non-discussion and no action to revise or create that statement, the pastor commented to the committee that they “just don’t care.” He was right. Even on an issue as fundamental as the development of a statement of faith so little enthusiasm was mustered that the issue died on the committee floor.

Our committee structure is a good thing. As Baptists emphasize the Priesthood of the Believer we quickly emphasize congregational church governance. The two go hand-in-hand. What is also necessary to emphasize, though, is the essential nature of Christian discipleship in the Priesthood of the Believer and therefore in our Baptist church polity.

A Baptist church committee can only function in so far as its members have set themselves to the difficult process of maturation in Christian faith and life. There is a direct correlation between the effectiveness (I dare say relevance) of a committee and its members’ relative spiritual maturity. Yes, we could make the church finance committee be nothing but expert accountants and financial managers. But unless these individuals have committed themselves to following the Lord in ever-increasing knowledge and development, they will miss the true nature of a church’s mission and therefore miss the point entirely of serving on a congregational committee.

If a congregation’s committees are weak or ineffective, perhaps we should emphasize discipleship and the clear call to progressive maturity in faith demonstrated in the Scriptures.[7] Only through the spiritual maturity of the constituent members of a committee can that body truly serve the good of Christ’s church.

Further, let us take seriously the selection of committee members in our congregations. If these committees are important, then the selection of their membership should be important.[8] Not everyone who has balanced a checkbook is spiritually prepared to serve on the finance committee, and likewise a person should not be excluded if they don’t have a degree in finance. Our spiritual maturity as disciples should be the guiding principle in our selection committee members rather than our ability to find volunteers.

Cooler heads have prevailed in the case of Dr. Rice serving on the college football selection committee. Although she has defended her inclusion based upon her knowledge of the game, such excuses are irrelevant. Dr. Rice should be included in the decision making process because she has proven her maturity in making important, difficult decisions. She has demonstrated an ability to evaluate the facts and to make informed choices without being distracted by the passion that I would certainly have were I on that committee.[9]

We must seek maturity in our committee members because it is those who have been discipled by the church the most who are best equipped to make decisions on behalf of that church.

[1] However, Sic ‘Em Bears!
[3] See also
[4] The Baptist Faith and Message (2000) has been interpreted in ways that contribute to the Pastor-as-CEO model of church governance. There is no language in that document concerning a committee structure in a congregation; such language and direction is usually present in a congregation’s Constitution and By-Laws.
[5] See Leonard, Bill J., Baptist Ways. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2003.
[6] It was at McAllister’s, and was very tasty.
[7] For more on this progression of discipleship, see me recently posted work on Catechesis as Discipleship.
[8] An argument can be made that serving on a committee is an act of discipleship whereby less mature members can be compelled to grow through their service. This is certainly true, but for growth to occur there needs to be a critical mass of relatively mature members on the committee to disciple the less mature members throughout the year.
[9] Again, Sic ‘Em Bears!

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