For some, the thought of congregational unity may be more like a fantasy than a vision of reality, and yet there are churches dotted across the nation that are not only missionally aligned, but they are unified in all they do. That doesn’t mean the members are all automatons or that everyone agrees with everything. In fact, disagreements pop up all the time. The difference is that disagreements are handled agreeably and when a decision is reached, the discussion is over and the team (congregation) moves forward as one.

Declining churches are rarely unified. Indeed, the majority of Paul’s letters to the churches deal with trying to incorporate or sustain unity within the congregation. Clearly, disharmony has been a part of the church almost from the beginning.

Getting everyone singing off the same sheet of music takes some finesse, some gentle leading, and some not-so gentle directing. Of course, steps one and two in flipping a church are foundational for achieving unity. Without a spiritual base and a missional direction, the church is going nowhere fast. Once these are in place, though, leadership is tasked with leading in the next few steps. Achieving unity is possible when the church adopts and implements:

  • Congregational expected behaviors
  • Congregational values and vision
  • Effective leadership covenants

I’ve written extensively on the first bullet point and there is lots written on discerning a congregation’s values and vision. However, most leadership covenants I’ve seen do little to facilitate congregational unity. 

It’s one thing to behave like a Christ-follower. It’s something else entirely to be congregational leaders. Scripturally, leaders are always held to a higher standard of accountability. However, we’ve all known church leaders who behaved badly: who would come to the board meeting, but wouldn’t attend worship… or who would come to worship, but wouldn’t attend their committee meetings. The adage that everything rises and falls on leadership is as true in the church as it is in industry – and perhaps even more so. The church needs leaders who are faithful followers of Christ. 

To develop your congregational leadership covenant, begin with the New Testament, and in particular with Jesus. Jesus didn’t speak or preach much about leadership – he was too busy raising up, training, mentoring, and coaching leaders. The church leadership starts by studying Jesus’ ministry, the values he instilled in his disciples, and the behaviors he demanded from them. Make a list of the practices Jesus taught and combine/distill them into a list of less than ten statements. Once these statements are created, have a wordsmith work their magic and ensure that the statements reflect what the leadership intended – and that they remain faithful to the teachings and the tenor of Jesus’ expectations.

At a minimum, the leadership covenants should include the following:

  • Leaders will embrace and model the congregational expected behaviors.
  • Leaders will participate in an ongoing, intentional adult spiritual formation group.
  • Leaders will faithfully attend the meetings their position expects of them.
  • Once a decision has been agreed upon by consensus or vote, all team members will endorse and support the team’s decisions.
  • Leaders who are unable to keep the leadership covenants because of time constraints, obligations, or circumstances will tender their resignations as soon as possible so their positions can be filled and their responsibilities covered.

Of course, just because it’s on paper doesn’t mean anything unless the leadership implements and adopts the covenants and then follows up with real accountability. If leaders aren’t held accountable for their actions, then disunity will continue to reign. This is not only true of the leadership covenants, it’s also true of the congregational expected behaviors. 

Once the congregation has adopted the full DNA (mission, values, vision, expected behaviors), then it’s time for members and guests to make a decision. I regularly used the following ship analogy in my church transformations:

There are many ships on the sea and all of us are sailing to reach the same sacred shores of the Kingdom. Some ships are luxury liners. Some are freighters. Some are battleships. And some are fishing trawlers. This church has decided that it’s a fishing trawler and all hands on this ship are expected to be at work tending nets, baiting hooks, keeping us on course, and working as a single-minded team. Not everyone here, though, may be ready to hoist the anchor, cast off the lines, and raise the sails. Some may be looking for a different ship for the journey. If so, that’s totally okay. There are lots of faithful ships sailing to the Promised Land and we’d be happy to help you find the one that’s right for you. But if you choose to be a part of this crew, please be sure you understand what you’re signing on for. This is who we are, this is where we’re going, and this is how we’re committed to getting there.

Tell the story – often. Hold bullies, terrorists, controllers, and slackers accountable to the expectations. When the congregation does, it will enjoy the unity that most churches can only dream about.

Question: What does your leadership covenant look like? How has it evolved over the years? What are some of the positive and negative effects it has had on your church? Share your experiences and thoughts in the Comments section below.