114. Book Review # 9: “Sticky Teams” by Larry Osborne (Zondervans, 2010)

Larry Osborne. Sticky Teams. Keeping your Leadership Team and Staff on the Same Page. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervans, 2010. 222 pages.

Larry Osborne serves as lead pastor at North Coast Church, San Diego (associated with the Evangelical Free Church of America according to the church’s website).  His book Sticky Teams is a sequel to his previous publication Sticky Church. However, in this second volume Osborne focuses upon sound, effective ways to “keep your leadership team and staff on the same page,” firmly believing that healthy, growing churches result when there is a unified board, unified staff and unified congregation.  In Sticky Teams Osborne focuses his attention upon the wise practices that build unity within a church board, within a staff, and within a congregation. In this review I will give particular attention to several of his ideas related to building a unified, effective church board.

Let me affirm at the outset that Osborne’s book takes the role of the church board seriously and considers this ministry team to be essential to the health of a local church. I echo his statement that “as the board goes, so goes the rest of the church” (26).  He goes on to say, “Your board needs to be healthy, unified and working together, because otherwise everything else soon goes south” (26). Wise words!

Osborne writes from the perspective of the lead pastor and sees this position as primarily responsible for building a unified board.  Regardless, there is little said about the role of the chairperson in this process.  In Osborne’s view the whole matter rests upon the lead pastor’s shoulders. It is unclear whether Osborne functions as the church board chair or another person fills that role. Perhaps that explains why this role is virtually ignored. I think his presentation would be more helpful and more progress would be made in building a unified board, if he gave some attention to understanding, equipping and supporting the role of the board chairperson.

Three primary factors contribute to board unity according to Osborne:  doctrinal unity, respect and friendship, and philosophical unity. Osborne is right to emphasize that a church board needs to agree on the doctrinal values that it affirms together, i.e. the congregation’s statement of faith. Board members are free to have their opinions about many other issues, but this diversity should not erode the unity of the board around the congregation’s statement of faith.  I agree with him that developing respect and friendship among board members contributes significantly to board unity and good board dynamics. Energy spent in building relationships among the board members is a wise investment because it deepens trust and mutual care. The third factor, philosophical unity, includes according to Osborne “basic agreement about…priorities and methods of ministry” (30-31). In my view this is equivalent to the board’s primary responsibility of advancing the congregation’s mission.

Without doubt each of these factors contributes substantially to developing and sustaining board unity. I would note one other significant factor that in my view carries similar weight. It is definition of roles and responsibilities for the pastoral staff and the board.  Often differing opinions about these roles generate confusion and misunderstanding. Gaining clarity about this resolves significant tensions. Osborne does devote chapters 6 and 7 to some of these questions.  As he says, “Everyone needs to agree on the pastor’s role. Otherwise, as we’ve already seen, it won’t be long until dysfunction and conflict break out” (87).  Further he notes that “many of the harshest conflicts in church leadership teams can be traced to differing role expectations,…” (102). So if this factor has potential to create great harm and disunity, then perhaps it needs to be mentioned as one of the key elements around which unity is required. One of the roles that often is overlooked or undervalued in such clarification is that of the board chairperson. Perhaps in his congregation pastor Osborne serves as the board chair.  Osborne does identify his board members as elders (146), but does not define what eldership means in that congregational setting. He uses the term “shepherds’ meeting” to define the additional monthly meeting of his board for prayer, training and spiritual discernment. However, it is unclear how the role of elder really operates in this congregational setting and thus how the elder role relates to the board member responsibilities.

Osborne identifies “five major roadblocks to unity” within a board. These include “meeting in the wrong place,”  “ignoring relationships,” “not meeting often enough,” “ constant turnover,” and “too many members.” He explains how each of these elements created serious dysfunction within his church board, but when addressed “provided the biggest payoffs” (37). I would not question Osborne’s experience in these matters. Attention paid to these matters will enhance board operations and leadership. However, again I would suggest that helping the board develop good decision-making processes is equally important. If a board does not know how to make effective decisions and sustain its unity in the process, then little progress can be made. Further, disciplining the board in its deliberations to focus on advancing the congregation’s mission enhances unity. It keeps the main thing “the main thing” and prevents the board members from being sidetracked into meaningless, fractious debate about non-essentials.  Osborne does offer valuable advice on the need for the board to evolve in its processes and self-understanding as the church grows.

In his chapter “Guarding the Gate” Osborne urges pastoral leaders to exercise appropriate influence in bringing forward for nomination to the board individuals who will indeed contribute to unity and effective board operations.  In his view “the best time to remove a problem player is before they have a place on the team” (48). Again his viewpoint is that of the lead pastor, but I would suggest his advice in these matters holds equally for the board chairperson. For the chair to exercise some discernment in guiding the nominating committee to select appropriately qualified people as possible board members seems to me to be quite appropriate and often helpful, given suitable safeguards.   Who better than the chairperson knows what kinds of skills and abilities the board needs in order to advance its effectiveness.  Here is where good communication between the lead pastor and the board chair can pay significant dividends for enhanced board operations.  Osborne’s perspective is that board members must be “lobbyists for God” (53) and not for some group in the church is well-stated.

