One essential question pastors should ask in decisions that affect their church: Is this about style or substance?

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One essential question pastors should ask in decisions that affect their church: Is this about style or substance?

July 7, 2022 -

© Jon Anders Wiken /

© Jon Anders Wiken /

© Jon Anders Wiken /

My first full-time pastorate was in an open country church in far East Texas, thirty miles from the Texas and Louisiana border. The Crossroads Baptist Church was planted by college students from nearby East Texas Baptist University in the 1940s. Ten miles south of Marshall, Texas, and five miles south of I-20, the congregation had an average attendance of a hundred.

I was privileged to be the second full-time pastor. These good people loved God and loved my family and me. Our first child was born during our time with them. Together we sought to know God and to make him known in the surrounding community. Things went well across the four years I served there. When I arrived, the people were anxious to improve and expand their ministry. One goal was to improve the church’s facilities. They had several good ideas but no consensus on where to start.

A word of confession: I’m OCD about some things, order and cleanliness being two. Martha, a good friend, faithful church member, and my daughter’s first nanny, once called me “persnickety.” I had to look it up.

When I did, I took it as a compliment, but I don’t think Martha meant it that way.

When priorities compete

As I got to know the church, I discovered that almost all of the faithful members wanted to upgrade the facilities, but there were competing priorities.

Some wanted to replace the sanctuary first. Others thought that new small group and fellowship space should be the first goal. It was likely we wouldn’t be able to do both, so a choice had to be made, and it was a big deal.

In my first few months as pastor, I read all the minutes of the church business meetings dating back to the church’s birth. I discovered that this church usually made significant capital improvements every twenty years. I was fortunate to become pastor at a time when they were ready to make changes.

After a good bit of prayer, study, consultations, and conversations with individuals and groups, we decided together to build the small group and fellowship space first and to do as much renovation to the current sanctuary as we could, with plans to replace it as the next priority.

It was thrilling for me to lead this process in my first full-time church. Developing and casting the vision, raising the funds, helping to create the construction plans, and watching it come to life together are precious memories. I learned countless lessons about leadership and shared decision-making.

Removing the tote board

Early on, I learned the difference between decisions of substance and decisions of style.

Like many churches of its time, Crossroads had a report board that hung in the worship center. This “tote board” displayed the weekly attendance in Sunday School and the previous week’s offering total. It hung in the front of the church beside the choir and above the piano.

I didn’t think this piece was inspiring to worship, so I took it down. I didn’t think anyone would care or even notice although, once removed, it was obvious because all the surrounding paneling had faded. You could see the outline of the missing board with just a glance.

The first Sunday it was absent I was met with questions. I explained I didn’t like the board and had stored it in a closet.

My explanation was not well received.

Mrs. Lily Bell sent me to get the tote board, filled it with the day’s numbers, and placed it back in the worship center with the support of at least half the deacons. My unilateral decision also became the major agenda item at the next deacons meeting a few days later. That’s when I learned several lessons about church leadership.

Substance vs. style

The most lasting of these lessons pertain to decisions of style and substance.

Some churches have a vertical decision-making process where the pastor or a few people make all the decisions. This church had more of a horizontal process that required greater levels of consensus as the decisions got larger.

Decisions of substance, such as what ministry to start, person to hire, or building to build, should take longer and involve more people in the church.

Decisions of style, such as the color of paint or carpet or where to hang the report board, don’t require as much effort but can be divisive if handled wrongly, such as not knowing the history behind an action.

I once heard the story of a church that made the decision to provide the pastor with a new parsonage for his family. The church leaders feared this recommendation would be controversial. To their surprise, the congregation agreed unanimously that it was a good idea. They raised the money and made their plans.

Then it came time to decide if the new house would face north or west.

When discussed, there was great disagreement and harsh words that strained the fellowship. Without realizing it, we can “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24 NIV).

Our goal as pastors should be to respect all people and their preferences. We should seek a process that allows for the congregation’s “style” to be expressed in reasonable ways while giving the most attention to the decisions of substance that have the greatest impact for God’s glory and the good of people. Every pastor needs to learn the decision-making process of their church and not divide the congregation over style choices.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

By the way, we did renovate our sanctuary in the same project. During the remodel, we agreed on a new location for the report board in the main hallway leading to the beautifully redone worship environment.

That decision made us all happy.

Are you facing a decision of substance or style?

What’s the best way to lead to a choice that honors God, blesses people, builds unity, and advances the gospel?

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