One of the many joys of serving as a member of your Church Council, active lay parishioner, or Rostered Leader is the behind-the-scenes operational materials that ensure our congregation runs smoothly. This includes everything from paying the water bill, updating your website when worship times change, and the many governing documents that help guide us. One of the governing documents that serves as a key foundational piece is our church’s constitution.
As a church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we covenant to a shared constitution that provides a framework for who we are and how we operate. The ELCA provides congregations with a model constitution to build from and they update the constitution after each Churchwide Assembly.
Following the 2022 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, a new model constitution for congregations was released! Has your congregation had the chance to look at the new document?
Following each Churchwide Assembly, it is recommended that congregations update their constitution with the newly approved language, amendments, and other updates.
Pastor Sandi Olson Decker of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Monterey, CA has walked with multiple congregations looking to update their Constitution. She shares, “Constitutions help us live together as a community of faith. They, along with the Bylaws, provide parameters and boundaries that clarify how we operate and how decisions are made. They also offer objective insights that can guide us in times of tension or conflict.”
“In my pre-Pastor life, I worked in the legal department of investment firms. One misplaced "and" or one accidental "or" could drastically change the meaning of a sentence. As a pastor, I've found that Constitutions and Bylaws are much the same. Sure, updating a congregation's Constitution sounds boring or daunting to most everyone (but me!), yet the importance of having our legal ducks in a row cannot be overstated. In one way or another, the Constitution of the congregation has been referenced in every single congregation I have served. Sometimes, the issue at hand has been minor (for example, answering the question, "Do we have to have our annual meeting on a specific Sunday each year?); other times, it has been consequential and important (for example, "Does our pastor have a vote on Council?" "To what degree can the Council make financial decisions?" "Can the Council meet without the Pastor's knowledge?" - hint: the answer is usually no, see C12.12),” shares Pastor Olson Decker.
Sound like a daunting task? Not to worry! The model constitution provided by the ELCA, which can be found here, gives you a great starting point. Chapter 2-9 and 15-20 are required as written for all congregations. Chapters 10-14 are where your congregation can consider how the suggested material might fit best for your context and ministry, relating to congregational meetings, committees, officers, and more.
Additionally, our synod’s Constitution Committee, led by Synod Secretary Jeff Pennington, are available to walk with your congregation in this updating process. If your congregation is interested in beginning this process, we encourage you to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.