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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Building the Perfect Church: The Four Issues All Churches Deal With

Some time ago I was with a pastor friend of mine.  As we were walking to his church office I jokingly remarked to him that the only churches where I always agreed with the pastor were the ones I pastored.  He quipped, “even then, I am not sure I always fully agree.” 

As I noted last week, and as reflected in your comments, building the “perfect” church, this side of heaven, is an impossible task.  Jesus tells us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mat. 5:48).  Yet who can do that?  Not even the apostle Paul (Phil 3:12).  That’s why some preferred the concept of building a “healthy” church.  It is an attainable goal.  But even in this difference of wording, the project is already seeing the budding of fruit.  The goal is not agreement with me, but a sharpening of us all.

This week, I want to set forth the “lay of the land.”  This project is such a huge undertaking that we are going to have to break this effort down into manageable components.  From an organizational perspective, life in the church can be broken down into four major categories.

In this category, we are talking about the church’s “set-up.”  What are the recognized offices of the church?  How were the individual’s holding the office selected and for how long?  How much authority does each office hold in relation to the others?  Do board decisions require unanimity or a simple majority?  How many staff does the church have?  Who creates job descriptions?  Who performs job evaluations?  How much authority does the congregation have?  What are the church’s formal modes of communication and feedback?  What is required for membership?  How does the church’s property and facility promote or restrict the church’s ministry?  How does technology impact church ministry (e.g. the presence or absence of a computer, video projector, etc.).   What is required for changes to be made in the church bylaws?  These and a host of other questions all relate to the operational environment and organizational structure of the church.  (For churches that are part of a denomination, other structural considerations have to be taken into account).


Culture speaks to the collective mindset of the church community.  What is the worldview that members share?  What are the core theological beliefs which members accept?  What is the vision and mission of the church which members are asked to subscribe to?  What values and norms are held in highest esteem?  How are members expected to behave?  How are members expected to dress when they come to church?  What lifestyles are tolerated and which are frowned upon?  Who is held up as heroes or models to follow?  How free do members to express their opinions?  What are traditions and customs of the church?  What is the prevailing attitude with respect to change?  What is the style of worship music?  Is the church charismatic or non-charismatic?  What is the prevailing thinking related to social issues (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, creationism vs. evolution)?  What is the general attitude of members toward outreach and assimilating newcomers?    These and a host of other questions relate to the beliefs and perceptions held by the congregation. 

This addresses how well we relate to and connect with one another.  How comfortable do we feel in the other’s presence?  How well do we work together?  How competitive?  Do we hold grudges?  Do we put others needs ahead of our own?  How open and transparent are we with each other?  How willing are we to protect another’s reputation against unsubstantiated allegations?  Do we do unto others as we would want them do unto us? 

And then there is the whole set of questions relating to how well the pastoral staff relates to their circles of influence and to the larger congregation, and visa versa?  A few years back, there was a mega study of over 14,000 congregations.  It found that the most significant combined sources of moderate and serious conflict were due to leadership “style” and member behavior, that is, our relationships and interactions with each other. 

This category is all about each unique person.  What is a person’s perceptions of reality and interpretation of events?  What is that person’s understanding of God and his or her relationship to Him?  How does the person view himself or herself?  How does he/she view others?  What motivates the person?  What is the person’s temperament?  Does he or she clutch at power?  Is a person or team player or a leader, a conformist or an ardent individualist?   How honest?  How sensitive to other people’s feelings?  How self-centered or giving?  What is the individual’s gifts and capabilities?  What is his or her weaknesses and particular styles of sinning?  How competent is this person in his or her role?  Is it easy or difficult to satisfy this person?  This and a host of other questions relate to the individual person.

A recent Christianity Today survey which reveals that 20 in 100 pastors (thus churches) are struggling with conflict.  Given all the things that can cause conflict within each of these four major areas, that shouldn’t really surprise us.  It is easy to see how conflict can readily arise when people from different backgrounds join together in their common faith in Christ.  Beyond the essential areas of agreement, there are innumerable arena’s where our different temperaments, upbringings, cultural experiences, expectations, etc. can turn our diversity into division.   Moreover, accurate diagnosis of the real cause of the conflict may be absent.  Too often an individual is fingered as “the problem” when, in reality, it may relate to a deeper, systemic issue relating to the structure or culture of the church.  Yet incredibly and wonderfully, it is the role of the church to bring harmony out of diversity in the worship and service of the Lord. 

