Basic Church Documents

When I teach church planting, I always talk to the students about basic church documents. A new church
needs some basic documents that provide it with a good, solid foundation. Older churches need these
foundational documents, also. Ok, what are they? All churches need a statement of faith, a church
covenant, and a constitution and by-laws. Why so?


Statement of Faith

Churches should be certain of their beliefs, and they should be able to point prospective members to a
statement of faith. A statement of faith will guide the preachers and teachers in the church as to what
constitutes sound doctrine. A clear statement of faith will help seekers decide whether they want to
unite with your church. Of course, many churches simply use the current Southern Baptist Statement of
Faith and Message. This is what our church does. Other churches prefer to write their own. Working
through the process of composing a statement of faith is a good way to teach biblical doctrine. Another
advantage of a statement of faith is that it provides an objective measure for judging false doctrine. For
example, imagine that a Sunday school teacher in your church begins teaching false doctrine. When you
confront him, he says, “I’m not teaching false doctrine.” “Yes you are.” “Who says so?” You can
extrapolate this conversation. However, if your church has a statement of faith, you can point to that for
confirmation. In my life I’ve taught at several of our SBC seminaries, as well as the International Mission
Board. All of these required me to affirm a statement of belief and promise to preach and teach in
accordance with it.


Church Covenant

The church covenant describes how the members of the church will conduct themselves in their
Christian lives and how they will relate to each other. It is a “covenant,” that is, a sacred agreement
between parties. You could say it is a spiritual commitment the church members make to each other.
Many churches still use the old Southern Baptist church covenant. It used to be printed in the Baptist
Hymnal, and many rural churches kept a large, framed copy in the foyers of their buildings. (William
Thornton will remember this.) Other churches find the language and emphases of that covenant
outdated, and they have composed new covenants. A good resource for writing a church covenant is the
Broadman Church Manual. Our church in Texas just celebrated its 100 th Anniversary, and we seized the
opportunity to write a new church covenant. The members were all encouraged to sign it. Some
churches have an annual covenant renewal ceremony, often on the church’s anniversary. I believe a
church covenant is a good way to teach and reinforce the responsibilities of church membership.


Church Constitution and By-laws

The constitution and by-laws prescribe how the church will govern itself. This document explains how
new members can join or be discharged. It lists the officers of the church, and the way in which the
church will call a pastor. It explains how the church will conduct its business meetings, and many other
details of church administration. If you church plans to incorporate, then it must have a constitution and
by-laws. Your church must be incorporated in order to own its own property. Of course, laws pertaining to incorporation vary from state to state. So, your association and state convention can advise you on
this and provide examples from other churches. You may find it helpful to consult a Christian attorney.
Many older churches are updating their constitutions and by-laws to conform to modern practices.
Certainly, it is good to review this document periodically to ascertain where changes are needed.


So, a statement of faith describes what a church believes. A church covenant describes how church
members should behave, and the church constitution and by-laws prescribe how the church will conduct
its business.

What has been your experience with these church documents? Have you revised any of these in recent years? How did that go? Do you have any advice for others?

A Tribute to Billy Graham

Yesterday we learned that Billy Graham had passed away at age ninety-nine. He was one of us, a Southern Baptist. He was ordained by a Southern Baptist church in Florida in 1939, and he was a member at First Baptist Church of Dallas. When I heard of his passing, immediately, I thought of Genesis 25:8, which says of Abraham: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years…” (NKJV). Truly, Billy Graham died at a “good old age,” and his years were full of fruitful service to the Lord. In this post I’ll not repeat the biographies you can find on any news website. You can find the biography published by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College here ( Ed Stetzer’s tribute here ( Instead, I want to share my thoughts on Billy Graham’s distinguished ministry. The news networks and pundits are lauding him as a great man and “America’s pastor.” What made Billy Graham so great?

Fidelity to the Bible. Early in his ministry Billy Graham began to doubt the reliability of God’s Word, but one night he expressed his doubts to God and received assurance from the Lord. In my mind’s eye I can still see him with the Bible in his left hand and gesturing with his right, declaring “the Bible says.” In that he set an example for all preachers to follow.

