2000 Congregational Structure

Congregational Structure

2000 Church of the Brethren Statement

WHEREAS: We, at the Annual Conference level, have not dealt with congregational structure since 1964;

WHEREAS: our district has many churches that are struggling with issues around the effectiveness of the commission-oriented structure and the official board-oriented structure;

WHEREAS: We, the Church Development Commission, found that congregations could improve the quality of their congregational life by implementing changes in their structure;

THEREFORE, we, the Church Development Commission of the Atlantic Northeast District request the 1995 District Conference at Elizabethtown, Pa., to petition the Annual Conference to appoint a committee to evaluate and study our current congregational structures, and propose other congregational structure options that also maintain the integrity and biblical precedences of our Brethren heritage.

Action of the Atlantic Northeast District Board: The District Board of Atlantic Northeast District, meeting in regular session on August 5, 1995, passed the query on to District Conference, which will meet October 14, 1995, in Elizabethtown, Pa.

J. Mark Bushong, Board Chair; Linda Balsbaugh, Recording Secretary

Action of the Atlantic Northeast District Conference: Passed on to Annual Conference, Church of the Brethren, by the Atlantic Northeast District Conference, meeting October 14, 1995, in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

J. Calvin Wenger, Moderator; Bonnie Hutchinson, Clerk

Action of the 1996 Annual Conference: Sarah Ann Bowman, a Standing Committee member from the Virlina District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that concerns of the Query: Congregational Structure be accepted and further recommended that because of the redesign of the General Board the action related to the query be deferred until 1998. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee.

From the Conference Secretary: This item of business is included in the 1997 Conference Booklet as a reminder that it continues to be business of the Annual Conference. This query has been deferred to the 1998 Annual Conference where it will be received as an item of new business.

Action of the 1997 Annual Conference:The delegate body was reminded that the query, Congregational Structure, will be processed as an item of new business at the 1998 Annual Conference.

No action was taken.

Action of the 1998 Annual Conference: Standing Committee member Janet Whetzel presented the Standing Committee recommendation that the query be accepted, that a three person study committee be elected, and that the committee report back to the 1999 Annual Conference. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee. It subsequently elected Wanda Will Button, Sam Detwiler, and Robert D. Kettering to serve on the committee.

1999 Progress Report

The committee has met once and has conferred by telephone. Preliminary writing and outlining of our work has been done. A bibliography has been prepared and will be distributed at Annual Conference. A survey regarding congregational structure was developed and sent to all congregations and the returned surveys tallied. “Thank-You” to the 428 congregations that returned the survey. We are planning for a time of conversation with the Congregational Life Team members and anticipate an Insight Session at 1999 Annual Conference.

We ask for another year to complete our work.

Wanda W. Button, Chair; Samuel K. Detwiler; Robert D. Kettering

Action of the 1999 Annual Conference: The progress report was presented by Wanda W. Button, chair of the committee. The delegate body voted to receive the progress report.

Report of the Committee


Norman J. Baugher wrote, concerning the production of a new worship and polity manual, “No religious society or movement can long endure which does not adapt and apply itself and its body of faith and program to the living generation” (Manual of Worship and Polity, Church of the Brethren, Brethren Publishing House, 1953, Foreward, p.4). This is true of congregational structure as well. Over the course of time many factors, such as size, vision, local demographics, bring about changes in congregations. In order to address the changing needs of congregational life, new organizational structures need to emerge so the mission of the congregation can move forward.

Congregational structures are therefore fluid rather than static in nature. From the New Testament record we discover a church in the midst of change and changing organizational structures, so that needs such as the calling of deacons, church councils, and elders could be addressed. From the birth of the church, its structures have been evolving into new forms. The church is no different in our day.

In 1964 Annual Conference adopted a one board/three commission pattern. This pattern has been helpful in reminding the church of its threefold focus in ministry: the nurture of its own members, the witness to the world, and the call to stewardship. It has been helpful in broadening the representation of church members in its administrative body. However, some congregations have recognized that:

  • organizational structure needs to be simplified;
  • administration of program often consumes too much time and energy;
  • mission, vision, and core values need to be clarified;
  • leaders have been chosen by an election process that has produced winners and losers rather than by a process of discerning and discovering persons’ gifts;
  • members need to be called to specific ministry tasks rather than to a board;
  • the deacon ministry of the church has not been adequately integrated into the structure of the congregation;
  • tasks have often not been properly defined, so members are inadequately informed about what they are asked to do;
  • a continuing group needs to be called specifically to work with the pastor(s) on congregational/pastoral relationships;
  • new language may be needed to describe the way we structure our lives together;
  • within the boundaries of the stated mission, vision, and policies of the congregation, individuals and groups need to be given greater freedom to initiate and carry out projects.

