41. Church Board Chairs and The Relationship with the Lead Pastor #2

In recent years various writers have discussed the relationship between the church board chair and the lead pastor in the local church leadership structure. Les Stahkle in Church Governance Matters, for example, states without equivocation that the people in these roles are peers. If this is true, why is it true and what does it mean for the way a church board chair understands this role and the relationship with the lead pastor?

Let’s consider some of the inner-church dynamics. The church board chair normally is appointed by and accountable to the church board for a set term, often with little or no training or prior experience. The lead pastor, while appointed by the congregation, normally  is accountable to the church board for the oversight of all ministry responsibilities, but without a set term. The chair position is a volunteer role, but the lead pastor is usually a paid employee, normally with professional training and several years of experience to equip him for this role. In what sense then can they truly relate as peers in order to fulfill their roles well? Is this assertion that they are peers a good theory, but operationally impossible to implement and thus irrelevant? Does the “power” a lead pastor brings into this relationship (power of education, knowledge, experience, status in the congregation, contractual relationship with the board, etc.) make it necessarily imbalanced?

In response to the “why” question, if these two roles form in fact a peer relationship, then that peer status occurs primarily because both positions are accountable to the church board, but are not accountable to each other. The chair bears responsibility for facilitating good governance within and by the board, whereas the lead pastor oversees the ministry leadership team and the implementation of the strategic plan. They are both accountable to the board, but for different roles and responsibilities. Structuring these two leadership roles in this manner is becoming popular particularly in larger churches.  In smaller churches the board tends to function more as the overall ministry management team and the relationship between the chair and the lead pastor is more complex, because  it is extremely relational and informal. That will be the subject of a future article. Here we will focus on the situation as it is developing in larger churches, where the distinction between governance and management is more clearly delineated.

The word ‘peer’, according to Websters Dictionary, means “0ne of the same rank, quality, endowments, character, etc.; an equal; a match; a mate.” The emphasis upon sameness of rank and equality seems to be the dominant element. So in what sense can we say that a church board chair and a lead pastor are peers, i.e. equals and of the same rank? Certainly it is not normally in the area of professional preparation and experience. Rather, as I have already indicated it seems to exist primarily in terms of rank, but also with reference to character. In many churches board members serve in elder roles and pastors are usually considered elders as well. The qualifications of character and ability expressed in 1 Timothy 3:1-8 normally are expected of people entrusted with either role. So in many churches both the chair and the lead pastors are elders and have the same rank. But this is true of any board member who is also appointed by the congregation as an elder.

The individuals within these roles are both active in the board, in the church and in the community. Both are present at church board meetings. The chair is a voting member of the board, but seldom, other than to break tie votes, exercises this right. The lead pastor may or may not be a voting member, but is certainly present for most board discussions and decisions.  Their relationship to the board and within the board operations are quite different. The chair has no authority to instruct the lead pastor in his role, unless so directed by the board. Similarly the lead pastor has no authority to instruct the chair in his role, unless so directed by the board. The chair serves to facilitate the good governance of the board. The lead pastor advises the board about its governance, but also has a reporting function to the board regarding the implementation of ministry plans. So neither the chair nor the lead pastor report to each other, but they do need to be in regular communication with each other. For either the chair or the lead pastor to be ‘surprised’ at a board meeting by a major development has potential to damage the trust so essential to this relationship. Probably the most frequent activity in which they collaborate is in the preparation of the board meeting agendas and this creates a normal, probably monthly opportunity to meet, encourage one another and discuss key issues affecting the church.

Within the congregation the roles also function differently. Often the board chair will serve as the chair of the general congregational meetings. If this is the case, then his role is to facilitate good decision-making within the congregation. In this role he is accountable to the congregation whose meetings he is chairing. Consultation with the lead pastor, and probably also with the whole board, will be the norm for creating the agenda for such meetings. The lead pastor will probably have an advising and reporting function at the general meetings.  He may also be presenting recommendations regarding ministry plans.

It is also the case that people in the congregation will raise issues with either the chair or the lead pastor. Considerable wisdom on both their parts will be necessary to make sure that they act with integrity in such situations. For example, if it is a ministry issue, then the chair must defer to the lead pastor on such matters. However, if it is a matter of church policy or the way in which congregational decisions are being made, then it will be the chair’s responsibility to respond. Keeping the roles clearly distinguished becomes particularly important when matters of discipline are involved.  Good communication and deep trust on the part of both chair and lead pastor are essential in all such matters.

How much involvement the chair should have in public services of the church will vary considerably and should be essentially the decision of the lead pastor who is responsible for the oversight of the worship services. Apart from necessary board announcements and matters relating to congregation business, the chair’s role in the worship services will be no different from that of any other board member.

The involvement of the chair and lead pastor in the larger community will be a function of their official roles. The chair will sign on behalf of the board legal documents and contracts approved by motion of the board. The chair will ensure that necessary reports required by the government because of the church’s charitable status are submitted on time and correctly. The chair will also be involved in enabling the congregation to process denominational business in a timely manner.  If an issue of illegality occurs within the congregation (i.e. inappropriate behaviour by a children’s worker for example), then the board chair probably will have to be involved in some official capacity, even though the lead pastor may well be guiding the process. While the lead pastor will be involved in these matters, it will be in a consulting way, not as official representative unless so delegated by the board. Perhaps one way to express this is to remember that the church board chair speaks officially for the charitable entity as empowered by the board. The lead pastor may also have the authority to speak alongside of the chair in many of these matters because of his role as the primary employee and leader of the congregation.

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