In his chapter on “Clarifying the Pastor’s Role” he urges lead pastors to “present first drafts, not final proposals” (96) dealing with significant issues and opportunities,  because this allows for input before perspectives become entrenched. Then he says “keep no secrets from the Board” (97), because if the board members discover that this leader has not been transparent, trust will be compromised in a serious way. Thirdly, he  urges lead pastors to “follow the board’s advice” (98). Wisdom is discerned within a multitude of counselors.  I would add a fourth caveat and that is “communicate consistently and openly with the board chairperson.” If the board chair does not have confidence that the lead pastor trusts him (or her), or if the lead pastor does not communicate with the chair, then the ability of the chair to facilitate board decisions that advance the congregation’s mission will be affected in a serious manner.

I appreciated Osborne’s emphasis on equipping and educating the board members. However, he seems to assume that he as lead pastor is responsible for such educational development. I would agree that in many situations this will be true, but not for all. Other board members or individuals in the congregation may have specialized knowledge that would benefit the entire board. In some aspects of board education the lead pastor should be the teacher, particularly when it relates to theological issues. However, in terms of fiscal issues, risk management, governance models, etc., the lead pastor may have little or no awareness or competence. Other resources need to be found to educate the board. As well, one might ask how the educational agenda gets established. Is it the purview of the lead pastor to do this or does it arise from the board members, facilitated by the chairperson, as they discern the areas that need development? Probably both avenues are important to sustain.

Osborne entitled his tenth chapter “Board Alignment” with the subtitle “The Power of an Extra ‘Shepherds’ Meeting” (139).  As he indicates, “the beauty of a regularly scheduled nonbusiness meeting is that it provides me and the board with a regularly scheduled forum for communication, training, and prayer that is unencumbered by competing agendas” (141). I think Osborne’s idea has considerable merit. However, I would characterize such meetings in a slightly different way. They provide opportunity for the members of the board to focus their attention upon advancing the spiritual health of the congregation, exercising their appropriate responsibility for spiritual care giving as elders. Whether it requires an additional monthly meeting or could be managed by having a “Shepherds’ Meeting” one month and a board business meeting the alternating month should be considered. The downside to calling this meeting the “Shepherds’ meeting” is that it leads board members to consider the other “business” meeting somehow disconnected with “Shepherding” responsibilities. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Most non-profit agencies have three or four board meetings a year. Why is it even necessary for church boards to have formal business meetings every month? Perhaps this is merely a habit we have allowed ourselves to fall into and a failure on the part of the church leadership to plan well.

Osborne also addressed the problem of staff alignment (chapter  11). He introduces the idea of “plumb lines and assumptions” (149).  Osborne has “a list of twenty-one ministry plumb lines” that he has used “to make sure that [his] decisions reflect [his] values” (151). He uses a shortened list with his staff to sustain ministry alignment. Giving his values written expression and sharing them with staff is very helpful in developing coherence within a ministry team and sorting through which new ministry opportunities and initiatives should in fact be embraced. Yet Osborne emphasizes that these plumb lines express his passion, his view of ministry and mission for a specific time. I wonder what input the elders’ board has into the development of “plumb lines” the board can use for advancing the congregation’s mission. He prefers his plumb lines to a mission statement. If the elders’ board did not have input into developing these plumb lines, I wonder whether the board is in fact providing strategic ministry leadership for the congregation or merely functioning as an “advisory board.” The way Osborne writes in this chapter suggests that it is the lead pastor who develops the plumb lines and everyone else needs to get in line, including the elders’ board. It probably does not work like that in his church, but his description suggests otherwise.

Finally, a few comments regarding Osborne’s “five powerful tools” for sustaining congregational alignment. I would agree with the necessity for a “clear and simple mission statement, a front-loaded pastor’s class and the drip method of preaching” (160-161) The other two elements (“sermon-based small groups” and “short and sweet congregational meetings”) may or may not be applicable in specific situations.  What I missed in his list was “a healthy and spiritually unified church board.” I know he has talked about this earlier in his book, but it bears repeating in this setting. The other aspect of this chapter that is a little worrying is that alignment seems to be with Osborne’s vision, values and methods. I do not want to be unfair in my criticism. While he does use first person plural pronouns and speaks about “our vision,” he prefaces the discussion by saying “church members are just like board members. They need to hear what I think about dicey issues ahead of time” (160). Then he says “I’ve worked hard to make sure that our congregation is as aligned with our vision, values, and methods as the board and staff are” (160). Perhaps he just has not made explicit how the board members have had input into the development of the vision, values and methods.

As I said at the beginning, I recommend Osborne’s book for pastors and for board members, including board chairs. He has shared considerable wisdom in an easily accessible format. He also has provided discussion questions for every chapter in an appendix. However, I think his presentation would be strengthened by giving attention to four key issues:

  1. Defining more clearly the role of the church board in the overall leadership of the congregation;
  2. Giving much more attention to the role of the board chair in working with the board to develop its competence and facilitate its operations;
  3. Encouraging a much more active relationship between the lead pastor and the board chair, as these individuals lead the two most important ministry teams in the church, i.e. the ministry staff and the board.
  4. Explaining how the elders fulfill their responsibility for the spiritual oversight and care of the congregation by serving as board members.
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