"If the Lord does not build the house, the work of the builders is useless." Psalm 127:1

In the 1970s church union was a driver for structural change, and parish councils in many NZ Presbyterian congregations are a legacy of more flexible ministry-focussed leadership structures from that era. Churches like the Uniting Church of Australia are representative of the pain of change and the opportunity for renewal that the amalgamation of related but distinct Christian traditions brings. Cooperating Ventures in New Zealand still experience the frustration of hope where new models were anticipated yet not fully implemented.

As we continue to adjust our vision for a more nimble, less administratively heavy and more intentionally mission-minded church it is important neither to glamorise or demonize the past. Most ages in the church had similarities to our own in terms of faith, threats, weaknesses and opportunities.

Stimuli for structural change include cultural and social changes in society, the tiredness of traditional decision-making models and worship patterns, and a widely accepted emphasis on the ministry of the whole people of God. Many churches are seeking to take this seriously. In the late 1990s the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand went through restructuring at a national level while seeking a model which would serve parishes more effectively. This included adopting the concepts of "Healthy Congregations" and "Servant Mission Leadership" as policy goals.  A challenge now is to apply this to presbyteries. The Church of Scotland has adopted a report "Church without Walls" and is processing the implications of a different kind of thinking about what it means to be church at local, regional and national levels.

Nobody likes restructuring, especially when they are affected by decisions they feel they had little hand in. The promise of organisational change and its benefits does not always take seriously failures in human nature which don't change. Nevertheless where structures are consistent with Christian values and help people make decisions in ways they respect good structures make a significant difference to the ability of the church to get on with its life. If we get it right, and do it well, it can be well worth doing.

Change management is an issue at a local and regional level as well as nationally. To make the effort worthwhile it is important to have a sense of what is essential to the identity of the church, and what can responsibly be changed in different circumstances. It is also important to have some clues about how people can work together to determine the changes that are appropriate for them. Effective change is about prayer and about people. It is a spiritual issue and a practical one. It requires a commitment to hard thinking and detailed planning, not just bold visions.

Law and Culture go together. It is unusual for the culture of a church and its constitution to be fully synchronised, but it is important that they do not get too far out of alignment. Like other structures, the legal and administrative framework of the church can help or hinder our mission, and while it has stable and long enduring principles which say a lot about about theology, they also need to change. Law can actually be about grace, and our church lawyers need to be better appreciated! See the review of Faith and Law below.

Structural Change and Spiritual Renewal can be related.  At a common sense level spiritual renewal would seem to have little to do with how we organize the church, it only has to do with people’s relationship with God. Yet theoretically as well as practically there is much more to it. A bad structure makes life difficult for the best of people. An appropriate and  well-understood organization may not make people good, but it can make a huge difference to how effective good people can be. The health of a congregation, as of a presbytery and the national church is affected by how we process decisions and allocate responsibilities. Some time attending to these issues can make a positive difference. Too much time attending to them can be worse than doing nothing.

There is a mixture of faith and pragmatism widely at work in the church which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes in church history it has been more spiritual to pray than to do anything else to lead people to faith in Christ. Church Growth theory may have also intensely believed in prayer, but it was also very much about doing things – including changing structures – to make it more likely that people would respond and grow in Christian faith. Schemes like Natural Church Development may take some of their imagery from nature, but are actually carefully designed structural schemes intended to produce wanted outcomes. We may need to be careful about structural changes which are described only in spiritual terms as some of the other important dimensions about what is going on may be fudged.

Some of us will have experienced the pain of restructuring in our work place as well as in churches. In any setting there is need for pastoral care as well as better communication. We need to provide help for people hurt by change as well as those who do not understand what is going on, and may never get it.  Even those sympathetic to change may wonder in times of rapid change whether it really is all necessary and really is all for the best. One of the lessons from the history of communism is that idealistic ends do not justify violent means. Some church change may be implemented with inadequate concern for staff and members, but it can also be done well. If we accept that being Reforming as well as Reformed means that change is normal, we will continue to have plenty of opportunities to practice getting it right!

John Roxborogh

Marc Reuver, Faith and Law : Juridical Perspectives for the Ecumenical Movement. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 2000.

(Book review, Touchstone, 2002)


Cooperating Ventures know about church regulations that are out of step with ecumenical realities. They are not alone. Faith and Law arose out of frustration at an entrenched legacy of embarrassing anathemas and a lack of positive constitutional provision for inter-church relationships.


The fact that this was in the Faith and Order Commission’s too hard basket for quarter of a century reflects the complexity of the political and historical issues involved. Professional expertise is needed to draft and test constitutional changes, but lawyers are not always seen as agents of justice and liberation. “Law” is often regarded as the antithesis of “Gospel” and consensus about change is difficult. The passage of time has meant that clusters of regulations have become symbolic expressions of identity, quite apart from their relevance for decision-making, leadership and theology today. Often church laws are not only rooted in culture, but also in state legislation.


Reuver provides a solid analysis of the uneasy relationship between law and the Church from the dominance of canon law in medieval times and the Reformers’ determination to break the idea of church law as divine law. Constitutional documents from that era enshrine the bitterness as well as the boundaries of a divided Church. He notes how the Barmen Declaration of 1934 placed confession and mission over constitution in priority. Although the focus is on Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed traditions the issues are also relevant to more recent denominations, including those which owe little to the European religious experience.


It is still a challenge to even think of church law as a welcome gift of clear processes and accepted principles. The best of church regulations have difficulty making appropriate provision for minorities. In bicultural and multicultural environments oral traditions and alternative values struggle for recognition. One would like to think that it is not impossible to do justice to context as well as to history, to maintain transparency and provide stability, so that people know how things work and what is going on and are not disempowered by either change and its advocates or tradition and its experts.


Perhaps Reuver’s real call is that churches value more than we do those who help formulate our laws and regulations. We need good church lawyers, and this is a good book to place in their hands.


John Roxborogh

Updated: 23 May 2007, added book review and section on law and culture. John Roxborogh.