By Bishop George Higgins
The Moravian Church has a conferential system of government that is based on a written Constitution and Rules and Regulations. By conferential we mean that authority is vested in boards rather than individuals. It is Boards, through the process of consultation and discussion, that establish policy and make decisions.
This conferential system of Church government had its beginning in the experience of September 16, 1741. On this date the Synodal Conference of Moravian leaders, meeting in London, England, arrived at the decision that Christ should be the Chief Elder of the Brethren’s Church. Leonard Dober, the last to hold the office, had resigned. No one could be agreed upon as his successor; The Conference took this as divine leading. In the words of Count Zinzendorf, “immediately all of us reached the decision not to appoint anyone but Him to be our Chief Elder.
In the Hamilton History of the Moravian Church, it is stated, “The experience made in 1741 may also be said to have saved the Moravian Church from any threat of a spiritual popedom.” Christ and Christ alone is the head of His Church.
THE CALL OF MINISTERS: The conferential system can perhaps be best illustrated by the method used by the Southern Province in the calling of ministers. The Book of Order (paragraph 850) says, “The procedure for the issuance of calls is carried out as a part of and in conformity with the conferential system of government of the Moravian Church. Under this system the issuance of a call to a brother or sister comes after all needful conferences are held between the Provincial Elder’s Conference and the responsible board.” In a local congregation the responsible board is called the Joint Board and is made up of the Board of Elders and the Board of Trustees. In some cases this may only be one board, called the Church Board.
PROVINCIAL STRUCTURE: The delegates to Synod are the ordained ministers of the Province and certain ex-officio delegates such as the members of the Provincial Elder’s Conference, members of the Provincial Financial Board and the heads of certain boards and agencies. The majority of the delegates to Provincial Synod are delegates from the congregations that are elected by the church council of each congregation on a fixed ratio according to the number of communicant members as set by the Provincial Synod.
The Provincial Elder’s Conference is the Executive Board of the Province and manages the affairs of the Province between the meetings of the Synod.
Local Congregations: The local congregation is an integral part of the system of government of the Southern Province. It participates as a full partner in the conferential system of government. A model for the structure of a congregation is provided for in the “Synod Approved Recommendations of Rules and Regulations for Moravian Churches of the Southern Province” in The Book of Order, paragraph 1500.
The structure of a local congregation can be visualized by means of a simple diagram. It is to be noted that the Pastor is ex-officio chairman of the Board of Elders. The Trustees elect one of their own members chairman. In meetings of the Joint Boards the chairman or vice-chairman of the Elders presides.
Another way of thinking of the work of the Boards is in terms of who and what they supervise. The board of Elders supervise the choirs of the congregation, the band, the educational agencies (Sunday School, VBS, membership training groups). They also supervise the work of any committees which they appoint. Elders committees vary from one or two to several-e.g., Christian Education, Evangelism and Membership, Worship and Music, Congregational Life and Programming, Christian Concerns, and Family Life.
The Board of Trustees appoint and supervise the janitorial staff and the treasurers, as well as any committees they may appoint to help them in their work. Trustee committees are often a budget committee, a committee on Building and Grounds, and a parsonage committee. Some churches have a God’s Acre or graveyard committee. The trustees also supervise the work of paid personnel such as the church secretary and the financial secretary.
The Moravian Church in the work of its synods, councils, boards, agencies and committees follows the principle of majority rule. Each and every member of a group in the Moravian Church has the privilege of debate and discussion. Where there is a difference of opinion, all members should abide by and accept the will of the majority. This is done in a spirit of love and unity.
Members of the Church: No discussion of the government of the Moravian Church would be complete without emphasizing the place of the individual member in such a government. The place of the individual is primary. Each member’s rights and privileges should be defined and protected and his or her duties and responsibilities sharply defined. This is one of the tasks of church government.
(excerpts from The Government of The Moravian Church by Bishop George Higgins)
Note: Resolution #34, Synod 2006, calls for PEC to define “conferential government” and propose a definition to the next synod for the Book of Order.