113. Chairing a Church Board in a Context of Theological Diversity

Fostering and sustaining unity (not uniformity) among church board members requires continual care and attention. Not surprisingly theological diversity, i.e. differing opinions about the interpretation and application of biblical texts or the relative importance of specific beliefs, often becomes a disruptive factor in a board’s life. A specific responsibility of a church board is to ensure that the congregation’s values are being promoted and used in making all key decisions. These values include the church’s statement of faith. However, the human reality being what it is, board members’ opinions about various theological matters do interfere with this responsibility.

Christians are moving much more freely across denominational lines to associate with churches of their choosing. It is quite normal to find in one evangelical congregation believers who have backgrounds in Baptist, Mennonite, Christian Reformed, Pentecostal, Alliance, Anglican, and Catholic backgrounds. People who serve on church boards will also reflect this diversity. As chair you may be surprised how this prior theological character still is operative to some degree in shaping board members’ perspectives and theological preferences.

A second influence, and perhaps more forceful, are the changing currents in Evangelical thought and practice promoted by strong leaders through books, blogs, and conferences. One or two board members may be influenced by such leaders and bring into the board discussions the theological perspectives promoted by such famed Evangelical leaders. But often the congregation has not defined these ideas or positions as  essential to its theological character and unity. Such issues might be important and valid in their own right, but cannot be identified as values that should guide the board’s decision-making just because current popular leaders may be emphasizing them. However, a board member may feel so passionate about a particular issue that he or she continually brings it into board discussions as a factor that should influence the board’s decisions. Of course, sometimes pastoral leaders come under similar influence and start lobbying in favour of such theological positions. The theological “expertise” of the lead pastor gives him significant advantage in such situations, given that other board members usually do not have similar depth of theological training.

Thirdly, as chair you soon realize that the congregation’s statement of faith, while sound and helpful in many respects, just does not address every issue directly. For example, few congregational statements of faith will have a section dealing with member discipline or divorce and remarriage, but the church board will have to deal with some of these matters. Board members will come to such questions with quite diverse perspectives and expectations about the way the board and pastoral staff should deal with such issues.

As well, some within the congregation may lobby board members in a very persistent and vocal manner about such matters. Such people want their church to support certain theological positions or Christian initiatives because they are passionate about them. So they prod the board members to lead the congregation to support such things.

How does a church board chair lead in a way that respects the theological opinions of the board members and pastor(s), but maintains unity in the board?

1. Start with the orientation session for new board members. Take time to emphasize that the congregation’s statement of faith is the document that defines the board’s theological values. Affirm that board members are free to hold diverse theological views about the many matters not addressed by  the congregation’s statement of faith, but they must make their decisions based upon the values expressed by that statement of faith and not personal views of other theological matters. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to conserve the congregation’s mission and values. In fact it is a good practice at the first meeting of each year to have each board member sign the statement of faith, indicating their commitment to its principles and to uphold it.

2. The chair should remind the board in various ways from time to time that they do not have the right virtually to re-write  the congregation’s statement of faith and make decisions based upon this different understanding. If the board, after significant deliberation, believes that the congregation’s statement of faith needs to be revised, then the bylaws should define the process to be used. It is important that the board follow the defined process in bringing any recommendation of this nature to the congregation.

3. In any particular board meeting the chair may find a board member articulating a specific theological view, but because it is not expressed in the congregation’s statement of faith, it has no pertinence to the discussion. A gentle reminder from the chair that while such a viewpoint is interesting, it really has no bearing on the board’s decision would be appropriate. The board should not provide governance leadership based upon the private convictions of board members. If the board member persists, then the chair should appeal to the other board members for direction and support.

4. Much more difficult is the case where the lead pastor becomes the person in the board meeting urging the board to make a decision based upon a theological position not expressed in the congregation’s statement of faith. For example, the lead pastor may feel strongly that church members who have committed adultery should never be allowed to serve as primary leaders in the church. However, the congregation’s statement of faith says nothing about this, nor is there any policy that addresses this issue. For example, a person who has committed this sin a decade earlier, but by all indications has repented and demonstrates a good Christian testimony and is a member in good standing, may be nominated to serve as a board member. The pastor opposes this because of his interpretation of 1 Timothy 3. Other board members do not agree and indicate that the church has no policy or theological position on such matters. So what do you do as chair in such an instance. Obviously this matter threatens the unity of the board. If there is no written policy to provide guidance in such matters, then there is no policy, regardless of personal opinions. If the board considers that it requires more careful guidance in such matters, then several things can be done. The board may ask the nominating committee not to consider that nomination until the board has worked through the question and achieved consensus that can be expressed in a policy. It may be that the policy will require congregational approval. Once the board has direction that it can provide to the nominating committee, then matters could proceed. Waiting and working carefully through such matters can be a very helpful process. It signals to the congregation that the board takes such issues seriously and applies as much wisdom as possible to providing good direction that all can understand. Of course, such a process should not be used as a means to stonewall or bury the matter.

5. As chair encourage the board to work with a genuine spirit of generosity and hospitality in matters of theological diversity. Certainly the board must guard the congregation against heresy, but the board must exercise considerable care in pronouncing ideas to be heretical. Further, Scripture itself states that not all theological issues are equally important. Paul in Romans 14-15 urges generosity of spirit towards other believers who may hold divergent opinions about “adiaphora,” i.e. matters of indifference. The congregation’s statement of faith presumably identifies those theological matters that are critical to the nature of a Christian congregation and these should remain the central concern of the board.

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