A History of Church Polity at UBC, As I understand it

When UBC formed in 1995, its leadership consisted of David and Chris. The decisions that needed to be made in the early days of the church could be summed up as follows–

1.) What songs will David sing on Sunday mornings and what will Chris preach about? 2.) Where will the church meet on Sunday mornings, since we don’t have a permanent building?                                                                                                                                                           3.) How will we get money, and what will we do with it?

These decisions were made mostly by David and Chris, and for a brief time by Byron, the first community pastor hired to help bring some administrative experience to the church. I was not around during those years, so I don’t know all the details of how personnel was hired and choices were made. I do know, however, that a very small number of people were involved in the process.

By the time I arrived in 2000, the location of the church had been settled, and for the most part the personnel was in place. (Ben would come along as the community pastor in 2001.) I did know during this time that there was a Leadership Team made of a small number of students and the pastoral staff, and assumed this is how things were done. I didn’t think much about it, as I didn’t feel I needed to. My assumptions were that there was a system in place, and that it worked well enough.

There was, however, no system in place. No codified system anyway.

Sometime around 2002 the church needed money, so UBC sold a parcel of land at the corner of 18th and Dutton to a local businessman who would eventually build a Used Car dealership on the site. When buying and and selling assets, banks require certain documentation from churches and other non-profits to demonstrate legitimacy. One of these documents are bylaws, which set forth the rules by which a church will be governed. In 2002, seven years after its inception, UBC had no bylaws.

So someone threw together a set of bylaws. It looked, roughly, like this:

The church was to be led by a Senior Pastor, who had the final say in all the decisions of the church, including, but not limited to, the purchase and sell of land, and the hiring and firing of staff.

The church had members, defined as “those who are members of the church.” (This is actual wording from the original document.) There was no explanation of how one became a member, because there was no formal membership structure of the church. Members were members were members. Essentially, if you said you were a member of UBC, you were.

The church had a Leadership Team made up of some “members.” Those who made up the Leadership Team were those on the pastoral staff, and a number of non-staff members that equaled 1 more than the number of staff. The Leadership Team was a self-perpetuating group, its members serving for a limited number of years and replaced by someone from the church (presumably, but not stated in the original document) chosen by the Leadership Team.

There was a Finance Team, made up of people in the church who could “advise” the Leadership Team on financial matters.


That was it. No descriptions for how staff was hired (or fired.) Nothing about how Leadership Team worked, what decisions they had the authority to make and what the qualifications were for being on that team. Nothing about how the finance team created a budget or how much pull they had in the actual fiscal life of the church.

It didn’t take an eye trained in organizational management to see that this was a document hastily put together in order to get a loan. Further examination of the original document showed that it was cut and pasted from several guides for creating church bylaws. If there was ever a discussion about what this document, and therefore, the system of church governance, looked like, it was only had by a small amount of people in the church.

Lest you think I am being overcritical in my tone (I probably will be, but not yet,) none of us, myself included, had a problem with any of this this. We loved the energy and passion of being at a place where we didn’t obsess over these things. Many of us had come from churches that became paralyzed with systems and structures that were overbearing and time consuming, that seemed to have little to do with God and God’s purposes in the world. At UBC, it felt as if we had found a people who didn’t bother with the “trivialities” of church governance and simply, as an old saying goes, “Let the main thing be the main thing.”

The problem with this saying, though, is that “letting the main thing be the main thing” is great, as long as everyone agrees on what the “main thing” is. Most of us in churches think we do agree, and all assume that our “main thing” is the same “main thing” of the person sitting next to us on Sunday mornings. But this usually just isn’t the case. It takes big decisions and conflict and tragedy to reveal that my “main thing” may not be your “main thing.” Usually when those moments of dissonance arrive, people feel that the “other side” has failed in some way to live up to the standards of the already established “main thing.” But the reality is, neither side ever agreed on what the “main thing” was in the first place.

Regardless, this amorphous structure was our “system,” until Kyle started writing books.

In 2004 Kyle was approached by Relevant, a fledgling publishing company that produced both a print magazine and a website, and was dipping its toes in the waters of publishing books. The company was looking for young pastors and writers who were thoughtful and engaging to author some of its first books, and Kyle fit the bill perfectly. It didn’t hurt that he also had a built-in audience of 800-1000 people a week, as well as more followers in the growing Emerging Church community, not to mention an association with David, one of the biggest names in the new “Modern Worship” genre of Contemporary Christian Music.

Kyle wrote his first book, which was essentially a more thoroughly fleshed-out presentation of a series of sermons he had given on the subject of God’s will. It was well received and the publishing company asked him to write another book on the subject of prayer, and before you knew it Kyle was spending a lot of his energy writing books.

