130. How do Church Boards and Pastoral Leaders Really Think and Interact?

I keep a fairly close eye on the search tags that people google, leading them to the churchboardchair.ca website. A good proportion of them reflect challenges that boards and board chairs have in working with pastoral leaders. I am sure pastoral leaders experience and express similar challenges related to boards and board chairs! There is plenty of dysfunctionality to be shared it seems.

Why is this set of relationships so problematic within congregational life? What can be done to reduce the static and tension? It seems odd that the community proclaiming grace, love and peace seems predisposed to difficulties among some of its key leaders.

My observations arise from 40 years of experience in working with Christian leaders within the church and church-based organizations. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but would offer, for what its worth, some analysis and a few proposals for improving this situation. And as I said earlier, problems arise from both sides of this working relationship. Consider seriously the attitudes and actions that Paul defines as “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20-21 (hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy).

Issue # 1. We do not understand or know how to practice mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21). The New Testament has much to say about the appropriate ways that believers should order their relationships with one another. Leaders find it easy to overlook Paul’s statement in Ephesians 5:21 that requires mutual submission as one of the entailments of  “understanding what the Lord’s’ will is” and  “being filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17,18).  There is a spiritual “discipline of sacrifice” (Earl Creps, Off-Road Disciplines (Jossey-Bass, 2006, 157-172) which requires Christian leaders to consider “what they will sacrifice for the sake of concerted effort” (p.172). Too often the answer is “nothing!” However if chairpersons, lead pastors and boards do not learn how to exercise and practice mutual submission as the Bible requires, then these relationships will always be contentious and tending towards dysfunctionality.

Issue # 2. We do not understand or know how to express true agape in our leadership relations (1 Peter 1:22). We all know Paul’s statements about agape in 1 Corinthians 13, where he declares that where agape is absent, kingdom life fails. Yet all too often it seems that Christian leaders act as if their relationships with one another do not require the constant expression of agape. To paraphrase Paul, though I lead with most excellent capacity but do not have agape, my leadership fails. It does not matter whether I am lead pastor, chairperson or board member. Kingdom relationships will only thrive where agape flows. Too often spiritual fratricide is the functioning reality.

Issue # 3. We presume too quickly that our perspective is the perspective and all others are wrong or less helpful. I think one of the least understood statements made by Paul occurs in Ephesians 4:3: “Make every every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” How often has unity in church boards been sacrificed on the altar of personal opinion or the assumption that my way is best? Or perhaps it is the famous declaration “it is a matter of principle” that rings through the boardroom! It may well be that the issue is a matter of principle to that individual, but if the other members of the church board, having listened carefully to the dissenting opinion, differ, then perhaps the dissenting individual needs to do a little more listening and a little less declaring.  Board members, including chairpersons and lead pastors, as part of the board, must have the freedom and safety to express their opinions. However, they also have a duty of care to make good decisions and support those decisions in unity.

Issue # 4. We do not know how to forgive, maintain relationships, and continue forward together. Jesus was quite clear in his teaching. People forgiven by God will forgive others. I assume this Kingdom principle applies to Kingdom leaders, including pastors, chairpersons and board members. Yet it seems that the practice of forgiveness can easily be overlooked or ignored in board relations and board-pastor relations. Why is this? Perhaps our egos get too big and pride prevents us from seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness. The accumulation of hurts, slights, and offenses (imagined or real) build walls of dysfunctionality. How can board members focus on what is good for the whole when they are encumbered with these personal grudges?

You could probably add other elements to this list based upon your personal experience. You may also be surprised that I have focused so much on values and attitudes, rather than on structure. However, structures only work well when values and attitudes are congruent. What can be done to remedy some of this contentiousness? I would offer the following ideas for consideration:

1. I would suggest that for too long the relationship among board members, chairpersons and lead pastors has been seen as essentially adversarial. Someone is trying to “tell” someone what to do and they do not like it! Or someone is trying to get their agenda supported no matter what others think. In other words “authority” sits at the heart of this contention. Who has it, who exercises it, and who needs to respond to it. However, I would submit that if the values identified in this blog are in fact operative, then the issue of authority becomes secondary. Serving God is not about authority —  it is about sacrificial giving of self for the good of others. When matters of authority do arise, they are resolvable because there is trust, humility, and agape, there is a forgiving spirit, and there is a disposition to listen and respond positively. So a fundamental remedy requires all such leaders involved to do a reality check about their own spiritual commitments to obeying Jesus and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit.

2. I also think that communications function poorly in most church board contexts. When you consider the three-sided relationship among boards, chairpersons and lead pastors, good communications become critical to harmonious relationships. Add in the congregational element and the communications issues become even more complex. When this discipline is ignored, perilous times arise. Communications include written, oral and non-verbal means. For example, so much intra-board communication occurs through email today. However, we know how easy it is for text messages to be misunderstood because context is diminished, abbreviated language is used, and we do not hear the “tone” in which the words are being expressed. Significant ambiguity accompanies these messages and the opportunity for miscommunication is high. So the remedy is simple — give greater attention to clear, contextualized communication. When errors occur, apologize and correct as quickly as possible. Do not be so quick to take offense — you may have misread the intention of the communication and so seek clarification before firing your salvos!

3. Changing behaviours requires us to change the way we think. In many cases the dysfunctional relationships among boards, chairpersons and lead pastors occur because the participants’ perspectives are skewed in some way. Perhaps prior experiences have created suspicions and generated adversarial stances. Perhaps issues of identity cloud the ability of some leaders to function with greater trust and humility. Perhaps traditions of board behaviour or pastoral behaviour have conditioned the lead pastor or board to act and respond in certain ways. If significant change is going to occur, change that is Holy Spirit honouring and empowered, then it has to begin with you. It will be your courage to chart a new course and demonstrate new behaviours which may introduce a whole new era of productive leadership within your congregation. It is worth the effort and God will be pleased.


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