With the “lay of the land” now set before us, we are ready to begin in earnest this project of building the perfect church.  Next week, we will begin with the church’s structure and I will highlight the first element we will be focusing on.   

For Discussion This Week
Corresponding to this overview and in preparation for next week, I would ask you to share your general thoughts about church structure.  More specifically, in what way has your church’s structure served you and/or your congregation well?  How has it kept the peace?  In what ways has it been a hindrance to ministry?  How has it been a source of conflict? 

I look forward to reading your experiences.

God bless,



© 2005 Kenneth C. Newberger
Ken Newberger, an experienced church conflict resolution specialist, earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, has ten years senior pastoral experience, and is in the dissertation phase for his Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, one of only two accredited doctoral programs of its kind in the United States. If your church needs help resolving conflict, if you need individual coaching, or if you would like to introduce a proactive conflict management system into your church, please visit Ken's website at www.ResolveChurchConflict.com  or call 301-253-8877.


You are invited to attend Ken's free conflict resolution seminar entitled, “How to Convert Church Problems and Tensions into Energy Leading to Deeper Relations and a Positive Outcome.”  This event is sponsored by Regent University at its Alexandria, VA campus (just outside of DC).  The date and time is March 7th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm.  For more information, contact Lolita Cobbs.  Email: lolicob@regent.edu. Phone: 1-866-REGENT-U or 703-740-1409.  Come join us for an interactive and edifying time together.

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It is interesting that during this morning's Bible study this same question was asked. In the Bible God ordained 7 churches, none 100% perfect, all with individual purpose. Today, this still holds true. Productive churches are those that are;

A) Ordained by God as His will and purpose is fulfilled.

B) Led by the Holy Spirit to be the church God needs at this time, place, and focus to meets His needs.

C) Functioning in faith and trust in the Lord to serve His purpose, without being distracted by earthly priorities (money, beautiful buildings, popularity, etc). Let God be the leader of your church and it will be successful for His purpose.

Easy said, hard to do! We all need to continue to get closer to God and allow Him to give us the faith to move mountains.

Rev. Tom (the Born Again Biker)

Posted by: Rev. Tom Hills | Jan 27, 2005 9:59:29 AM

share your general thoughts about church structure. More specifically, in what way has your church’s structure served you and/or your congregation well? How has it kept the peace? In what ways has it been a hindrance to ministry? How has it been a source of conflict?
Dear Ken,
I was a member of a local church for nearly 11 years on the board for 2 and heavily involved with many aspects of Ministry, though as a lay leader. I am no longer affiliated with the church, I have been offered a Pastorate in Worship Arts but I would like to contribute to your blog by sharing my expereince of later just prior to leaving.

what way has your church’s structure served you and/or your congregation well? The people that I developed relationships with are a great Blessing and strength in my life and will survive the churches issues by God's Grace.

How has it kept the peace? It kept the peace by moving to an elder run church - a great thing other than that every elder selected is of the same cloth - looks, acts and works nearly at the same level - by installing a homogenous group of elders, (only one that teaches) the view from the top is skewed however peace is kept by either ignoring or eliminating problems quickly and quietly when they do not conform to the way the elders want to go - Regardless of any Biblical mandate - It is frightening to watch!

In what ways has it been a hindrance to ministry? About 8 months ago God led some of us to begin a local evangelistic outreach - this is in a fairly affluent community - the church was on board with it until as of late we were confronted, though never accused of cuasing any trouble, (even welcomed), by local police who wanted simply to know what we were up to - Store Owners did not want us aroung - The police told us we could stay - The church called members in and told them that the church was concerned about the "Image" in the community IF anyone found out some attended there. We never connected any church with the evangelism - What they were saying was they were embarrased by our actions!