In response to these concerns, and in light of the fact that nearly half the congregations responding to the committee’s survey are no longer using the recommended organizational structure detailed in the 1992 Church of the Brethren Manual of Organization and Polity (see Appendix 1), the Congregational Structure Study Committee has developed a new model for Annual Conference to consider.

The new model proposes to congregations that:

  • mission, vision, and core functions be clarified before Ministry Teams are established;
  • the number of Ministry Teams be determined by the core functions or ministries which relate to and carry out the mission/vision and by the size of the congregation;
  • persons be chosen for various positions by a gifts discernment process which involves a Gifts Discernment Team and affirmation/confirmation by the Congregational Forum of each person called;
  • persons be called to a specific ministry rather than to a “Board” which would then assign members to special areas of service as called for in Chapter 4 of the 1992 Church of the Brethren Manual of Organization and Polity;
  • members be adequately informed of the tasks to which they are called through printed position descriptions;
  • the deacon ministry of the church be integrated into the structure of the congregation;
  • a Pastoral Relations Team be established.

Not every congregation in the denomination will find this new model relevant. However, what we present is our best effort at being open to the Holy Spirit in searching for ways in which our structures can energize and revitalize the church for more effective witness and ministry through the local church.

The proposed model is based upon the belief that the starting point for structuring church organization is for the congregation to develop clear understandings and statements regarding its mission (what it is called to be) and its vision (what it is called to do). The core functions, those areas of ministry that are essential to the life of a congregation, grow out of its mission and vision. The number of Ministry Teams is based upon the congregation’s mission and vision and its size.

Integral to this understanding of congregational life is a process of discernment that seeks to identify and call out the spiritual gifts among the membership. Persons are called by the church based upon their unique spiritual gifts. Congregational elections are replaced by a congregational call and affirmation which eliminates the concept of elections that create winners and losers. Clear descriptions of every position in the church are essential in helping persons issue and respond to a call from the church.

In a change from the present organizational structure, two additional issues address deacons as an important part of the new structure and a Pastoral Relations Team as a group in its own right to deal with pastoral needs and concerns.

Also new is shaping congregational life around mission, vision and discerning of spiritual gifts. This requires new nomenclature. Therefore, vocabulary is being suggested that seeks to embody the concept of vitality and ministry rather than busyness and bureaucracy.

Organizational patterns are neither sacred nor unimportant. The way we organize ourselves, the clarity of vision for ministry, the language used to describe groups and tasks within the church, the degree of freedom given to carry out a task, the way we call leadership are all important. Organizational structure is a tool that can either enable or impede ministry. The committee has seen its task as offering a flexible tool that will enable congregations to develop their own unique organizational plan, so they might better carry out their mission.

The Congregational Structure Study Committee thanks local churches who sent their organizational plans and other materials with their response to the survey (see Appendix 1). We also acknowledge with gratitude the encouragement, suggestions, advice, and criticism offered by many congregations, groups, and individuals across our denomination.

In addition, serving as an Advisory Team was a group that included the Annual Conference moderator and representatives of the General Board, the Ministers’ Association, the Council of District Executives, the Association of Brethren Caregivers, the General Board’s Congregational Life Teams, and the denominational New Church Development Committee. This team offered invaluable advice and suggestions. The new organizational model being proposed in this paper stems directly from these many contributions.


The Christian church, unlike any other organization, is called together by God through Jesus Christ to live according to a new commandment, “that you love one another” (Matt. 16:16-18, John 13:35). Following the example of Jesus, leaders in the church are called to be servants (Luke 22:25-27). Leaders are called to be people of high moral character and maturity (Titus 1:5-9). In the earliest days of the church, the apostles learned they couldn’t do everything; that others needed to be called to certain tasks. From them we learn that leaders in the church are willing and eager to delegate responsibility and authority (Acts 6:1-7).

The church is the body of Christ-living, dynamic, and growing with all its parts interdependent. Each part has a different function, but the functioning of every part is essential to the health of the whole body (1 Cor. 12:12-26).

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, a variety of spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of building up the body (1 Cor. 12:4-11, Eph. 4:11-12). The bestowing of these spiritual gifts is the foundation for the structure and organization that God calls us to create.

Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us” (Rom. 12:6a). Paul also writes, “Do not neglect the gift that is in you” (1 Tim. 4:14-16). We understand that every member has at least one God-given gift that is needed by the church and must be nurtured; and so, like good stewards of the grace of God, we are to serve one another with whatever gift each of us has received (2 Tim. 1:6-9, 1 Peter 4:10).

As congregations structure themselves for ministry, we believe they are called to prayerfully discern God’s plan for discovering and nurturing the spiritual gifts of all members, empowering and freeing them to use their gifts through the ministry of the church.


Throughout the nearly 300-year history of the Church of the Brethren, church structures at the local and denominational levels have emerged, evolved, and changed. The church started with no formal organization or structure. A small group simply gathered in Schwarzenau, where they searched the Scriptures together and prayed, seeking the mind of Christ until they were able to arrive at a common understanding. This consensus approach became increasingly difficult as more members were added to the group and as new groups were formed in other communities. A leader emerged early on, Alexander Mack, Sr., but before the move of many Brethren to Pennsylvania, no formal congregational plan had developed. (“Polity,” S. Loren Bowman, Church of the Brethren, Yesterday and Today, Donald F. Durnbaugh, ed., 1986, p.86)

The Germantown congregation, which was the first in the new world, chose an elder. Council meetings developed in connection with the yearly love feast. Membership grew. As families moved away into the surrounding rural areas and later into the West, new congregations were created. Elders, teachers, preachers, deacons, and bishops were called or elected by these new congregations. Church leaders from the congregations met regularly to seek unity on controversial issues.

By the mid-19th century an organizational pattern had emerged. Each congregation had two or three preachers. Teachers and deacons were chosen by the vote of all members, men and women. Bishops were chosen from among the teachers. Elders were ordained by the laying on of hands and by prayer. Their duty was to travel from one congregation to another to preach, to discipline, and to be present when a bishop was to be ordained or when a significant happening was to take place in the congregation. The bishops had general oversight of their own congregation and of other congregations that had no bishop. The deacons or “visiting brethren” were to take special care of the poor widows and their children, as well as to visit all the families or members of their congregation once a year (The Brethren in the New Nation, Roger E. Sappington, 1976, pp. 199-200).

The office of elder became increasingly influential and into the early 20th century was the primary power center in the congregations. Also, “Deacons exerted considerable influence in the affairs of the congregation, with responsibility in nurture and the faithfulness of the members. The women had no voice in the public deliberations of the congregation. Operationally the general picture was that of a tightly knit group shaping its life by the teachings of the New Testament, with the Elders in charge of the congregation” (Power and Polity Among the Brethren, S. Loren Bowman, 1987, p. 50). The elders and pastors meeting with the deacons became the organizational pattern of the local congregations for many years (Minister’s Manual, Church of the Brethren, 1946, p. 37).

As Brethren became interested and involved in Sunday schools, higher education, publication, and missions at home and abroad, boards and committees came into existence at the denominational level. Early in the 20th century, members of these boards and committees recognized the need to work toward wider cooperation, especially in program and finances, and so a Council of Boards was formed through which they voluntarily shared and planned together for a more effective ministry (Power and Polity Among the Brethren, S. Loren Bowman, 1987, pp. 81-82).

Reorganization at the denominational level in 1947 drew these various boards and committees together into one centralized board with five program commissions. In 1968 further reorganization reduced the number of commissions to three. These reorganizations had a major impact on local congregations. They were encouraged to bring together into one unified official board or church cabinet the elders, ministers, deacons, and other “functional leadership of the church” that had developed through the years, so they could “pool their plans, problems, leadership resources, and financial needs. . . In this central group should be representation from all the age groups and special-cause groups and important committees of the church” (Minister’s Manual, Church of the Brethren, 1946, p. 36).

The 1964 Annual Conference adopted the one board/three commission (nurture, witness, stewards) model as the recommended plan for local congregational organization. A majority of our congregations have used this model during the past 30 years. However, many congregations report having modified that plan in recent years or having made other substantial organizational changes. Slightly fewer than half of the 435 congregations responding to the committee’s survey, report that they are currently using the one board/three commission model.


The following is based on the 1992 Church of the Brethren Manual of Organization and Polity, Chapter 4, “The Local church.”

