251. “Trust and Tension” — Managing the ‘Tone’ of a Church Board

In a November 2014 interview D. Beatty (a faculty person at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto) stated that the role of a corporate board chair is to bring “individuals with the right mix of talents together, utilizing their time to the greatest possible effect, and ensuring that the tone around the boardroom is open, transparent and productive” (for the complete interview see: http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/corporate_finance/are_you_getting_all_you_can_from_your_board_of_directors). He then commented that “tone breaks down into two components: trust and tension.” It was this phrase that caught my attention as I reflected upon the operations of church boards in the light of his comments.

In my experience church boards are either too trusting or too suspicious when it comes to their relationship with the lead pastor. When either of these elements become predominant within a church board and balance is lost, then difficulties inevitably will arise. In many respects the role of the board chair is to develop, sustain and moderate a productive equilibrium of trust and tension between the board and the lead pastor.

When it comes to trusting a lead pastor, most church board members are predisposed in this direction. After all the lead pastor is a spiritual mentor and guide, one who perhaps has ministered to them during some of the deepest personal crises. Church board members want to give their lead pastor the benefit of the doubt when it comes to performance evaluation, program proposals, leadership issues and reporting. Blind trust within a church board context can be detected if a church board asks few probing questions, rubber stamps proposals, ignores conflict of interest issues, makes decisions without reference to mission advancement, etc. A church board chairperson wants the church board to have a respectful trust in a lead pastor, but it will be mutual and strong enough to support robust questioning because both parties are confident in their commitment to advancing the mission and know that each cares deeply for the other.

Tension, conversely, can come to dominate the church board — lead pastor relationship. Suspicion colours the relationship and individuals begin to question the personal motives of others. Questions become tools for advancing other agendas, rather than seeking clarification about a specific proposal. When this happens, it is highly corrosive and if not addressed eventually will spill over into congregational attitudes and relationships.

The board chair will need to take initiative with both the board members and the lead pastor to make sure each understands their respective roles. Orientations are good times to explain and explore the inter-relationship between trust and tension. If you have a new lead pastor, then it will be important to meet and discuss this aspect of the board’s responsibilities. You cannot assume that the new lead pastor had a positive board experience in a previous congregation. If that is the case, then it may take some time for the new lead pastor to trust this new board. New church board members similarly will need help to understand the relationship between trust and tension. Most will not have thought about this issue. Some will come to this role with the premise that they are there to “keep the lead pastor in line.”

Although Beatty’s comments were directed towards corporate boards, the dynamics he references influence most boards, even those which govern non-profit charities and churches.  The more difficult of these issues to address is a lack of trust. When relationships are damaged or people operate with stereotyped perspectives, then building or restoring trust can be extremely difficult. A chairperson may need considerable wisdom and patience in creating a more positive tone within a church board.




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