Who Owns a Church?

In the April 21st, 2008 edition of The Alban Institute’s weekly newsletter, Dan Hotchkiss asks the question “Who owns a congregation?” The answer seems simple. We all want to say something like “God” or “Jesus”, and from a theological perspective we would be right. But what about the way we act? How about the way churches carry on business? If a secular business person observed the way we do things, who would they say owned our congregations.

Hotchkiss takes a strictly denominational view point toward the question. Some of what he says doesn’t really apply to what we in Churches of Christ deal with. What is clear is that even within our own congregations there are different opinions about who is in charge.

Actually asking the question has been sort of taboo and any dialog around the topic is short lived. Traditionally the answer is “The elders.” If pressed for further reasoning, most people have trouble coming up with any real, solid reasoning. It sort of reminds me of the discussions about instrumental music and dancing that I had with adults when I was a kid.

I may be way off base, which wouldn’t be strange for me, but I have this weird feeling that answering the question about who is in charge is the key to solving a lot of the troubles that our churches are experiencing. What do I mean?

Within the last year or so I had a conversation with an elder at a church that was clearly suffering from the long term effects of poor leadership. The elders had the final say in all matters but unfortunately didn’t leadership ability to carry the burden. When questioning a decision one elder had made and why he chose to make it without consulting the ministry leaders responsible for the fallout from the decision he responded, “I have the authority to make the decision because I’m appointed by God to do so.” When he saw the empty look on my face he added, “And I have the authority from the state because I’m a trustee of the church.”

Are you kidding me? Is it not obvious that there are ownership issues when our leaders are appealing to a recognized position with the state instead of appealing to core spiritual leadership principles? It’s really scary.

The next few days I want to talk more about church ownership. Before we get to that, tell me what your initial thoughts on church ownership are.

10 Responses to Who Owns a Church?

  1. Greg England says:

    You are right, to answer this question is to hit the heart of many of the problems in our fellowship. I fear, though, that to answer the question would do very little to encourage bad leaders (not necessarily to imply they are bad men) to resign or change. I look forward to your future blogs on this.

  2. z-man says:

    “Ownership” and who is “in charge” are two very different things in my mind. “In charge” would imply a business mindset, as in who the decision makers are.

    Ownership in this context can mean so many things on a variety of levels. Ownership of the assets (see the current Episcopal Church controversies); ownership by God, as you mention, certainly isn’t about assets or property, rather it’s about a body with eyes, ears, arms, lips, etc.

  3. Greg England says:

    You are right, to answer this question is to hit the heart of many of the problems in our fellowship. I fear, though, that to answer the question would do very little to encourage bad leaders (not necessarily to imply they are bad men) to resign or change. I look forward to your future blogs on this.

  4. z-man says:

    “Ownership” and who is “in charge” are two very different things in my mind. “In charge” would imply a business mindset, as in who the decision makers are.

    Ownership in this context can mean so many things on a variety of levels. Ownership of the assets (see the current Episcopal Church controversies); ownership by God, as you mention, certainly isn’t about assets or property, rather it’s about a body with eyes, ears, arms, lips, etc.

  5. Brad Palmore says:

    z-man: Ah, yes, but the issue can be boiled down to “who is running things”. Either those in charge are the owners or they have to be acting on behalf of the owners. If they are neither the owners nor are acting on behalf of the owners then they are terrorists hold the organization hostage. When we’re talking about the spiritual leadership side of the church, there aren’t many more options.

    I think that a church should behave as though assets management and management of intangibles are the same thing. Otherwise we get into a forced dichotomy that requires differing policies based on context, which would work against a church more than it would work in its favor.

  6. Brad Palmore says:

    z-man: Ah, yes, but the issue can be boiled down to “who is running things”. Either those in charge are the owners or they have to be acting on behalf of the owners. If they are neither the owners nor are acting on behalf of the owners then they are terrorists hold the organization hostage. When we’re talking about the spiritual leadership side of the church, there aren’t many more options.

    I think that a church should behave as though assets management and management of intangibles are the same thing. Otherwise we get into a forced dichotomy that requires differing policies based on context, which would work against a church more than it would work in its favor.

  7. Meowmix says:

    I’ll be looking forward to futher blogs, too. I know, as you said, that ultimately God is the owner of the church. But in the world, there are business issues and politics. I didn’t really understand that until I was part of a congregation that developed some problems. My present congregation has trustees. I never knew before that churches had trustees……………..

  8. Meowmix says:

    I’ll be looking forward to futher blogs, too. I know, as you said, that ultimately God is the owner of the church. But in the world, there are business issues and politics. I didn’t really understand that until I was part of a congregation that developed some problems. My present congregation has trustees. I never knew before that churches had trustees……………..

  9. z-man says:

    agreed. I’m not suggesting a false dichotomy between assets management & management of “intangibles,” as you suggest. My point is that ownership conveys a different sense than in charge. Sure, if I own something I’m “in charge” of it. Turned around, if I’m “in charge” I’m not necessarily the owner, which I think is the direction you’re headed. Stewardship come to mind.

  10. z-man says:

    agreed. I’m not suggesting a false dichotomy between assets management & management of “intangibles,” as you suggest. My point is that ownership conveys a different sense than in charge. Sure, if I own something I’m “in charge” of it. Turned around, if I’m “in charge” I’m not necessarily the owner, which I think is the direction you’re headed. Stewardship come to mind.

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