How has it been a source of conflict? When you have churches that have forgotten why they exsist, as in this case, to tell people and share lives with people, (even that don't attend!) about Christ, you have a country club! Concerts, nice relaxing sermons, picnics - The whole motivation for being together, in my humble opinion is that we share in the work of the Risen Christ, not that we all look alike or like to have coffee once a week together or even hear a good Sermon - If we are not out teaching and helping God's lost, where is the refuge and thrill in coming together once a week? Is once a week enough IF WE ARE doing the Lord's work -

My challenge to everyone reading this is to pray for the church in America to return to being out among the world WITH THE GOSPEL but not of the World -


Posted by: Lee | Jan 27, 2005 10:56:49 AM

Ugh, I can't answer this blog without just diagramming my idea of a perfect church! Too good of a topic! I'll just wait until we get into the meat of the matter!

Posted by: John Morris | Jan 27, 2005 12:15:24 PM

I agree totally with what Lee said. Too many times churches have strayed away from doing true ministry of actually being the church because they are afraid of what others might think. We need to get away from the "Country Club" church and get back to truly being like Christ of reaching out to the hurting, the lost, and the forgotten. Too many times I think this is put on the back burner when people think about church because it is not always pretty, comfortable, or easy. When you reach out to people who are in those circumstances you can get some pretty rough people at your church and that is when alot of churches back down because they care more about their image then about being like Christ. To those churches who are reaching out to those who are lost and hurting I applaude you because you are truly doing as Christ would. To those churches who are not I hope one day that you see that church is more than just getting pretty for church, going to some potluck dinners, and just staying in your cliche'. When we as a church truly live out the greatest commandment and the great commission that is when we will have the perfect church.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 27, 2005 12:41:59 PM

I really enjoyed Ken's analysis of the four categories that contribute to the overall chemistry or "make-up" of the local church. And his conclusion that many conflicts that do surface within the local church may very well be more systemic than we realize is probably very true.

I read Lee's observations, and I think I understand his frustrations--I've experienced much the same myself. However, a poor experience with a group of ill-equipped elders does not mean that the plurality of elders form of church governance cannot work, nor does it mean that structure in and of itself is problematic. And while I will not even try to defend the existence of "dead" or "lukewarm" congregations (Lee's reference to concerts, relaxing sermons, picnics, and coffee), I do think we all need to try and be more sensitive and alert to what Ken was talking about in this article when he spoke about culture differences. Please don't misunderstand me, I am not defending mediocrity, I am just saying that we all need to realize that the Risen Christ can be, and is being, proclaimed in many different communities in many different ways.


Posted by: Robert Lawrence | Jan 27, 2005 3:19:38 PM

I would like to offer respectable feedback to Mr. Newberger. Perfect and Holy have similar definitions. Your premise regarding Perfect is not based on the biblical text you are sighting. The word "Perfect" has much to do with 'Unique' or if you will, 'unlike no other'. GOD is Perfect and Holy. Another way to look at it is if you have five objects, four star shaped and one a circle, the circle is 'Holy'. Start your discussion from this point and yes, there are 'perfect' churches.

In reference to your other subject matter I offer the following:

We should be concerned more with function rather than form. You ask, 'What are the recognized offices of the church?' I would ask, 'Are we providing quality pastoral care, are we speaking the Words of God, have we layed a strong foundation, Who is watching over the congregation?' You ask, 'How were the individual’s holding the office selected and for how long?' I ask, 'was Stephen chosen for a 2 or 3 year term?' You ask, 'How much authority does each office hold in relation to the others?' I ask, 'Are the leaders free to serve each other and the greater body?' You ask, 'Do board decisions require unanimity or a simple majority?' I ask, 'What do the laws that govern a 501c3 say and do what the law says?' You ask, 'How many staff does the church have? Who creates job descriptions? Who performs job evaluations? How much authority does the congregation have? What are the church’s formal modes of communication and feedback? What is required for membership? How does the church’s property and facility promote or restrict the church’s ministry? How does technology impact church ministry (e.g. the presence or absence of a computer, video projector, etc.). What is required for changes to be made in the church bylaws? These and a host of other questions all relate to the operational environment and organizational structure of the church. (For churches that are part of a denomination, other structural considerations have to be taken into account).' I ask, 'Huh?'

