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The first steps in changing church leadership structure

By Phil A. Newton

Phil Newton

To begin with, before seeking to make changes in the leadership structure of your church, make sure that you are committed to see the process through to the end. Brief pastorates only confuse issues. Changes in the leadership structure require devotion to the church and willingness to endure whatever unsettling times might follow. Few churches will follow a pastor’s lead unless they trust him as a man of God. Here is the outline that I found to be workable in my setting.


Evaluate the present leadership structure. Consider who wears the titles, wields the authority, and makes most of the decisions in the church. Take a look at the standards for spiritual leaders that presently exist, e.g., doctrinal statement, church constitution and by-laws, church policy manual, etc. Do these documents give you something to build upon by working to enforce what the church has previously ratified? Who among the leaders gives evidence of a teachable spirit? Who seems to have the congregation’s ears?


Engage the present leadership in a thorough study of church polity. Bring together at least the core of the present leadership, even those that may seem to scorn change. Invite them to study the Scriptures with you. Begin to analyze by group study the many passages in the New Testament that address issues of leadership and polity. You will probably need to give some basic hermeneutical guidelines at the beginning. Assign particular texts to each member so that the present leadership group is somewhat forced to consider the teaching of Scripture. Discuss and carefully record your findings. This might take three to six months or longer. Be patient and carefully direct the group back to the Word of God. Stress the necessity of the church being grounded upon the revelation of Holy Scripture.


In the group setting, discuss the similarities and differences between your findings in Scripture and your current church polity. Discuss the need to conform to the teaching of Scripture. Be candid about how change affects attitudes and positions. Insist upon the Word of God as the standard that should order the church’s polity.


Once the study group unites on the teaching of Scripture, broaden the study and findings. If the church is sizeable, then this might need to be done in a larger circle of influence before going to the congregation. Otherwise, the pastor, with the support of the study group, will begin a series of biblical expositions on the texts the group studied. Have the group join the pastor in open dialogue forums at different points in his expositional series. The best way to make changes to the leadership structure will come through faithfully teaching and preaching through the Scripture.


Throughout the study, emphasize the New Testament’s call for godly character in spiritual leaders.  Stressing character over form will be critical to eventually creating changes in the structure.


After leading the church in a series of studies and dialogue sessions on the teaching of Scripture regarding church polity, present specific changes to the church for ratification. This might require re-writing the church constitution or adopting a completely different governing document. It might be helpful to provide additional resources that confirm the findings that you are seeking to adopt.


Recommended reading:


Dever, Mark, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000, revised 2004)


Dever, Mark, editor, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life (Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001 – now 9Marks Ministries)


Newton, Phil A., Elders in Congregational Life: a Model for Leadership in the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005)