If you are church shopping right now, you might be paying attention to the quality of the preaching, the music or the children’s ministries. You also ought to check the congregation’s polity or organization.

Living Word Christian Center, for example, is run like a corporation. Bill Winston, the pastor, behaves like a CEO. He picks board members and runs the church like a corporation. If you want to be happy working at Living Word, you’d better be comfortable with taking orders from the top.

Bill Winston is the boss of Living Word. He came to town twenty years ago and built the congregation up to its present size of 15,000 members. Everything there centers around him and his message of Prosperity. In fact, recently he has been talking about programs coming from Bill Winston Ministries instead of from Living Word.

If you’re going to be happy at this mega church, you have to trust its Pastor. The congregation doesn’t vote on decisions. Your only decision is to come or go somewhere else.

The advantage of this kind of organizational structure is that things get done. Winston was a high ranking official at IBM. He knows how to run a large organization. The numerical success of his church bears testimony to his skill. Excellence is not only the church’s motto. It’s part of the culture.

What is lacking at Living Word is accountability. Of course, there’s accountability in terms of whether people attend or not, but don’t be looking for financial reports distributed to the congregation or members voting on next year’s budget, let alone who the next youth pastor is going to be. Transparency is not Living Word’s strong point. You just have to trust the pastor. . .as 15,000 members apparently do.

Eddie Long is the pastor, of a church in Atlanta with 25,000 members, who has been accused of sexually abusing four boys. His style of leadership is the same as that of Bill Winston. I have no reason to doubt Pastor Winston’s integrity or character, but the kind of polity the churches these two pastor, makes that kind of behavior easier to hide.

A second organizational model is called a congregational polity. In this structure every member of the congregation is a voting member and the church property belongs to the congregation. At congregational meetings, members each have a vote on matters from whether to paint the men’s bathroom all the way to who the next pastor will be.

In this structure, it’s harder for the pastor to lead effectively. That is, congregations expect their pastors to be strong leaders while at the same time reminding their pastors that if they alienate their members, they might not have their salaries raised next year or in extreme situations even be fired by the same people they are trying to lead.

The advantage of this organizational type is accountability. Rarely do pastors of this kind of congregation go off on power trips. Because there is a great deal of transparency, pastors are very aware that they are being watched.

A third form of church organization is called an episcopal polity. Here the boss is neither the congregation nor the pastor but the diocese whose representative is the bishop. Because the diocese owns the church property and appoints the pastors, it has ultimate control. In the case of St. Bernardine, the members do have a lot of input into decisions which are made, but if you’re going to be happy in a church with an episcopal polity, you must have made your peace with the fact that what is taught and decided in terms of the congregation’s life is going ultimately be made by the male wearing the red beanie.

I’m not saying one organizational structure is better than another. When I was a pastor, I envied the Catholic church when the American bishops voted to condemn the war in Iraq before it even got started. Boom. They voted, and that was church teaching. Period.

I also was jealous at times of Bill Winston’s authority, especially when my council seemed to be resisting my proposals, not because of their value but because of a struggle for power.

The point I’m making is that a church’s organizational structure can have as much impact on your experience there as the quality of its preaching.

• Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.

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