139. Case Study # 10: Daring to Change — “Can These Bones Live?”

[Although the story in this case study may seem to resemble a real situation, the names, places and actual circumstances do not describe any actual church, church board, pastor or chairperson.]

Old habits die hard, they say. The chairperson of the board of First Baptist Church was discovering the truth of this maxim. For the past eight years the church had experienced multiple changes in pastoral leadership. Some of these changes were very hurtful, resulting in a decline in the congregation. The periods between permanent pastoral leadership were becoming more drawn out. Discouragement was setting in among the congregation, as well as among the church board members.

The current chairperson, Ralph, who had a number of years of experience in this role, knew that the congregation probably had enough spiritual energy for one more attempt for viability. However, he wondered about the reasons for this repeated series of harmful leadership changes. Although each of the presenting reasons were different, he wondered whether a more fundamental cause was at work. Was the church board in some way responsible for this situation, or at least allowing it to continue? What it a change in pastoral leadership that was needed or a drastic change in the way the church board provided strategic ministry leadership for the congregation?

Historically the board of First Baptist tended to be concerned with receiving reports, dealing with minor issues related to facilities or finance, advising the pastoral leadership on various matters, and overseeing the annual general meeting. Performance evaluations of lead pastors were not required, little strategic planning was done with the board members, risk management questions rarely surfaced, and only on rare occasions did the board discuss the advancement of the congregation’s mission. When it came to hiring a lead pastor, the board oversaw the process, but provided little direction to the Search Committee other than the perfunctory position description and proposed salary and benefits package. The chairperson could not recall the last time the church board spent time educating itself about the function of a non-profit board. In short, the First Baptist church board seemed to be in a holding pattern, keeping the machinery in motion, but not addressing the critical leadership and ministry needs of the congregation. If the congregation’s future was to change, then the church board had to change — a daunting prospect, but growing conviction for the chairperson. And if the church board was going  to change, then the chairperson would have to step up and lead the charge.

Before he took any action, Ralph decided to devote two weeks to prayer and personal reflection to discern his own heart in this matter. Did he have the courage, the spiritual stamina it would take over the next two to three years to be the catalyst for change within the board? Was he willing to show the way by giving personal time to educating himself about ways that church boards can develop the capacity to provide strategic ministry leadership? If not, was he willing to let the congregation drift into greater decline and dysfunction?

During these two weeks Ralph asked God to move in the life of another church board member and in some way bring that board person into conversation with Ralph about these matters. Ralph reasoned that if God was concerned for the health of this congregation then the Holy Spirit would be seeking to stimulate a desire for change in other church leaders. It was Friday night towards the end of the second week when Ralph received a phone call from Ken, asking whether he could have coffee on Saturday morning. He wanted to talk about the congregation and what could be done to turn this situation around. As Ralph prayed that evening, he thanked God for his direction. He felt a growing sense of confidence that God was in this desire to change the board in order to change the congregation.

When he met with Ken the next morning over coffee, Ralph asked him two questions. First, did Ken believe in his heart that God had a future for First Baptist? Second, did Ken believe that if the board changed its habits, the congregation would change too? Ken readily agreed to the first question. He told Ralph that he had been praying for several months about this situation and wondered what he could do about it. Ralph asked Ken what prompted him to phone last night? Ken shared that in his devotions that morning he had read Ezekiel’s prophecy about the provision of a man to stand in the gap. Ken knew that God was telling him he needed to do something and so his initial step was this conversation. Beyond that he did not know what further steps might be taken.

Ken was not so sure about the relationship between effective spiritual and strategic leadership by the board and congregational health. He had never put those two things together in a cause-effect relationship. In response Ralph suggested that the principle expressed in Proverbs — “where there is no vision, the people perish” — applied in this instance. If the board of First Baptist Church was not able to discern, pursue, and implement a God-honouring vision, then who in the congregation would? Even if they managed to hire another lead pastor, past experience showed clearly that he could not turn things around by his own individual efforts. As Ken reflected on Ralph’s comments, he found himself agreeing.

So the question then confronted them — in what ways did their church board have to change in order to provide strategic ministry leadership into a better future. And then came a collateral question — did they have the capacity to create and generate these changes? They gave themselves to discussing what needed to change in the board. Three ideas were generated in that discussion.

1. They would have to reshape the culture of their church board. Ralph and Ken knew that this would be the most difficult aspect of the necessary changes. Shifting the mindset of the board members from a compliance perspective to a strategic, innovative, mission-focused leadership function would require all of the wisdom they possessed, but as a a team they believed the Holy Spirit would provide what was needed. They decided to start by evaluating the board agenda’s and discerning what changes they might introduce in the way meetings were planned. One of the things they discovered was that too often less important matters were given prime time. So they decided to make sure that the first two items in every board meeting after dealing with the consent agenda would always be the most strategic decisions or discussions that the board would be having at that meeting. They also decided to develop an annual agenda to make sure that in the coming twelve months the board was discussing all of the important matters necessary for congregational renewal. Finally, they decided to devote the first half hour of every meeting to prayer and Bible Study, with specific focus on examples from Scripture where God enabled faithful men and women to make a difference.

2. They would have to sharpen the focus of their church board’s work on issues that advanced the congregation’s mission. When Ralph and Ken examined the board agendas from the last twelve meetings, it was difficult for them to discern items of board discussion and decision that were critical to the advancement of the congregation’s mission. They knew this had to change. So they made of list of what they regarded as the key things that had to change if the congregation was to be reinvigorated. Some of these included reviewing the vision and ensuring that all board members were committed passionately to its accomplishment; ensuring that the lead pastor position description focused on the key attributes and competencies that this individual had to bring into their context in order to help them achieve this vision; defining carefully the role of the board in the overall strategic ministry leadership of the congregation and helping the board members to own this responsibility; defining current areas of risk to the congregation and beginning to address these concerns by direct action or policy development; improving communication with the congregation so that their confidence in the church board would improve.

3. They would have to become much more engaged and directive as a church in the search for a new lead pastor. The board of First Baptist was rather passive when it came to engagement with the lead pastor. Their default mode was to let the lead pastor make the key decisions, which they tended to rubber-stamp, after all he was the professionally-trained pastoral leader. Ralph and Ken knew the board needed to respect and support whomever the congregation chose as lead pastor. However, they also knew that the board had to step up aspects of accountability, performance review, evaluation of ministries in the light of the vision, and strategic development for the congregation. If the board accepted these responsibilities, it would dramatically alter the relationship between the board and the lead pastor.

After a short time of prayer Ralph and Ken decided to go for it. Now the question became, how should they communicate this new direction to the other board members and get their support?

How would you advise Ralph and Ken to proceed?


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