“Pastor, we need to talk! I had a conversation this week with one of the founding members of the church and he is very upset that you keep talking about GRACE in your sermons. He thinks we need to hear more about God’s judgment on sin. In fact, he’s so upset he’s going to leave the church if this doesn’t change fast!”
So said the Chairman of the Elder Board to a pastor friend of mine. It wasn’t long before my friend was no longer the Pastor of that church.
Sometimes when I share that story with church leaders, they laugh because they think I’m kidding. Sometimes people shake their heads in disbelief. But most of the time, people respond by telling me their own story of a church board gone wild. Unfortunately, it seems to be a trend that is increasing rather than decreasing and the predominant result of a church board gone wild is the dismissal of the pastor. The collateral damage affects the pastor’s family, the church members and ultimately the church’s effectiveness regarding Kingdom purposes.
In my experience of working with church boards, I have observed five factors that can contribute to the “Church Board Gone Wild” syndrome.
There is a lack of clarity and/or commitment to the church’s purpose and vision. While we hope and often assume that all church board members are clear about the reason for the church’s existence and deeply committed to its stated vision, this is not always true. Many church leadership groups are not on the same page about the church’s purpose and vision. Sometimes that is because the pastor and board have not worked through these things together. Sometimes it is because one or more board members choose not to engage fully in the discussion about purpose and vision but instead quietly hold on to divergent views until a flashpoint issue forces the disagreement to surface.
There is a lack of spiritual maturity on the part of board members. It is more common than any of us would like to believe that church members with seriously stunted spiritual growth find their way onto church leadership boards. This usually signals a poor system in the church for identifying, training and vetting leaders. It can also be a case of the church’s polity or historical practice allowing for a popularity contest in electing leaders. Whatever the cause, the presence on the board of people who are not actively pursuing God and listening to the Holy Spirit will eventually cause a problem.
A board member is subject to inappropriate influence by a friend or spouse. While gaining perspective on issues by talking to people in the congregation is an important practice for leaders, sometimes the influence of an individual church or family member can be inappropriate and extreme. Often this influence is at least partially uninformed concerning the details of an issue and driven by ‘pet peeves’ or preconceived conclusions. The result is that the board member can be influenced to force a decision or direction simply because not doing so would jeopardize their relationship with the friend or family member. It is not uncommon for these kinds of situations to degenerate into all-out power plays for ‘control’ of the church.
Board members cannot distinguish between involvement and micromanagement. In the early days of a church’s existence there is an appropriate and needed detailed level of involvement on the part of church leaders. As in any start-up endeavor, leaders need to jump in and do whatever is needed in order to keep the organization functioning and moving forward. But as the organization grows, leaders need to learn how to operate differently so they can provide visionary and directional leadership rather than get mired in tactical involvement. This is not an easy transition and often creates not only dissension among board members but also between board members and paid staff.
The board makes the right decision but it is poorly implemented. Occasionally when a church board makes a wise, God honoring decision on behalf of the church, the implementation of the decision is done in such a way that it damages individuals or causes a great deal of unnecessary disruption in the life of the church. Good decision making needs to be accompanied by wise change management. Without both, good decisions can be almost totally lost in the furor that results from poor implementation.
While it may not be possible to completely avoid the ‘Board Gone Wild” syndrome, a lot can be done to develop an ongoing process of preventative maintenance. Here are four suggestions that will help to reduce the impact of the church board gone wild syndrome.
Develop a consistent process for identifying and training new board members. There are a variety of models for identifying and training new board members so it is not necessary to reinvent the training wheel. It is essential, however, to agree on some process and then work that process consistently. By being consistent, the church will come to understand that board leadership is not to be taken lightly and Biblical requirements will be adhered to for board membership. Specific training should be developed and all board members should participate even if they are returning to the board after some time away from leadership. As the church changes over time, so will the function of the board and all new members should be up to speed with current expectations and processes.
Have a clear definition of both board and staff roles. Having clear and specific definition of board and staff roles helps everyone. Board members will understand their directional, oversight and spiritual role. The staff team will have a clearer sense of how their daily activity on behalf of the church fits into the larger picture defined by the board. Having honest and open discussions about roles helps a board avoid the micromanagement trap and provides important reminders about the board’s leadership function for the health of the church. While decisions about roles are essential for clarity, the real value of those decisions emerges as the Chair of the Board takes seriously his or her responsibility to keep the board on track according to their agreed upon role. Constant vigilance on this issue is a key function of the Board Chair and if done well, will help the board avoid ‘gone wild’ tendencies.
Create a written covenant that describes the commitment between board members. Church boards are somewhat unique in the world of board governance because there are so many close relational dynamics at play in church leadership. Almost all church board members have family members attending the church who are directly impacted by board decisions. The church itself has a family dynamic at work that adds a degree of difficulty regarding decision making objectivity. In order to avoid some of the pitfalls of such close relational dynamics the church board should create a covenant that describes their commitments to one another. Issues such as confidentiality, avoiding triangulation, a commitment to pray for the church and fellow board members, and having in place a conflict management process should be addressed. Board members should review and renew their covenant annually.
Provide mentoring, coaching and learning opportunities for board members. The pastor, board chair and board members all need to be in a consistent learning and growing mode. Providing spiritual mentoring specifically for the church board is a key function of the pastor. Most church boards include some version of ‘devotions’ during their meetings but spiritual mentoring is much more intentional. The challenge to journey deeper into one’s relationship with Jesus needs to be accompanied by both clarity of process and accountability for consistency of spiritual discipline. The pastor and chair of the church board should take the lead in providing the learning and mentoring opportunities for board members.
What if it’s too late for prevention?
If you are already knee deep in a “Board Gone Wild” experience, your most significant and immediate need is for third party objectivity. There are a number of highly skilled consultants and organizations who can lead you and your board through a mediation and/or reconciliation process. Contact CCN or another trusted ministry leader for a recommendation. Above all, do not assume that the problem will go away on its own. It almost never does and “Church Board Gone Wild” syndrome, if not treated, can be fatal.