The short answer to this questions is, yes. In fact, my own church did eliminate all our standing committees in 2020. I’ll tell you how we did it, and I’ll also tell you how we plan to create new committees when we need them.
In 2020, after several years of revitalization and reform, our church was finally at the turning point. We were, like many smallish Baptist churches, a committee led church with both administrative and service-oriented committees. Somewhere between four and ten church members participated in each committee for a 3-year duration, at which point some of them would stay on for another term while others would be replaced by other church members.
We had a “stewardship” committee that managed the church budget and finances, a “personnel” committee that managed staff and remuneration, a “building” committee that managed maintenance and upkeep, a “policy and procedures” committee that managed all our documents from the church’s confession of faith to the policies regulating the use of the fellowship hall, and a few other committees. All were permanent, and some had overlapping responsibilities and authority.
By 2020, however, our church had come to understand that some of the responsibilities listed and borne by committees were actually pastoral responsibilities. We also became convinced that pastoral leadership was being subverted (often unintentionally and with the best of intentions) by most of our committees. So, we decided to reconstitute as an elder-led (or pastor-led) congregational church – a church where the assembled congregation bears the ultimate authority to make the most important decisions (who our members and leaders are and what we believe and teach), and a church where the elders or pastor bear authority to oversee and to shepherd the congregation.
The practical implementation of an elder-led congregational polity will look different in various churches, but the overall principles and structure is the same – pastors lead and the assembled congregation follows while focusing on their primary duty to make disciples. In our case, that structure took shape (at least in part) by eliminating all our committees. But that transition took time.
In June of 2020, the assembled congregation voted to adopt our new constitution, which structured our church polity according to the principles I’ve mentioned above. However, we told the committee members we had that night to continue operating just as they had been until further notice. This basically meant that they would keep meeting and performing their duties until the elders or pastors were ready to absorb their responsibilities. For us, that did not begin to happen until September, since we waited until August to elect more pastors than the one vocational pastor we already had.
After electing three additional elders in August, the four elders of our church (one vocational pastor and three voluntary or lay-pastors) began meeting to discuss (among other things) the practical logistics of the transition. We (the elders) met with each committee individually to gain vital information about important decisions that had been made in the past, to learn how the committee had functioned well, and to individually express gratitude for the time and effort the committee members had invested.
In order to eliminate the “stewardship” committee our elders had to take on the specific responsibilities of arranging the annual proposal for a church budget, planning for financial expenses and projects, and forming a ministry philosophy that would guide such activities. The elders needed to create a basic system of meeting with staff to evaluate and to organize a pay-scale, to prioritize areas of expense, and to generally lead the church in understanding why we allocate our money the way we do. One of the main financial oversight obligations of the elders is now to propose an annual budget and to teach the congregation why each expense categories matters.
In order to eliminate the “personnel” committee our elders had to take on the specific responsibilities of evaluating present job-descriptions, creating new ones, ensuring ongoing training and education, and creating a basic flow-chart of delegated staff responsibility (we didn’t have any chart like this in place at the time). The elders needed to establish expectations for office hours, vacation days, and expense accounts. The elders needed to create pathways for addressing inter-office and staff issues when they arise, and they needed to establish the structure of how each staff member would relate to the others.
In order to eliminate the “policy and procedures” committee our elders placed supreme emphasis on our church’s fundamental documents – the confession of faith, the membership covenant, and the constitution. All of these documents were good and in place when we transitioned from a committee-led congregation to an elder-led congregation (the new constitution being ratified in 2020), so there was not much work to be done there. However, there were numerous (and often contradictory) policies on the books. So, the elders voted to wipe the slate clean, and to begin with some basic building use and church-wide activity policies. To date, we have not created many policies, but this will likely be a responsibility that the elders will delegate to a newly formed committee in the future (more on this below).
With our “building” committee and others like it, the elders decided to assign service tasks to specific deacons. Instead of having a committee of rotating members take responsibility for functions like mowing the grass, cleaning the building, providing occasional maintenance, and operating and maintaining the A/V equipment, we moved toward assigning these to task-oriented deacons who ensure such functions (either by doing them or by planning for other members to do so).
For full transparency, our elders are still trying to assign deacons for all of these roles and more. The church members are generally very gracious and generous with their time, so many functions are happening at present by various informal volunteers. Our elders would prefer to have specific deacons take formal responsibility for them, but we pay for God’s help in leading our members to better understand the role and function of deacons.
As for the future of committees, we have an option to create them articulated in our current constitution. Any new committee will be formed with a specific purpose, budget, and duration clarified with its formation. As I mentioned above, we believe that a committee will be helpful in creating certain policies, but committees will also likely be helpful by taking on assignments to investigate building renovation options, to procure better and more cost-effective insurance, and more.
Many churches today are coming to recognize the same reality that our church did during the late twenty-teens – that pastoral leadership is critical to the health of a local church. Good pastoral leadership is exercised primarily in the teaching and shepherding of the members, but such functions overlap with the exercise of oversight. And churches are sure to enjoy greater health and vitality (even if they do not necessarily grow in number) when good pastors lead well.
For those interested in talking through this more, there are probably several pastors nearby who could be a help to you. If you are in the East Texas area, I would be happy to provide a conversation partner. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.