239. Addressing Dissent and Building Consensus in Church Boards (Article 4)

This is the fourth and last in a series of articles addressing causes of dissent and proposing strategies to develop consensus among church boards.  In the three previous articles I reflected on six motivations for dissent identified in the Brown Governance article. In this article I am adding two factors which are particularly significant for church boards, namely cultural gaps and theological gaps.

The expression “cultural gaps” refers to two different factors that can generate dissent. The first is ethnic diversity within church boards. Although some Evangelical churches address the needs of a particular ethnic group, many others, especially in urban centres, are becoming more and more diverse in their ethnicity. Eventually this diversity gets reflected in church board composition. When this happens dynamics within the board will change somewhat because the cultural expectations from which each board member operates will be different. The role and statue of leaders (especially the lead pastor) and the exercise of power will probably be viewed differently. This may lead some board members to express dissent in some discussions. For example, if a board member is proposing an action, but the lead pastor opposes it, then a board member whose ethnic values require him to honour and follow senior leaders, may feel bound to dissent as well. In this case the cultural values of the board member may not allow him to contravene the lead pastor’s direction, even though the majority of the board does not agree with the lead pastor’s direction. In such cases a chairperson may find it helpful to ask another board member to meet informally with this individual and help him adjust to the ‘cultural values’ that the  board is seeking to follow.

Another kind of “cultural gap” occurs because of a person’s experience within a certain church tradition or church board culture. A board member may have spent considerable time in a Presbyterian congregational setting and now is part of a board which serves a congregationally-led church. For a church board to be responsible to give strategic leadership to all aspects of church life may prove to be a large adjustment. This board member may struggle to accept that certain decisions in fact belong within the board’s jurisdiction. Or an individual who was part of a Pentecostal church tradition may expect a strong, pastor-led church model to be the norm. However, if this person becomes a board member in a congregationally-led church, he or she may be uncomfortable with challenging the lead pastor through whom the Spirit obviously is speaking. So if the majority of the board disagrees with the lead pastor on an issue, a board member who has extensive Pentacostal background may find himself siding with the pastor, rather than the other board members. Here again the board chairperson may need to take some time, in addition to general board orientation, to help the board member understand the “culture” of a congregationally-led church.

Finally, theological gaps can trigger dissent within a board person. A board member may find himself/herself dissenting from other board members because he or she holds theological convictions that run counter to the direction the board wishes to pursue. Sometimes this kind of dissent will be linked to the proposed hiring of a pastoral leader whose theological beliefs generally coincide with that of the congregation, but the dissenting board member is hesitant to support this appointment because he or she has not heard a strong endorsement of his or her theological ‘hobby-horse’. Or consider the case of a church board seeking to develop consensus around a “theology of worship” and a well-respected, long-serving board member objects to the endorsement of contemporary modes of worship in the statement and his or her objection purportedly reflects theological principles.

I think that theological gaps can  be the most difficult kinds of dissent to deal with. People can be heavily invested in their theological convictions and asking them to act in ways they perceive to contradict these convictions can generate strong, emotional responses. Perhaps in such cases the chairperson can remind the board members of the theological values that they have committed to maintain, articulated in the congregation’s statement of faith. Theological values not expressed in the statement of faith, even though they may be important personally to the board member, should not be the basis upon which the board makes decisions. However, the board member may express his or her opinion about such matters during the discussion. If the board generally regards the theological principle as significant for the decision, then that becomes a board decision.

As I have attempted explain in this series of articles dissent in itself when expressed in a church board is not a bad thing. Board members must have the freedom to ask tough questions, register concerns and at times vote contrary to the majority of the board. This is healthy and normal and board chairs need to protect this responsibility for individual board members. However, it is also good, as may be possible, for a chairperson to guide the board to as much consensus as possible. When dissent becomes a norm and is expressed regardless of the issue being discussed, then perhaps it is time for some conversation with the  board member concerned to discern whether there is a deeper motivation to this pattern of dissent and seek to address it constructively.

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