Passion for Souls. Billy Graham understood his calling—to serve as an evangelist. Through his life many offered him positions in institutions or encouraged him to run for political office. Through it all he remained focused on his calling, preaching the gospel and inviting people to profess faith in Christ. Some estimate that he preached the gospel to two billion people. Amazing!

Great Team of Co-Workers. When we think of Billy Graham, we also think of his great evangelistic team: Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, George Wilson, and T. W. Wilson. He assembled this team in the early 1950s, and they continued with him until they died. That says a lot about Billy Graham and about those good and godly men. Billy Graham always spoke in glowing terms about his “team,” and he emphasized that their faithful service was a key element in the success of his ministry.

Unquestioned Morality. In 1948 Billy Graham and his team (Barrows, Shea, and Grady Wilson) were conducting a crusade in Modesto, California. During that meeting they discussed building their ministry on a sound ethical foundation. This discussion resulted in the Modesto Manifesto, a compact between the men that guided their ministry and personal lives. The Manifesto called for absolute accountability in financial matters, cooperation with all evangelical churches, no criticism of local churches or pastors, no exaggeration of attendance figures or response, and integrity in their personal lives. This last provision required them to pledge that they would never be alone with a woman other than their wife, not even on an elevator. That Billy Graham adhered to this commitment his whole life did much to validate his ministry.

Devotion to His Wife.  Billy Graham met Ruth Bell at Wheaton College, and she was the love of his life. He often described her as his prayer partner and closest confidant. He testified that he turned to her for counsel first. Her passing in 2007 grieved him terribly, but he expressed his confidence that they would reunite in heaven.

Detachment from Politics. Billy Graham advised and prayed with presidents, but he never endorsed a political candidate. He declared more than once that Christianity is bigger than any political party and that the gospel was for both Democrats and Republicans. In his later years he expressed regret that he had allowed some presidents to exploit him. Pastors today should take note of that.

Advocacy of De-segregation. In the early 1950s Billy Graham insisted that all his crusades must be fully integrated. Beyond that, he invited Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak at his New York City Crusade. Graham also spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and corresponded with Nelson Mandela for years, while Mandela was in prison. Late in life, Billy Graham expressed regret that he did not march with the protesters in Selma, Alabama. He said, “I should have done more.” For sure, he did more than most.

Innovation in Mass Media. Billy Graham and his team demonstrated remarkable innovation in the use of mass media. He wrote thirty books and a popular newspaper column, “My Answer.” His organization published Decision magazine, and he led in the founding of Christianity Today magazine. The Billy Graham Association produced Christian films, televised crusades, and broadcast radio programs. Late in his active ministry Graham used satellite television to preach to 185 million people simultaneously.

I believe we can apply the Apostle Paul’s testimony to Billy Graham. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness , which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day…” (2 Tim 4:7-8a, NKJV).

These are my thoughts about the life and ministry of Billy Graham. What are yours?

An Appeal for Honesty in References

I’m appealing to all our readers to be honest and forthright in the references we provide. What prompts this appeal? An unforgettable experience does. Some years ago our church called a new youth pastor. He applied for the position at our church, and he supplied several references from the church he was serving. After he arrived, everything went fine for several months; however, after he made a trip to scout out a summer mission project, our church’s financial secretary raised some questions about his spending. A CPA served on our church’s Finance Committee, and he performed an audit on the youth pastor’s financial reports. He discovered a number of anomalies, and the youth pastor was fired.

After all that transpired, our pastor called the person who gave the man a glowing reference. He explained our church’s experience. At that, the person exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he did the same thing here.” Our pastor asked, “If that is true, why did you give him such a positive recommendation?” To which the person replied, “Oh, that’s simple. We wanted to get rid of him.” On reflection that person’s actions were both dishonest and hurtful to a sister church. As Christians we have a duty to be honest in our statements and considerate of others. Surely, the Golden Rule applies here.