You willingness to ask questions regarding culture shows that you are very concerned that we speak to the culture and not around it, to which I say, amen. Thank you for every question you address here.

Once again, thank you. Your sensitivity here shows you are sincerely desiring to be an evangelist in the culture.

further Remarks
Conflict in our churches result in lack of leadership that is based on the servant leader model of Jesus, and a lack of obediant followers who put their trust in God first, and then in a servant leader second. Yes there are many differences that can divide us. Unfortunately we have put at the foundation of our local works the Western Business model of boards and committees and in doing so, we invite conflict. As a result, the church gets sidetracked and never quite 'goes into the world', it just asks the world to 'come grow with us.' Can I point out another word problem? Worship and service are synonomous terms.

You write: 'With the “lay of the land” now set before us, we are ready to begin in earnest this project of building the perfect church.' I say, 'Yes'.

You ask: 'in what way has your church’s structure served you and/or your congregation well?'

The best structure I know of is divided the biblical message from what is required of a 501c3. Give the state an executive or administrative board. Have terms limits, officers, meetings, annual and quarterly, whatever the law requires. Have all written polity regarding the 501c3 in the language of the law, not the teachings of Old and New Testament. Do not call this board by any of the biblical titles, for you see, it is the state, not God that is asking for the governing body. Have no biblical language, not even a statement of faith in this document, because the state does not want ask for religious wording and scriptural reference. In the spirit of Jesus' teaching, 'give the state what the state requires'.

Once that is settled we are free to order the local body in accordance to what God wants and requires and as I stated at the beginning, put the emphasis on function, not form/title.

God bless,


Posted by: Jim Elrod | Jan 27, 2005 5:48:39 PM

Good article. I would like to address one misunderstanding, I think. The author says:

"It is easy to see how conflict can readily arise when people from different backgrounds join together in their common faith in Christ."

As if... conflict is, for some reason, more evident with Christians...? I think the truth is that all groups of people have conflict. I think the remarkable thing, as Christians, is that we recognize it and try to fight it head-on, with Christ-principles (love, forgiveness, etc.). Maybe this is why Christianity is the world's largest "religion?" (according to world reports, the encyclopedia, etc.).


Posted by: Bernie Dehler | Jan 27, 2005 6:38:18 PM

The best way our church structure has served our church well and kept the peace is how our deacons, elders, and leaders take how ever much time it takes to make the right decisions. I look back and see how our church could have erupted into intense spiritual warfare and people even drawing sides to split the church if the wrong decisons were made because the decison-making process happened too quick.

I also want to look back on last week's subject, "building the perfect church," and make a few comments. I think some people who would say "building the perfect church this side of heaven is impossible," are just stating the obvious. I think its ok to say the perfect church looks like such and such. I don't think anyone needs to get legalistic over this topic. And I'm not saying anyone is. But for example, we know a football team will never play the perfect game, but if you ask someone what the perfect game looks like, they ought to be able to say it without being told, "well, you know that's impossible."

Posted by: Aaron Dougherty | Jan 29, 2005 1:02:56 PM

Seems more like an ad than a blog -- does anyone else write into here about this important topic????

Posted by: Chuck Denison | Jan 30, 2005 6:36:47 PM

I'd like to add a thought or two to Ken's article "Building the Perfect Church" and to some of the responses so far. The main source of conflict isn't necessarily a plurality of board members (regardless of whether you call them elders, deacons, trustees, or church counsel)with a pastor(or pastors)trying to lead them.

As Larry Osborne (Free Church near San Diego)wrote long ago the main source of conflict in local churches is the naivete that we could nominate and select leaders to serve on decision-making boards knowing that certain ones hold to radically differing opinions as to the general vision and direction of the church. Instead he suggested that each congregation should pre-screen candidates to determine if they at least agree generally with the vision of the pastor whom they called and pay to "lead" and with the majority of other leaders already serving who have already come to a general consensus as to direction.

