Leading a Congregational Church Through Constitutional Change

“In the past decade, my church has undergone two changes to our constitution…. As leaders, we did some things well and some things poorly in both changes. I think we did significantly better the second time around.” - 9 Marks


As a church plant we recently went through the much larger task of adapting our first constitution. We spent a lot of time on #7:

For our first articulation of specific changes, we presented a draft to the congregation without question and answer. This time gave the elders an uninterrupted opportunity to communicate changes while expressing a pastoral heart and intent behind the proposal. We also recorded this presentation for those who weren’t in attendance.

In subsequent congregational meetings, we provided times for Q&A. After these interactions, the elders met again and revised the proposal. This might not be a necessary step, but in our case, we needed to clarify some language. It also allowed the congregation to shape the final proposal.

Although we did not record, we took things slowly and the next week we would update those who were not there about what we had discussed. If too many were gone for whatever reason, we would postpone further discussion until the next week. We spent a few months after our regular weekly Bible study to discuss our constitution so that by the time we voted on it, we already had consensus. Because we are still a small group we were able to share our concerns openly and understand where each other was coming from.

It was God's blessing to us that our group was already highly unified, but there were still differences of opinion. Thankfully, our process had been preceded by a lot of teaching on grace toward those we disagree with. Further as pastor, I listened and let those I disagreed with understand that I understood their position and then explained why I held the position that I held. If my position was an unimportant matter and I could see that I was in the minority, then I graciously kept my mouth shut and accepted the change.

If I believed it was an important matter, then I explained why while being careful not to shame those who held a different position. By seeing that example of grace, we had a woman say that although she disagreed with how I interpreted something, she understood why this item needed to be in our constitution and fully supported that part. I really believe that part of what brought us unity was that our group felt safe to disagree gracefully so that we could work through our fears without having to become combative.

Our goal was to address any concerns while remaining Biblical and not making the document too overly exhaustive. It was really an uplifting process for our whole congregation. I view that as a blessed miracle from our gracious God. Thus I would add that throughout this process, PRAY.

I would also add that as you pray, pray for unity. If you are organizing like this and there is a divisive person in your midst, then delay the process until they are dealt with. Further if you are the pastor or another leader, make sure you are not the divisive person.

Heavily weighted to a slow process of change at the elder level, one apparently minor point at the congregational level.

The main thing is that the people be fully informed of what changes are proposed and why. There need to be carefully considered biblical reasons for change, and the whole church needs to buy into the change as it affects existing membership.

We recently led our church to beef up our doctrinal statement (original was weak, mostly my fault), and make some adjustments to the bylaws. This entailed months of teaching, rewording, involving all the people in the discussion until we came to a statement we were satisfied with. Then we required unanimous consent, as we couldn't have one member who disagreed with the new doctrinal statement, just changing the basis of his/her membership out from under them.

Thankfully our people were fully on board and we had a unanimous vote.

The process actually lasted more than four years, as we were in process before Covid, teaching through the changes, then dropped it during Covid, and resumed afterward, but again going through a time of teaching and discussion.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

It’s been interesting to me how many Baptist church constitutions include no process for changing the constitution.

The first constitutional change we had to do at the church I pastored was adopt a process for amending. You build some good communication and time into that process. Saves a lot of trouble later.

So at Grace changes came in small stages. There were quite a few more on the list I never got to, but those we got done went smoothly.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron, I think that's a good point. I don't think we put that in our document, but I think it would be a wise addition. The only thing we mentioned was that members needed to be unanimous on amending the statement of faith.

The theory behind that is membership involves agreeing with the statement of faith. As I mentioned earlier, if you changed the statement of faith based on a majority or super-majority, those who voted no would immediately jeopardize their membership. That would seem to me to be counterproductive.

As to the rest, we don't specify how change is to be made, I think that assumes a simple majority could make a change. We kept most of the rest of the document fairly simple, defining membership, government, officers, etc. We don't try to cover every possible eventuality in the bylaws. (BTW, in British Columbia, the Constitution consists of the name and purpose of the organization. Everything else has to be in the Bylaws.)