When I served at Southern Baptist Seminary, I participated in the orientation of the new students who were beginning their studies in the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism. At every orientation I advised the students to do two things. First, I challenged them to maintain their daily devotions. It is easy to become spiritually dry while at seminary. Second, I advised them to make a good impression on their professors. During my time at Southern Seminary, I received a reference request from a church about once a week. So, I told the students: “Start making a good impression now because I won’t lie when a church calls me. If you want a positive reference, demonstrate admirable qualities.”

Now, it is easy to understand why we are reluctant to say negative things about someone; still, those seeking information deserve an honest assessment of the person. If you are hesitant about providing a reference, then just decline. I’ve found over the years that those requesting information are grateful for honesty. Once, I received a call from an IMB field leader. He was inquiring about a missionary applicant. I told him that the person under consideration was a really nice person, but he had not proven effective in his service. The field leader said, “Oh, thank you. We get so few new missionaries; we cannot afford to make a mistake.” What is true for mission agencies is true for churches as well. We cannot afford to make mistakes. We need accurate, trustworthy information.

To those who need to enlist people to provide a reference I make these suggestions. First, ask the person for permission to list their name and address. Second, ensure that the person knows you well enough to provide information. While at Southern Seminary, I received a call from a pastor search committee member. She informed me that a former student had listed me as a reference. That was news to me! I could not remember the student, so I asked her to call me back later that day. I looked up the student in our old student directories, and I checked with the registrar’s office. It turned out that the student took one class with me ten years before. When the lady called back, I answered candidly and said, “I can affirm that he studied here, but I can’t remember anything about him. I can’t help you.”

Now, over the years I’ve provided lots of positive references for former students and coworkers, and I was glad to do. I’ve also provided a few negative one. It grieved me to do so, but I believed the inquirers deserved the truth. What has been your experience? Have you and your church been “burned” by references that were less than candid?

David Platt’s Administration in Retrospect

In the interest of full disclosure—I am a retired IMB missionary. My wife and I served 24 years with the IMB in Southeast Asia. I have taught missions at Southern Baptist Seminary and now at Mid-America Baptist Seminary. This post reflects my personal opinions, and they do not represent the position of any institution. What follows has been informed by conversations with active and retired missionaries, staff members of the IMB, trustees of the IMB, and missions professors at Southern Baptist seminaries.

The IMB announced on Monday, February 12th, that David Platt had asked the IMB trustees to seek his replacement, as he intended to return to the pastorate. This announcement had been rumored for several weeks, and it really came as no surprise. When the IMB trustees granted Dr. Platt permission to preach regularly at McClean Bible Church, the handwriting seemed to be on the wall.

When the IMB trustees elected David Platt to serve as President, many expressed surprise. They voiced two concerns—his relative youth and his lack of missionary experience. No one questioned his passion for missions or his ability to preach effectively on missions. Why then was he chosen? When he was elected four years ago the IMB was struggling with a severe financial crisis. The economic recession that began in 2008 had hurt the IMB’s finances. For some years the IMB had run deficits, and it kept operating by spending reserve funds and selling properties overseas. By the time the trustees elected David Platt the reserves were gone, and most of the properties had been sold. So, the trustees chose a president they hoped would energize and mobilize Southern Baptists to give more and go more to missions. The trustees especially hoped the Dr. Platt could engage the younger pastors in mission support. Thus, the election of David Platt had more to do with the Southern Baptist Convention’s financial support of the IMB than it did with the administering the missionary force overseas. The trustees understood that Platt had no experience in missions administration.

How shall we evaluate David Platt’s administration? To his credit, David Platt quickly confronted the financial crisis. Because 80% of the IMB’s budget is spent on missionary support (salary, travel, medical, retirement, etc.) the IMB had to reduce the number of missionaries in order to balance its budget. For this reason, the IMB offered the missionaries and home office staff the Voluntary Retirement Incentive (VRI). The total number of folks who took the offer was 1,132. The field missionaries numbered about 5,000 five years ago, but now the number is about 3,500. (The IMB staff says that the current giving levels are adequate for no more than 4,000.) Sadly, David Platt did not inspire Southern Baptists to give more to missions. The year of the VRI Southern Baptists gave 10 million more to the Lottie Moon offering, but the annual totals since then have reverted to the previous average.

