DEATH BY COMMITTEE

Q: How many church members does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: We all know Catholics use candles, not light bulbs. Presbyterians wouldn’t care, because it is obviously predestined that the light would go out. And Baptists would need 16 people: 2 to pass the collection plate for the new bulb; 2 to organize the pot luck supper to celebrate installation of the new bulb; and 12 to staff the new committee to explore conversion to incandescent bulbs.

Southern Baptists receive the brunt of committee-related jokes, and
deservedly so, since we paint a bright red joke target on our collective head called “Committee on Committees.” All humor aside, the use of committees in a church can have a dramatic and undesired effect upon that church’s ability to fulfill its mission. Many committees are service-based and organize volunteers for needed work in the church (even so, do we truly need a committee to “count”?). The problem arises in the number of committees given leadership responsibilities and their relationships to each other. Because Baptist churches are traditionally ‘congregational’ in government (which requires regenerate membership), authority and clearly defined leadership quickly become diluted in the average committee-dominated structure.

A contemporary phenomena in the U.S. Congress, which is apparently afraid to tackle serious issues, is the creation of special “Blue Ribbon Commissions” to decide the thorny issues so that each congressman’s position on the issue won’t create a threat to his re-election chances. Taking a cue from politics, in the typical church every idea, crisis or opportunity is met with the formation of a new committee. As a result, the deacons defer most questions and act as a board to manage the property and money, and are rarely, as a group, involved in the actual leadership of the church. The church committees are not restricted to deacons, or other appointed leaders, but are open to involvement by non-leader members.

Our committee-based church structures thus come to resemble our buildings: a hodgepodge of mismatched styles pieced together in a labyrinth of misdirection and circuitous routes, which no member could truly describe accurately and which leaves the uninitiated wanting to drop the proverbial trail of bread crumbs in order not get lost and meet an untimely demise in the redwood committee forest.

For churches that require their elected (or selected) leaders to meet the biblical requirements for deacons and elders, this presents a difficult and thorny issue. If the church is congregational in its polity – meaning that the church membership as a whole makes the ultimate, final decisions on all issues – the deacons or other leadership body makes recommendations on church life to the church. However, those “recommendations” are almost always accepted by the congregation, without much discussion as to their merits, due to the deference paid to the deacon body. Committees come to have almost the same deference and in their recommendations are rarely opposed. And thus committees, which include non-deacons, come to have almost as much authority, responsibility and leadership function as the deacons, yet are not required or expected to meet the qualifications for leaders.

Common committee structures thus pose two primary problems for the activity of church congregations: 1) the sheer volume of the committee bureaucracy burdens the church’s ability to conduct ministry and is extremely inefficient; 2) the delegation of biblical leader responsibility to committees is contrary to stated polity and permits immature and sometimes ungodly people to exert leadership responsibility.

On one occasion a local church, the deacons wanted to appoint someone to manage a Family Ministries program, which was established in the church’s by-laws but had not been created or operated. Once the deacons decided on the man they wanted, discussion turned to how to get him appointed. Pursuant to rule, either the Steering Committee or the Committee on Committees or the Nominating Committee had to recommend the appointment to the church, after which the church had to approve the appointment. The deacons decided to inform the Committee on Committees who it should select. The Committee agreed and presented the nomination, which the church approved.

This is, to be kind, schizophrenic and dishonest. In this situation no one really knew the proper procedure because so many committees, as well as the deacons, had stated responsibility in the matter. Furthermore, the committees served merely to rubber stamp the deacons’ recommendations. The whole matter was presented to the church as if it had come from the committee raising the motion. The much simpler process would have been the one that makes the most sense: let the deacons present their recommendations for the Ministry leader to the church. Or, better yet, let the deacons make the appointment without church “approval.” Discussion, much less opposition, to standing deacon or committee recommendations is so rare that the facade of congregational involvement should be discarded.

On another occasion, a Sunday school Leadership Team had a vacancy in a Bible study teacher position. Because it had conducted teacher training and had firsthand knowledge of the Bible study program, it had a teacher in mind to fill the vacancy. However, because of rules it had to submit its recommendation to the Nominating Committee, which had to approve the recommendation and obtain approval from the church as a whole, a process which would take several weeks, at best. The much simpler process would be to permit the Sunday school Leadership Team to fill the vacancy, without having to obtain approval from any other committee or even the church.

When so many layers of bureaucracy and redundant “approval” exist, it hardly makes common sense to give deacons or Sunday School Teams any authority at all. The reality is that so much approval is not necessary, and serves only to impede the ministry of the church. And, at least in the occasions cited here, congregational “approval” is merely lip-service to democratic processes in the church. Those groups or committees with better knowledge of the needs should be freed to make decisions quickly and efficiently.

I personally believe that the best form of church polity, and the one most resembling the biblical example, is a congregational system in which elders manage spiritual concerns (Acts 6 – the ministry of the word and prayer) and deacons manage temporal concerns (Acts 6 – distributing resources to the needy members and other temporal needs). In such a system elders are recognized as godly leaders and are entrusted with general decision-making authority, while the congregation retains ultimate authority with its ability to choose and remove elders.

However, the most common form of protestant church government is likely the deacon-led scenario. In it deacons play a hybrid role of elder and deacon, shepherding and service. In fact, even among churches that vigorously disavow the elder form, elders are a de facto system. Responsibility for deciding spiritual matters, normally reserved for the elders, is given to various committees and church leaders, who might not be ordained members of the deacon board or elders, but who nevertheless fill the role of elders.

Some might be thinking at this point whether it makes any difference. Scripture tells us that the spiritual leaders (elders) and recognized servant leaders (deacons) must meet certain qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Instead, we select the members of leadership committees on the basis of “fair cross-sections”, egalitarianism, proportional representation, secular criteria such as business success, or – probably the worst – that inclusion on the committee might make invisible and uncommitted members more interested in church. We can select our leaders – regardless of whether they are called deacons, elders, or committee members – based upon biblical commands, or based upon our own limited, shortsighted and sinful notions of fairness. There is certainly a difference.

Churches can recover from the slow death and unbiblical leadership from which they now suffer. They can be like another church which had sixty committees for its 1200 members and which was slowly but surely dying a painful death of attrition. That church recognized the problem posed by its committees and completely changed its structure, abolished the stifling volume of committees, and adopted a board of elders and three standing committees. As a result, ministry flourished and the church came back to life.

Not every problem is caused by too many committees, and not every problem would be solved by streamlining a church’s governing structure. Ultimately it is God who grants the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Yet it is our responsibility to be orderly and efficient, and to remove any impediments to that order and efficiency. If we don’t, we will not be like the church that recovers and flourishes again, but we will be like the church that succumbed to the inefficiency and ministry-stifling agglomeration of committees:

F.B.C. R.I.P.

Here lies the putrid, festering remains of First Baptist Church, Everywhereville, which was condemned to a slow, agonizing, but altogether ignored death by the accretion of legions of blood-sucking and vitality draining vermin known as nefarious committius, which suffocated the congregation in bureaucracy and prevented life-sustaining ministry and biblical leadership.

In Loving Memory
1886-2006

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