When you become a church board chair, it does not take too long before you hear your first complaint about the church board. They go with the territory as they say. You become the lightning rod for such responses. A complaint may be based upon a proposal presented by the board to the congregation or some aspect of church life that the person expects the board to change. Sometimes complaints critique how the board is dealing with church employees or the way a particular board member is perceived. Whatever the complaint may be in regards to the board, you are the chairperson and so you have to help the board respond well to all complaints.
Complaints form part of the larger world of conflict management. Often complaints are motivated because people care about their church. When carefully understood, the concern will point to some area of church life or board operations that does need to be improved. So listening and responding will be positive for the congregation. Other complaints are generated by sinful motivations (e.g. anger, maliciousness, ambition, jealousy) and are intended to harm. So a chairperson has to help the board distinguish between complaints that arise from genuine concerns and those that do not. You have to listen and respond to both kinds, but the board has to exercise discernment in how it responds. Some complaints may become a reason to offer some spiritual help to some people.
Within Canadian culture the role of advocacy has become very significant. Sometimes complaints get presented as advocacy for some group or project. In the opinion of some, if the church board would only perceive the issue and recognize how just or important the cause was, they would act. Their lack of action, however, becomes interpreted as spiritual or leadership failure. Providing a vehicle by which “advocates” can communicate their concerns to the board is important and the board may want to formalize this to some degree (e.g. sharing on the church website how people can present their concerns to the board).
Boards need to be proactive in these matters. As chairperson you know that your board is not perfect and sometimes mistakes are made. So be transparent about this. Humbleness in leadership is part of serving. Communicate clearly with the complainants when the board has considered their concern and come to a decision. Explain carefully the board’s reasons either for agreeing and resolving the issue or for disagreeing and not responding at this time to the concern. When people know that the board has listened and deliberated carefully it shows them that the board is treating them with respect and cares about them and the congregation. If they persist, then the board has some responsibility to help them know how what the next steps might be get resolution. The board may even be wise to take the lead in bringing important matters of this kind to the congregation’s attention.
When complaints multiply, the board should carefully examine what the underlying issue might be that is generating such things. Often the complaint will be a symptom of a more significant issue or sense of unease that people in the congregation are reflecting.
Church boards often feel tempted to respond very strongly to complaints because they are perceived by some as an attack upon the board, its reputation and its leadership. However, I would encourage boards to respond moderately and in a reasonable manner to complaints. It takes courage and a servant’s heart to respond in this way. In most cases this will defuse a potentially difficult situation and enable the complainant and the board to continue to work together to advance the congregation’s mission.
Generally speaking the way a church board handles complaints is one of the tests of its spiritual maturity and commitment to spiritual leadership. If fails in its response in such matters, it begins to breed uncertainty about the board’s capacity to lead.