Church Policy Manuals and How to Start

Policy manuals. Wow! Those two words just send electric excitement waves through your body, don’t they? I know to the detail-pastor this article will resonate loud and clear while the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants-pastor will say, “Why?”

Let’s answer the why question first. Put aside the preconceived negatives on the word “policy”. It is not a bad word. It is a governing principle, a plan or a course of action. If any organization on the planet should operate with properly documented principles, plans and courses of action, it is the church.

A church policy manual allows the church to articulate those things that guide the church in principle, plan and course. This is why you should have a church policy manual.

Now that I have been able to convince you, let’s take a moment to consider that which a church policy manual is not.

1. It is not a rule book that stifles every ounce of creative oozing from the pores of highly devoted staff and laity.

2. It is not a hodgepodge of every senior pastor and church board’s pet peeves.

3. It is not a manual that vests all power in the office of senior pastor or their admin.

4. It is not to be created and put on the shelf never to be revisited again.

5. It is not rigid.

6. It is not designed to answer every question for every occasion from now until eternity.

Here is what a church policy manual is.

1. It is fluid.

2. It is constantly under review.

3. It is in alignment with the mission and values of the church.

4. It is approved by the appropriate governing body of the church.

5. It sets courses of action.

6. It articulates principles which govern action.

7. It guides plans.

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Let me note something about the size of policy manuals. The ultimate detail person wants a policy for every potential eventuality. That will bite you.

Let me ask you, “If one church has a 3-inch thick policy manual and another has a ½ inch thick policy manual, which one is a growing church?” The ½ inch thick one because they are way nimbler. It covers the basics, but still remains big-time fluid.

Hence, keep it short.

Having noted that, how does a pastor go about creating a church policy manual from scratch?

Look for those practices which are accepted as normative in the church. For example, if it is normal that people check out vehicles from the custodian, you might state the practice that vehicle requisitions are to be submitted to “the church custodian.”

In some cases, it is appropriate to leave the position open and simply indicate a reference to “the office responsible for vehicle assignments.” This allows for the requisition person to be the custodian in one year and the receptionist in another year. Note – keep it fluid.

Seek out the policy manuals of other churches of similar size and setting. I have never been turned down when asking for the resource of another church in this arena.

Break your policy manual into bite-size sections, those which fit for your church.

A set of sections might look something like this.

  • Building and Grounds
  • Vehicles
  • Scheduling
  • Personnel
  • Youth and children
  • Purchasing and budget

Inside each of the sections, list those areas (subsections) where you have practices already occurring and where you feel some sort of guideline needs to be in place.

In those areas where a practice is in place, write down that which is occurring in as simple and clear a manner as possible. In those areas where a practice needs to be in place, use other church manuals as a guide or write what you wish was happening and then build consensus to make that a reality.

There will be occasions where you will see, after creating your sections and subsections, that you have all sorts of blank pages because you see the need for a policy but literally have no practice in place or an understanding of what should be in place. This is fine.

Your task at-hand in starting is to get the framework of the church policy manual in place. To fill in the blanks will be an ongoing task for the next number of months.

Once you have assembled all that you believe is in place in practice and you have your policies you believe should be in practice, take the proposed document to your governing body for ratification and documentation of acceptance.

You should gain approval of your starting document even though you have many subsections without policy language. Approve it as is anyway. As you gain language and recommendations on blank subsections, take it to the governing body at that time for approval.

Although I am not giving legal advice, I can tell you that having policies approved and in place positions the church far better when legal issues come up. Flying by the seat of your pants does not. Operating without a policy is a reflection of poor leadership. Do not let that happen.

… And remember, keep it shorter rather than longer.

The task looks ominous, but it is not. Take a shot at one issue at a time. It may take you a long, long time but it will be well worth it. The stewardship of the church you serve demands it.

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