A multichurch district board:

Helping or hurting?

Prince Ng’andu, MA, serves as a district pastor in South Zambia Conference, Monze, Zambia. He is pursuing a PhD focusing on school leadership.

What exactly is a multichurch district council or board? A multi-church district is an amalgamation of several local churches in a given geographical territory under the guidance of a single pastor with associates, if any. The highest decision-making body for a district is referred to as a multichurch district council.

The district council comprises the principal officers of the church boards. It has a number of important responsibilities, but its chief concern is the spiritual nurture of the church and the work of planning evangelism in all its phases. Over time, a debate has ensued over the role and place of the district, in light of the work of local church, with proponents and antagonists on either side.

The chair of the district council is the minister appointed to serve the district as pastor. If the pastor prefers not to act in this capacity, or is unable to be present, he or she may arrange for the serving church elder, who is the district secretary, to preside as chair on a pro tem basis. The district secretary serves as secretary of the board and is responsible for the minutes of the meetings.

What kind of relationship do these councils have to the local church boards? Do they replace them? Is there a duplication of functions? Is there conflict? I want to work in reverse order, as it were, by starting with the undisputed role of the local church board, clearly defined by church policy. I will then identify the roles of the district council and proceed to see to what extent they are in tandem. The dilemma we face is that apart from the Church Manual, little information exists regarding the church board—and even less concerning the district structure.

The role of the church board

The Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual delineates the functions of the church board.

The church board comprises the principal officers of the church. It has a number of important responsibilities, but its chief concern is the spiritual nurture of the church and the work of planning evangelism in all its phases.

The great commission of Jesus makes evangelism, proclaiming the good news of the gospel, the primary function of the church (Matt. 28:18–20). This is therefore also the primary function of the church board. When the board devotes its first interests and highest energies to every-member evangelism, a strong, positive influence is felt in the spiritual life and growth of the membership, and many church problems are alleviated or prevented.

Included in church board responsibilities are

  1. spiritual nurture,
  2. evangelism in all of its phases,
  3. maintenance of doctrinal purity,
  4. upholding Christian standards,
  5. recommending changes in church membership,
  6. church finances,
  7. protection and care of church properties, and
  8. coordination of church departments.

In view of the abovementioned functions, the church board is the engine of a local church. Its effectiveness and efficiency in carrying out its mandate has a direct bearing on how that church performs with regard to fulfilling its purpose for existence. This is largely because the church board is the center of the action.

The role of the district council

The Seventh-day Adventist Minister’s Handbook contains a brief chapter on large districts. It notes that most Adventist churches are in some kind of multichurch district configuration. Apart from offering ideas and innovations that a pastor, in such a situation, can implement, the Handbook recommends district council meetings to be held once every quarter, during which the district membership meets for an entire weekend. This kind of a meeting would provide an opportunity for the pastor to experience fellowship with members of the district.

Among the functions of the district meetings, the following are suggested:

  • Fellowship among members from various congregations
  • Coordination of evangelism plans within the district
  • Sharing the joys and concerns of the various churches
  • Strengthening the work of church departments
  • Planning joint ventures, such as building construction
  • Establishing programs for children and youth

As can be observed, some of the roles of the district meeting are similar to the work of the church board. Ideally, the district council will complement the work of the local church board, ensuring that it lives up to its mandate.But are there some functions unique to the church board?

Roles unique to the church board

There are some roles that are vested in the church board which cannot be cascaded to the district council. This is in recognition of the fact that each church operates independently within the defined roles in the Seventh-day Adventist structure, with the business meeting as the governing body. Among these are the following:

  • The election of its own officers and board
  • The admitting into fellowship of its members
  • The dismissal of individuals from its membership
  • The granting of church letters for transfer to other churches, and the acceptance of letters of transfer from other churches

Advantages of a district council

The fact that the pastor is chair of both the church board and the district council meeting ought to create harmony of agenda. Other advantages of the district council include

  • offering pastors a platform to coordinate the work among their churches,
  • providing a forum where quarterly reports can be received from the churches,
  • giving pastors the opportunity to meet leaders of all churches at least once a quarter,
  • enabling pastors to give the necessary guidance on pertinent issues that need attention, and
  • presenting a learning opportunity for congregations to emulate best practices being implemented by other churches.

However, the challenge for the pastor to be available for all church board meetings in a multichurch district is still very real.

Disadvantages of a district council

Despite the advantages, there are some aspects of a district council which appear to hamper the best intentions of local churches in carrying out their functions effectively:

  • Duplication of work
  • Prestigious churches overwhelm smaller congregations
  • Extra bureaucratic processes in implementation of programs
  • Extra financial burden for churches
  • Overcrowding of district programs tends to impede local churches’ programming
  • Decisions are sometimes viewed as arbitrary, without considering local church situations
  • District leaders sometimes exercise administrative authority over local church leaders
  • An apparent lack of uniform district structure
  • Membership composition of district councils differs from place to place (e.g., some utilize baptized church members, others only church board members)
  • Lack of clarity as to extent of limits of authority for district officers vis-à-vis local church officers

District or distinct?

Pastors in multichurch districts may certainly find it helpful to have a lean, efficient district council in place to assist in coordinating the work of various congregations and departments under their charge. Yet too often, opportunities are lost to engage members on the frontline of the work in their neighborhood, according to the special circumstances of their community.

While the district structure may be preserved, it is crucial to recognize the inherent danger of concentrating one’s energies in the larger organization and neglecting the distinct needs of each local church board.

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Prince Ng’andu, MA, serves as a district pastor in South Zambia Conference, Monze, Zambia. He is pursuing a PhD focusing on school leadership.

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