David Platt and his associates worked to tighten up the theology of training materials used by the missionaries. Dr. Platt also persuaded the trustees to revoke the policies on divorce and spiritual gifts. This pleased many Southern Baptists, but it dismayed others. Platt’s staff at the IMB also began to re-emphasize the importance of seminary training for missionary candidates, and they began to encourage and facilitate theological education overseas. This had been de-emphasized during the administration of Jerry Rankin. So, it is fair to say that David Platt did many good things during his tenure at the IMB.

On the other hand, David Platt struggled to overcome several things that hindered him. First, his lack of missionary experience made it hard for him to understand how his decisions would affect missionaries and how those decisions would be perceived by missionaries. This deficiency was compounded when he hired three vice presidents who had no missionary experience. (To be fair, two vice presidents did have missionary experience.) Now, these vice presidents were all professionally competent and dedicated Christians, also. Still, their lack of missionary experience led to problems and misunderstandings. Another hindrance was Dr. Platt’s inability to travel on behalf of the IMB. Of course, he did travel often; but when the trustees approached him about becoming president, he told them that he could not travel because he had young children. He insisted that he must be at home 60% of the weekends in a year in order to spend time with his children. This is understandable, even commendable, but what was good for his family was not good for the IMB. Former presidents of the IMB spoke in SBC churches almost every Sunday, promoting the work of the IMB. That David Platt could not do this worked against him. Of course, when he did speak, he preached brilliantly.

How can we evaluate David Platt’s strategy? When he assumed office, he insisted that the IMB would continue to focus on unreached people groups, and he did that. To his credit, he instructed field leaders to be sure that missionaries remained in legacy countries, like Brazil and Kenya, to mobilize and train national believers for foreign missions. The two key strategies Platt advanced were the Global Cities Initiative and the Limitless programs. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas now, so it is right that the IMB seek to develop effective urban strategies. The IMB staff chose four cities, and they concentrated missionaries and money on those cities. This strategic decision was sound, but some reports indicate that the implementation of the strategy has been uneven.

Platt also promoted a program called Limitless. This strategy advocated enlisting thousands of Southern Baptist professionals to go overseas and serve as tentmaker missionaries. Just as the Apostle Paul worked as a tentmaker at times, these modern tentmakers would work in their professions overseas, paid by corporations and businesses. In their time off from work they would engage in missions. Now, every strategy has advantages and disadvantages. David Platt correctly noted that Southern Baptists could not or would not give the money necessary to field a large missionary force. So, he envisioned sending thousands of tentmakers who would cost the IMB nothing. No one questioned the value of an active tentmaker program. The issue was whether this should be the main strategy of the IMB.  For their part, the missions professors at our seminaries raised some questions about the Limitless strategy: How would these tentmakers be trained? How would they be supervised? How could they find jobs in remote places, where most unreached people groups are found? The IMB staff answered that they hoped to train the Limitless folks at the IMB’s International Learning Center near Richmond or by means of web-based training. The staff also insisted that the tentmakers would all be supervised by experienced career missionaries. They conceded that remote UPGs would have to be reached by career missionaries because there are no jobs for American professionals in those places. In the end, the staff said that the Limitless missionaries would primarily serve in large cities overseas, where there are available jobs and where some people speak English. The missions professors have been somewhat reassured by these assurances, but they still have concerns. For example, it is hard enough to serve effectively as a missionary if you have a seminary degree, speak the language, know the culture, and have years of life experience in a place. If tentmakers have none of those advantages, how effective will they be? Beyond that, Baptist professionals who have worked overseas tell us that work and commuting consume sixty hours per week. Time available for mission work may be quite limited. So, the outcome of the Limitless strategy remains to be seen.

So, like all presidents of the IMB, David Platt leaves behind a record of achievements and struggles. How would you rate his performance?