Not everything requires a congregational vote
I was in a church recently where they were trying to decide whether or not to spend $1,500 for a visit from a consultant.
The church hadn’t budgeted for the $1,500 expense, but they had plenty of money in their savings account to pay for it. A few members had already volunteered to donate 50% of the cost.
The church leadership board had agreed it was a good idea. They were about to approve the expense and move forward. Then one board member spoke up, “I think this should go to the congregation for their vote.”
Without hesitation, everyone appeared to agree. “Yes,” the board members thought, “this will help the whole church buy-into the process.”
Next week, the congregation voted . . . and the verdict was “no.”
Were the leaders in favor of it? Absolutely. Would the consultation have benefited the church? Yes. Was it affordable? Sure it was.
But it didn’t happen because the congregation voted 60% to 40% to not spend the money.
And worse, now the congregation is experiencing conflict because the board and congregation are at-odds about this decision.
Have you seen this . . . ?
Here’s the thing: not everything requires a congregational vote.
Sure, we think by asking the whole congregation for their approval, we are involving them in the process. But we may just be weakening the process.
In most churches, there is an elected board/council/team of leaders who has been granted trust (by their election from the congregation) to debate and make collective decisions on behalf of the whole church. If they make wise decisions, the whole church is happy. If they make poor decisions, the church has procedures in place to not re-elect these people for future terms.
Many churches also make explicit (in their By-Laws) what decisions must be taken to the whole congregation for approval. These are — not always, but usually — decisions related to property purchase, hiring senior staff, annual budgeting, legal issues and the election of leaders. For most other matters, the church board/council/leadership team is entrusted to decide what is best and to take responsibility for their decision. Yet in many cases, churches request “congregational votes” for decisions that (according to their own By-Laws) should not be voted on by the whole congregation! (Such as hiring a $1,500 consultant.)
So what’s really going on?
In some instances, this is a case of “the tyranny of the minority.” The board has been taught that it cannot make decisions until a small group of vocal personalities has been consulted. This small group represents self-selected “power brokers” who think they control the purse-strings (and the pastor, and the elders, and the board, and…and…). These can be benevolent personalities, though –sadly — they are usually not. By deferring a decision to the whole congregation for a vote, these power brokers are allowed a chance to mobilize support and press the brake on any new initiatives.
In other instances, it could be a situation where the board just doesn’t understand its responsibility. The board members may not have been taught what they are empowered to do, so they assume all decisions have to be put to a congregational vote. This situation would require some re-training for both the board and the congregation.
In other cases (like the example above), the church leaders might assume that asking the congregation to vote will help them “buy-in” to a decision. But this is a wrong-headed assumption. If buy-in is the goal, there are plenty of other better options for engaging congregation-wide conversation and feedback than asking them to hear a report and then vote Yes or No.
So the next time you’re in a meeting and someone suggests to “take this to the congregation for a vote,” think twice. Ask why. Double check the By-Laws. Consider the reasons why a congregational vote may not be the best course of action. If buy-in (or consensus) is the goal, look at other options.