The P Conundrum: Practice, Procedure or Policy?

What is best for your church…a practice? Procedure? Or policy?

When a practice suffices, great. When a documented procedure is needed, do that. And save the policies for when those two aren’t enough.

Too often churches become policy-heavy and the result is slowed ministry and confused workers. Over-the-top policies become “red tape” that stifles ministry progress.

Yet, there are certain policies required by law (and we should obey). And even below the legal threshold, there are best practices* for putting some polices in place even when not required by law.

But many times where churches implement policies a simple stated practice would suffice.

Determining whether an issue should have an established (stated) practice, procedure or policy will depend on the frequency of its occurrence (which could mean church size) or the margin for error or inconsistency for a particular issue.

We often look to large churches to model what should be done in our (smaller) churches. Large churches may use policies to deal effectively and efficiently with the scope of their work. But, where a large church might deal with a certain issue 100 times a year, the same issue may only occur three times in another church, so, it doesn’t need the same treatment.

One church is right to have a policy which gives clear decisions and action. But the same issue for another church, a policy may be a mistake. Unless frequency or 100% consistency requires it, appreciate the ability and freedom to make decisions based on your unique circumstances.

When you place policies or procedures where a practice suffices, it leads to slow work, it frustrates the people enforcing the policy, and the people abiding by the over-the-top policy.

The differences and self-assessing which one is needed

  • Practices are most often “what we’ve done in the past.” They’re precedents and come with authority of current leadership. Practices give a sense of direction about an issue, but also communicates there can be flexibility and exceptions to it.
  • Procedures occur when less ambiguity is desired. The issue’s decision points might have multiple steps and a documented procedure is best. A documented procedure gives clarity about how a decision is made (assuming typical circumstances) and provides steps on how to get it done without a lot of interpretation by those involved.
  • Policies assume legal or fiduciary accuracy. Or it addresses an issue demanding straightforward behavior or outcomes. And/or, the issue happens with regularity, and it no longer makes sense to slow a decision by having to consider the uniqueness of a practice or procedure.

Policies protect the people (decision-makers). It removes the leader from having to use personal discretion or persuasion in deciding an issue. An effective policy will be the right way 98% of the time. There could be exceptions, but they should be exceptional reasons (such as, a pandemic…consider how many policies got [rightfully] upended in this time).

Scaling of the Ps

Most times it’s best to begin with a practice. And use that as long as it’s effective. But as the decision points grow in number or complexity, you’ll move to the procedure or policy stage. And when you do, you’ll have the experience of what content needs to be included in those procedure and policies.

Policies are great, if written well and wielded prudently. I’m pro-policy, but only after I determine a practice or procedure is sufficient.

* If you need the direction, there are “policy audits” or CPA reviews of “agreed-upon-procedures” that can be provided for reasonable prices to assess if any procedures or policies need to be modified or added.

Want examples, continue on—

Examples for what P stage make most since in typical church setting:

Licensing ministers: If this is happening 1-2 times a year, it could just be a practice. But if that number grows or to ensure fairness and standards each time, a procedure may be best.

Room reservations at the church: If you have a church building, depending on frequency of requests, at least a procedure is needed, and perhaps, a policy. And it could be, it’s a procedure for internal requests, but you have a policy for “outside request of usage.”

Whistle Blower complaints: Policy.

Credit card purchase review: Procedure and should move to policy as quickly as possible or as advised.

Guest baptizers or speakers: A practice might suffice. But if you’re getting requests more than once a year and the vetting of each situation or person needs to delegated or shared my multiple people, then a procedure that outlines your biblical understanding, along with other standards and expectations of the guest, than a procedure makes sense.

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