  1. Organization and Function

    Preliminary to any plan of local church organization is an understanding of the mission of the church. This mission, set forth in the great commission, though never fully understood, may be defined as having an inner and an outer direction. The inner mission of the church is to nurture its members, seeking ever to bring them more and more to the stature of maturity in Christ. The outer mission of the church is to be related, as God’s instrument, to the problems and the needs of the world. These two major functions of the church are achieved to the extent that they are undergirded with stewardship of time, talent, and material resources.

    The congregation is a basic unit of the church at work in the world. Servants of the Lord must be alert to the needs and the opportunities about them. They must make their ministry relevant to the changing times and should always be creative in communicating the Word and the love of God.

    To these ends each local congregation should develop its own articles of incorporation (where applicable), constitution, and bylaws, clearly defining its organizational structure and working procedures in harmony with Church of the Brethren and district polity. Articles of incorporation are the formal legal document filed with the state of incorporation. A constitution is regarded as a statement of the fundamental principles of government adopted by the church. The bylaws are detailed rules and regulations which allow for the effective working of the congregation within its basic principles and procedures to be incorporated into a local church plan of organization. This organizational plan is a model only and should not necessarily be taken as legal articles of incorporation. If the church is to be duly incorporated by the state in which it is located, the congregation shall consult the District Office for proper compliance to state corporation laws.

  2. Articles of Incorporation

    Articles of Incorporation should provide the information required by the state of incorporation. It is usually preferable that the articles contain only information required by state law.

  3. Suggested Constitution

    (While a constitution is not legally required for an incorporated congregation, it has often been used even by such a congregation to designate fundamental positions. If a constitution is not used, the kinds of information described in this section may be contained in the bylaws.)

    1. Name of the Congregation

      The local church shall have an official name. The church is deserving of a Christian name.

    2. Affirmation of Faith and Purpose

      This congregation:

      1. Is founded upon the faith that there is but one God who is a personal God who in holy love creates, sustains, and orders all.

      2. Confesses Jesus Christ as the Lord of the church and of all life.

      3. Believes that the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of believers, creating and sustaining the church through the gospel, giving guidance and comfort, and uniting believers with their Lord and with one another.

      4. Maintains the New Testament as its only creed and rule of faith. In the Holy Scriptures is recorded God’s search for all persons which is climaxed in God’s redemptive act in and through Christ. Through the Bible God still speaks and continues to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes.

      5. Believes that the gospel is the good news that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. Through the gospel God’s sovereign will and Christ’s redeeming grace are revealed.

      6. Holds that the church is the body of Christ and is under the Lord’s mandate to be faithful in accepting and transmitting the gospel by word and deed.

      7. Considers that all members of the congregation, of the body of believers, are responsible for the total ministry of the church.

      8. Accepts the ministry of the church to be the proclamation and fulfillment of the gospel for all people both near and far, and the nurture of the individual believers in the Christian faith and life.

    3. Mission and Vision Statements

      The congregation should discern, develop, and implement mission and vision statements. The mission statement defines the primary purpose of the church, why the congregation exists, and their understanding of what God is calling them to be. The vision statement defines the specific ministries to which the congregation understands God to be calling them, what God is calling them to do. The mission statement should be reviewed at least every five years and the vision statement every three years.

    4. Relationship to the Whole Church
      1. The Church Universal

        The local church is part of a larger whole which comprises the complete body of Christ. The local church, therefore, shall recognize other Christian bodies and denominations, and shall seek to cooperate with, and give direction to, the united efforts of the church.

      2. The Church Denominational

        The congregation shall covenant to support faithfully the program of the Church of the Brethren, recognizing Annual Conference enactments of the Church of the Brethren as having governing force in its life, and shall remain a member of the Church of the Brethren or its successor. The congregation shall send delegates to those official conferences of the Church of the Brethren in which it is entitled to have representation. In case of strife or division, if any part of the congregation refuses to abide by its obligation as a member of the Church of the Brethren, that part of the congregation, whether a majority or minority of its membership, which continues in unity with the Church of the Brethren shall be recognized as the lawful congregation and shall continue in possession of all the property of the congregation.

        If the congregation (a) disbands, (b) departs from membership in the Church of the Brethren, or (c) so decreases in numbers and financial strength as to render the congregation unable to fulfill its purpose, the district of the Church of the Brethren in which it is located, or the successor, shall have the right to take charge and control of all property and thereafter to hold, manage and convey the same at the discretion of the district. All action taken by the district relating to the property of a congregation shall be in conformity with the provisions of this manual (Chapter VI: Property Holdings and Financial Resources.)