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Don, I’ve been through the process of amending church constitutions a couple times, and I’m sort of of two minds about any clause requiring unanimity to change. On one side, I understand not wanting to change the statement of faith out from under anyone. However, I’ve also seen the case of one or two people not wanting any sort of change being able to wield that power against everyone else.

Of course as you already pointed out, walking everyone through all the changes scripturally is a very important step. Some people, however, can be resistant to any change at all, while also being resistant to reason.

At my last church, we eventually settled on a very high (IIRC, it was something like 90%) to change the statement of faith, but not 100%. Our thinking was that we wanted perfect unity when we could have it (and we strove very hard for that and got it most times), but the whole church decided we couldn’t let a tiny pocket of resistance keep back the whole church from doing what they believed to be right.

At my church before that, we originally had 100% required to change the SoF, but we found we had to change that clause before we changed the SoF To do so, we had to have another vote first to change the 100% clause, but that required only 75% since that clause itself was not part of the SoF.

Along those lines, we put extra thought into how much to put in the SoF vs. what is in the official church teaching position. E.g. SoF not having a specific eschatology to be a member vs. what is taught from the pulpit. We came to the conclusion that the SoF could be wide enough to encompass most of orthodox Christianity, while the official teaching position was much narrower, which worked well. Each individual church will likely be different in how they handle this of course.

Dave Barnhart

if you changed the statement of faith based on a majority or super-majority, those who voted no would immediately jeopardize their membership. That would seem to me to be counterproductive.

I don’t think it would have to go that way, because you can believe X is true and biblical but not be in favor of making it a test of membership. So a ‘no’ vote on a change to the SOF isn’t the same as “I don’t agree with the SOF.”

At my current church, we occasionally adopt some position statements I don’t agree with every jot and tittle of—or sometimes the emphasis seems off. Fortunately we don’t usually elevate these to Statement of Faith level, but my point is that reasons for wanting to change or not change a membership requirement—statement of faith or otherwise—can be complex and not related to the belief/practice itself.

I don’t recall all the details but I think the amendment process we adopted at Grace was 3/4 vote. Maybe it was even 80%. But it did specify a stronger than normal majority. We just didn’t think unanimity was likely. Our votes quite frequently had a couple of nos, even though nobody raised any questions or concerns in discussion. Why that happens is another topic, but it suggested to me I was failing to create an open enough environment for discussing things… or that we just had some “shy contrarians” 🙂.

My point on unanimity, though, is that if you set the bar for change that high, you can unintentionally give a couple of dissenters disproportionate power over the growth and health of the church. They essentially have veto power—and it’s idealistic to think that every individual is going to be looking at the change in a mature or even reasonable way. So, my advice is, don’t give your least persuadable people veto power over these decisions.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

The way we originally had our church set up was to have the statement of faith as part of the Constitution. As I mentioned earlier, the province required us to remove it from the Constitution and put it in the Bylaws.

To me, this is an unfortunate thing, because the statement of faith is what constitutes us as a group. Each new member is required to affirm the statement of faith without mental reservation. Granted, there may be doctrines in our statement that are peculiar to our position, and some who attend regularly might not be able to conscientiously join. We are fine with that. But the statement defines our unity.

With our original statement, we were willing to continue constituting our church on that basis if some current members sincerely objected to our proposed new constitution. We had already operated for over 35 years with it... For the change, we wanted our current members to be wholly in agreement. Yes, that gave a lot of power to any individual, but we would rather maintain the body as is than force them to say they believed something they didn't believe.

As it turned out, we had no dissenting voices. This came about at the end of a long process of discussion, teaching the theology, weighing the words, coming back to the same point over several weeks to get the wording right, etc. It was a long process, but I think it strengthened our group.

The one thing we didn't do was provide an amendment process for the rest of the Bylaws. I think that might have been a worthwhile addition, but I'll probably leave that for someone else.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

I think it depends on whether the change is restrictive or releases restriction.

If you change the statement of faith to require belief in a particular eschatology where previously you were more open, then I can see wanting unanimity or a high supermajority, because, as Don said, the change will exclude those who don’t agree.

But if the change is in the opposite direction, then if your goal is to be inclusive, then you wouldn’t want to let a few ruin that.

I think a supermajority is the way to go.