At the same time, the church was growing and it’s needs changing. As UBC approached the decade mark, it was becoming clear that this wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan, and we needed more than a fly-by-night mentality. There needed to be a more reliable, steady flow of leadership coming from someone on staff. Kyle had the charisma and resources to provide that type of leadership, but he didn’t have the desire for it. He avoided confrontation and difficult conversations like the plague, and was more than happy to cede administrative and organizational duties to someone else. David was traveling and churning out records, becoming less involved in the daily operations of making the church run. This left Ben to fill in the missing gaps.

Ben was a part of the church when he was in college, then moved away to work in ministry in Florida before returning to Waco in 2001. When he was hired as the Community Pastor at UBC, his main role was to be a pastoral presence to students. He spent a lot of time playing video games, eating meals with UBC’ers, and having meaningful conversations over coffee and beer. Ben was in the “trenches of life” with students on a daily basis. He was very good at what he did, but when the opportunity came up to take a more active role in the leadership of the church, he stepped up to the plate.

There was a catch to all this, though. Many of the duties that Ben took on—administrative, visioning, etc.—were ones that, in a traditional church setting, were done by the “Senior” or the “Lead” pastor. This was the template most of us were familiar with. You had your pastor, who was your leader. All the other staff, even if they had “pastor” in their title, took their cues from him or her. But what does it look like (and what do you call it) when that person says that he or she wants to lead in some areas, but in other areas take cues from another pastor? For Kyle, the answer was found in a model that had begun to take shape in many congregations influenced by the Emerging Church movement, including a church in Michigan pastored by Rob Bell, a good acquaintance of Kyle’s. The model was that the pastor removes “Lead” or “Senior” from his or her title, and in turn inserts a title more indicative of what that person is actually doing. In Rob’s case, and eventually in Kyle’s case, the title became “Teaching Pastor.”

The primary role of the Teaching Pastor was to teach and to preach, as well as (in the case of Kyle and Rob) to write. Leadership on other matters was either divvied up among other pastors and lay leaders, or they were shared among everyone. We called this model  we adopted “Flat Leadership.”

Kyle had gladly given up some leadership responsibilities. Ben had gladly taken on more leadership responsibilities. David pretty much continued to do what he was doing. And the narrative, then, was that the leadership model had been flattened. All three pastors were all on the same level in the life of the church, none “higher” on an organizational chat than the other. This excited Kyle, and it excited me and everyone else affected by these new ways of doing church. It seemed to be one of the missing pieces to an emerging puzzle of a new way of doing church life. It was liberating and felta little like giving the middle finger to all those who told us that church had to be done a certain way, the way of the corporation.

It felt true to who we were and what we were embracing—a way of living in a community of faith that was organic, that didn’t elevate efficiency and excellence to the status of idol, and that felt as authentic as it was messy.

I began to find it difficult to explain this model of church governance to friends in ministry and business who assumed that a “top-down” model of leadership was the only way to do church ministry. According to them, you HAD to have a leader, who was “the” pastor, and everyone else involved in the life of the church—pastoral and other staff, the congregation, etc.—were followers. Even those who were somewhat sympathetic to the concept of flat leadership always tagged on a caveat that someone in the room is ALWAYS going to emerge as the primary leader when it comes to decisions and casting vision, and that everyone else will eventually fall in line and follow. It drove me crazy when people would say this, because I didn’t believe that had to always be the case, though I would eventually discover how on target they were.

(A bit of information that will be relevant later on about this change in the structure of our pastoral staff and church leadership that had emerged: The change was never codified or written down on any document that would guide the church in future decisions. Effectively we were operating under a model of flat leadership, where there was no “Senior” or “Lead” pastor role. Legally, however, according to our bylaws, the church was to be led by one Pastor, who had the final say in all matters of the church. It’s not hard to connect the dots and figure out future challenges caused by this.)


Why does any of this matter?

Most Christians sitting in chairs and pews could care less about how decisions are made in their churches. Give them a good sermon that helps them figure out how to be a good Christian, lead them in singing some songs, and perhaps give an opportunity to serve their community or the world through missions and evangelism, and you’ve done your job as a pastor. And in many church traditions, this makes sense. Orthodox and Catholic believers, as well as other mainline denominations are intrinsically set up to operate this way. They have a Pope or a Bishop (who is considered a successor to Christ,) who provides leadership to other Bishops, who provide leadership to priests or pastors, who provide leadership to local congregations and individual believers. And there is a huge separation between those called into ministry (the priests and up) and the people sitting in congregations.

However, in free churches, which is to say those congregations that operate separately from any outside ecclesiastical or governing body, the terms of engagement change. Relationships between those “called out” to special ministry and those congregants sitting in the pews are a lot more complicated, the lines far more blurry. In the absence of outside forces making decisions for a local congregation, it becomes necessary to be clear about how decisions are made in relation to individual congregants.

And I believe how those decisions are made reveals an awful lot about what the decision makers feel about congregants. Our systemic problems weren’t that we had a flat leadership model, or that before we had a senior pastor model. Instead, they were that we were saying one thing with regards to our life together, and doing another.

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