301. Who Leads — Pastor or Board?

The recent history of evangelical churches in Canada demonstrates with crystal clarity that leadership struggles often are at the root of congregational failures and declines. The question of “who’s in charge” continues to generate conflict. This uncertainty blunts the ability of congregations to achieve their mission and creates toxic environments that contradict the “great news of Jesus Christ.” Sorting out this question, however, is something that only the leaders can do. In this matter the congregation usually is a bystander.

What’s the key issue? Usually it boils down to this — does the senior pastor have the authority to lead and thus requires a church board to bend to his will, or does a church board have the authority to lead and so requires a senior pastor to bend to its will? As you can imagine, this results in a zero-sum game with only winners or losers and the congregation suffers. The question itself is wrongly conceived.

The correct question is this — how does a church board share leadership authority, responsibility and accountability with a lead pastor for the good of the congregation? Different people understand variously the New Testament’s teaching about the “division of power” in a local congregation. Some take Paul’s statements or those in Hebrews 13 about the authority church leaders have to direct the church, as the pattern for their role as a lead pastor. Others read Paul’s description of the role of elders in the Pastoral Epistles, as placing final authority within the elders or deacons group, which often functions as the church board today. And then others argue that final authority rests with the congregation and the lead pastor and the church board are accountable to the congregation.

We do not have space in this short blog to sort through the biblical texts to discern the direction it provides on these important matters. However, I would suggest that Scripture speaks more about a shared leadership model than we often perceive (e.g. Acts 6 and 15) and is more concerned that church leaders provide caring leadership by their example (1 Peter 5:1-7), rather than by the exercise of raw power.

So the task of a church board under the leadership of the board chair and with the input of thfe lead pastor to discern how best to arrange this “sharing” of leadership so that the congregation prospers.

I think the first principle is to recognize that the church board is vested by the congregation with the responsibility to guard the mission and achieve the vision. The church board defines the scope of the lead pastor’s responsibilities, authority, and accountability — always in consultation with the lead pastor.

Making this shared leadership arrangement operational requires trust, respect, and a careful adherence to the principles as they are defined. This is where the board chair and lead pastor play the most significant role. If they develop a relationship of trust, respect and collaboration, then this goes a long way to enabling the board and the pastor to accomplish their respective goals and responsibilities.

I would also suggest that attending this relationship is the most significant work that a church board does. If this relationship and definition of shared leadership breaks down and becomes inoperable, then the mission of the congregation will not advance. The result is that the church board cannot achieve and fulfill its most important responsibility — preserving and advancing the mission.

Church boards and lead pastors lead in different ways and in different organizational contexts. They are not in competition, but rather fill complementary roles, both of which are essential to the health and growth of the congregation.

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