152. Church board “Sweet Talk” and Leadership Dynamics

“Wonderful sermon, pastor!” “Great financial report, Bob!” “Loved those worship songs, Jennifer!” “Fantastic job in leading that youth event, Stephanie!” The accolades flow fulsomely within the congregational network and among church board members — but how much of it true? What happens when church board members continually flatter lead pastors and other church staff members telling them how great they are and how wonderful they have become in fulfilling their responsibilities — but never sharing their true estimation of their worth and work?

In a recent post published by Kellogg Insight entitled “Flattery’s Dark Side” the writers shared research demonstrating that “high levels of flattery and opinion conformity can increase CEO’s overconfidence in their strategic judgment and leadership capability, which results in biased strategic decision making.” When low corporate performance is coupled with CEO self-enhancement, there is decreased likelihood that necessary strategic changes will be initiated. I wonder whether this dynamic operates within the world of congregational leadership? I suspect it does.

Church boards operate within a context whose values require niceness, trust, kindness, and generosity, often at the expense of truth-telling, careful evaluation, and consistent accountability. Board members struggle to serve the congregational mission with single-minded interest because they have emotional attachment to the ministry staff and are concurrently members, volunteers, donors and board members — a difficult mix to navigate. Church boards find themselves following set routines, receiving unfocused reports, engaging in rubber-stamping decisions, dealing with low priority issues, and neglecting evaluations of themselves and staff year after year. When we press the idea that church board work is “worshipful work,” then some board members confuse piety with compliance. I hope your church board experience is different.

What strategies can a church board chairperson pursue in order to develop within the board an appropriate blend of respectful encouragement for ministry leaders and responsible attention to mission advancement in all of its dimensions? First, recognize that approval for good quality work always is appropriate and do not be shy in expressing it. Paul encourages congregations to recognize those who are “worthy of double honour” (1 Timothy 5:17). The challenge is to discern “worthiness” because discernment requires assessment based upon truth. God does not show favoritism, but does exercise loyal graciousness.

Second, straight-talk is also a Christian virtue and responsibility. Jesus criticized many for their hypocrisy. The term “admonish” (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5:12) describes the ability to tell the truth because of the relationship that exists. Truth-telling does not need to be harsh, judgmental or demeaning. However, if truth is not told carefully and compassionately, how will a person be encouraged and challenged? Without a commitment to truth-telling a church board has little chance of advancing the congregational mission.

Third, create standard processes and opportunities for evaluation so that assessments of proposals, process, policy and personnel are not unusual and therefore threatening, but normal and welcomed. Good chairmanship builds a board’s capacity to discern truth and speak truth, all the while acting with integrity — a tall order! In practical terms this requires that boards have access to the best sources of information and know how to communicate transparently and competently with employees, members, and the community.

Fourth, an effective chairperson helps board members speak truth among themselves. Again I would emphasize that speaking truth does not equate to personal attacks or toxic comments. Rather it comes down to a commitment to the mission and not allowing personal bias, individual interests, idiosyncratic causes, or lack of emotional or spiritual intelligence to damage a church board’s ability to make good, strategic leadership decisions. When a chairperson discerns evidence of harmful behaviours or attitudes, then these must be addressed either in the collective meeting or individually on the side. Of course, the chair has to have a mandate from the board members to deal with such matters, even if it should be the lead pastor who is the perpetrator.

Five, remember that church boards have the resources of the Holy Spirit to assist them in discerning the truth and developing the capacity to act on that truth. Evil flourishes in the midst of deception. Living and speaking “the truth as it is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21) places people in the centre of the larger spiritual struggle that envelopes humanity. So this is not easy stuff, but required if a church board is to practice “worshipful work.”

Would your board pass the “truth test”? Or is it wrapped up in “sweet talk” and fail to demonstrate ability to discern and speak the truth?  If your board fails to evaluate itself annually, has no process for evaluating the lead pastor and other staff, functions in a compliant mode, does not talk about major strategic ministry issues, exercises little financial oversight, rarely evaluates ministry programs, approves every proposal brought to it for decision, etc., then perhaps it is in a “sweet talking” mode.

When church boards engage in mutual “sweet talk,” they run the risk of failing in their must important duty, namely their service to advance the congregational mission.

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