I know Ken from our seminary days as well as from when we served in the same area in two smaller conflict riddled churches in a bedroom community outside New York City. As I recall from my situation we had open nominations from the floor instead of by closed ballot (a decision I strongly opposed). In one particular instance a young man was nominated to the main governing board yet many of us knew of his contrary spirit as well as the troublesome nature of his wife. Yet no matter how much I opposed his nomination one other board person, who happened to be in the wife's gossip circle, pushed for his selection which came to pass. Though the poor behavior of his wife would have been enough for me to oppose his nomination, the main thing I focused on in trying to "lead" the board was that he philosophically opposed the growth of the church. I also remember back to that time in the 80's when Ken was having similar conflicts in his church.

Power hungry controllers are not restricted to the pastorate. Sure we all struggle with finding the balance between "leading" and "controlling" but for every pastor out there who may struggle with such issues there are many more times that number in laymen. Besides if pastors are called to "lead" then we must be given some level of "benefit of the doubt" authority to cast vision and to "lead". It is our responsibility to remain accountable and to listen to the opinion of our carefully selected boards of lay men & women.

We must exercise more caution when we select those who will serve on the most important decision-making boards in the churches we serve. For heaven's sake we must select those who share the same general vision which the church has already adopted and is heading towards. Otherwise we will continue pulling from both ends of the sleigh/wagon/ train (you pick the metaphor)and the local church will continue to busy itself with boxing matches while the world keeps flushing itself into hell.

Posted by: Paul Flannery | Jan 31, 2005 11:39:32 AM

The "perfect" church is described in Acts 2:42-47. The word perfect also means complete and mature, fully developed.

Of the questions asked and the issues presented, I believe the most important is that of relationships. It would do us all well to study Paul's presentation regarding the body in I Corinthians 12 and read directly into chapter 13.

Church systems will always be different from place to place, denomination to denomination, even in different times. The key for each of us is to choose one where we are comfortable with the process. One of the undiscussed issues with the will of God is that He usually leads us through our spiritual gifts and our willingness to use those gifts in mission and ministry. If we do that, we will be drawn into a church organization that is compatible with allowing us to minister in that giftedness.

Our church has had the systems in place for MANY years. As the pastor, I could not walk in and change those systems immediately, and some not even slowly. But the organization of our church has helped us handle some conflicts that existed for over 40 years. It forced me to work on relationships first. The relationships caused us to focus on people and the need for changing the system came out of that relational part of us. When we learned that love went deeper than talk and money and programs, we ended up on the same page.

As a leader/shepherd/pastor, I am prone to look at the need to change processes and organization. Over the past few years, the Lord has helped me see the need for relationships being healthy in order to build the trust needed by members and myself so that we understand the other party was not operating out of alterior motives. When we both understood the other's heart for the health of the church, we were open to positional and organizational change.

Sometimes, we blame the organizational structures rather than the real culprit -- our hard heads and hearts.

I am thankful for the renewed efforts of God's leaders in the churches to go back to the basic structures of the New Testament and focus on relational ministry rather than programmatic ministry.

Posted by: Wayne cook | Jan 31, 2005 11:44:01 AM

we are looking at a very important subject here which i think calls for a careful examination of biblical examples. in the early church the leadership structures were meant to help promote the purpose of God, which i believe is the work of reconcilation. i think whatever structure we operate in our various churches should help promote the vision of God for both church health and church growth.
i also believe that the pastor of the local church is the head and as an undershepered he should have the final say in the local assembly!however, there is the need for the pastor to ordained men full of faith and the holy spirit, so that they can serve under the ministry of the helps,e.g serve tables(administrative purposes, and material and spiritual welfare of the church)
i also want to say that the word of God is the same irrespective of structures, cultures,interpersonal relationships, and it gives us a proper guide as regarding how to function in any of these situation.
if only we will take a careful look at the word on all these issues and consider the times that we are in,we will come to an appropriate answer as to how to carry out God's will in our various churches.
my emphasies here is for us to promote the purpose for the church here on earth and not to place effort on any single factor! we should promote fellowship, prayers, evengelism, teachings and ministry.

Posted by: emmanuel gideon | Feb 14, 2005 1:53:01 PM

TV host Oprah Winfrey gives audience members $1,000 (£526) each to donate to a charitable cause.

Posted by: Zachery Hulsey | Jun 22, 2007 2:43:13 AM

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