    5. Membership
      1. Meaning of Membership

        According to the New Testament, life in Christ means life in the body of Christ. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13), so that we, “though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). Membership in a local fellowship of believers, the congregation, is the way in which we affirm and live out our membership in Christ’s larger body, the church universal. In our interrelatedness with other Christians in the local church, we experience the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit, we discover ways to be faithful to our covenant with God and each other, and we’re able to support one another in carrying out our common calling as the people of God. So it was in the house churches of the earliest Christians; and so it is in the life of God’s people today.

        From the time of its beginnings, the Church of the Brethren has affirmed the importance of church membership and sought ways to make church membership more meaningful. It is appropriate, therefore, for the congregation and its members to reflect on their mutual accountability to one another. On the one hand, the congregation has a covenantal responsibility to care for its members, to encourage growth in freedom and discipleship, to help members discover their gifts and find ways to serve, and to provide ministries which respond to both spiritual and physical needs. On the other hand, each members has a covenantal responsibility to participate regularly in the life of the congregation, to seek the counsel of the church in living out the way of Christ, to challenge the church to greater accountability to its calling, to respond to opportunities to serve in the congregation and beyond, and to contribute to the church’s ministries in every way possible. Congregations may use these general guidelines as a basis for developing more specific expectations for their membership.

        At the heart of our calling as members of Christ’s body is the summons to follow Christ as his disciples. Christians do not live unto themselves but are called to seek first the kingdom of God, to risk themselves for Christ’s sake, to take up the way of the cross. To accept and practice the costly grace of radical discipleship is no easy task. In the community of faith, however, we find courage and strength to live out our discipleship in solidarity with others.

      2. Entering Into and Renewing Church Membership

        Membership in the local church is open to all persons who by their own act of faith say yes to God’s offer of new life in Christ and accept the vocation of the covenant community, as taught and practiced by the Church of the Brethren. One of the responsibilities of the congregation is to reach out to persons irrespective of race, national origin, or status in life, to share with them the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, and to invite them to enter into the life of Christ’s body.

        When persons respond to this invitation, the church shall take steps to prepare them for membership. Part of this preparation should consist of classes of sufficient length on the meaning of church membership. Such classes offer an opportunity for persons to explore the faith and history of the wider Christian community, to study the particular story and distinctive emphases of the Church of the Brethren, and to become familiar with the life and expectations of the congregation they will be entering. In addition to providing membership classes, the congregation may choose to identify persons who will serve as sponsors of new members to assist in their orientation into the life of the church. In whatever ways the congregation chooses to prepare persons for membership, the pastor or minister has a key role to play here.

        When persons seeking membership have completed their period of preparation, the deacons shall recommend them for membership in the congregation. Following a congregational confirmation of acceptance as members, persons may be received into the church in one of three ways:

        1. Confession of faith and baptism by trine immersion as practiced by the Church of the Brethren.

        2. A letter transferring membership from another congregation of the Church of the Brethren or of another Christian denomination.

        3. Reaffirmation of faith and renewal of the commitment to membership made at an earlier time in another congregation.

        Whatever the particular mode of reception, the act of receiving new members should be a festive moment in the life of a congregation. It is a time for old and new members to affirm their relationship with one another, a time to celebrate the joys and responsibilities of living in covenant in Christ’s body, and a time to lift up the lifelong process of growth to which baptism should lead.

        The sequel to entering into membership is the renewing of membership. Only as we regularly renew our covenant with God and with one another does that covenant function in a vital way. Historically, Brethren worked at renewal of membership through an annual visit by the deacons to the homes of members to reflect on the health of each person’s relationship with Christ and the church—and through the love feast which traditionally followed that visit. Whether through its practice or through other models of calling one another to accountability, the congregation shall provide its members with annual opportunities to examine their faith and calling and to renew or reaffirm their relationship with the church. As a part of this process, members may be invited to make specific commitments related to their participation in the life and work of the church.

      3. Membership Classification

        Members shall be classified in one of three ways for statistical purposes and reported accordingly on annual report forms:

        1. Members. Members of the congregation shall consist of those persons who have been received into the church by baptism, letter, or reaffirmation of the faith, and who choose to continue their membership when the congregation invites them to examine and renew the covenant relationship, thereby confirming their intention to fulfill the responsibilities of members as described above. In congregations which are aligned with two or more denominations, members shall be regarded as full members of each of the related denominations, nurtured in and oriented to the traditions of each church, and encouraged to enrich one another through their differences, seeking strength and unity together. Annual report forms shall provide a way for such congregations to identify their multi