63. ‘Conversion Work’ — How does a Church Board Chair facilitate change?

All work that a church board engages in is in essence ‘conversion work,’ i.e. the effective management of missional change. The word ‘conversion’ normally is applied to personal spiritual change that brings a person into the Kingdom of God. However, we also know that the process of personal change for a believer never ends as the Holy Spirit does his “sanctifying” work in the life of the believer. The Christian experience begins with change, engages continuous change and looks forward to the greatest change of all, namely resurrection.  We should not be surprised  to discern that the faith community, this interim, imperfect  expression of Kingdom reality, has an identity that is also marked by change. It is always reforming because it is the holy community in which the Holy Spirit takes up residence. Pursuing vision involves change. The church board as the primary ministry team giving oversight to the congregation’s missional development has to understand this fundamental spiritual reality, this persistent ‘conversion work.’

The concept and pragmatics of change generate different responses depending upon the individual or the culture of a community. Sometimes change is regarded as exiting, essential, vital, and transformational. Conversely for some change speaks of disaster, loss, chaos, dysfunction, and uncertainty. Board members will reflect these divergent perspectives. A board chair will undoubtedly reflect something of these attitudes in his or her leadership, but will need to be careful lest the chair’s particular bias towards change interfere with a board’s ability to establish its own relationship with and perspective on change. Gaining a biblical perspective on change is one means you can use to develop a healthy understanding of and appreciation for change. Consider how much change the early Christians had to work through in Acts 1-15!

Some ‘conversion work’ happens in the normal course of a church board’s life. Board members come and go, including chairs. So the changes related to orienting new board members, preparing a new chair, and the work of getting a new board working well all deal with change and adaptation. A board chair can influence significantly the entire experience of a board as it processes such changes, enabling them to be as positive and formative as possible. The annual cycle of a board’s life generates continual change as new issues require constant adaptation in order to enable the congregation’s mission to advance. Each board meeting agenda becomes in essence a map to guide the board in its management of these changes. Agenda development becomes a critical tool in facilitating change well. A chair is able to assist a church board’s progress by ensuring that all changes, whether in policy, personnel, vision or strategic planning are being processed well so that the spiritual health of the congregation is sustained and strengthened.

Other kinds of ‘conversion work’ tend to be more episodic in nature. In other words, at specific points in the board’s annual agenda or during critical congregational transitions change has to be discerned, processed, rejected or implemented. Sometimes the issues are quite tangible, i.e. buying property, building structures, or hiring for a new position. On other occasions the face of change emerges in debates about worship practice, the style of preaching, or theological controversy. And then developments in the surrounding culture force a church board to make tough decisions about changes to hiring policy, ethical codes of conduct, or financial management practices.

Some of the hardest questions about change arise as a board seeks to understand what it believes God wants that particular church to be in ten years. Do board members have a vision for growth and if so, what will this look like? How are demographics in the community changing and what new opportunities or challenges for ministry do they present to the continued growth of the church? When and how should that church plan to plant another church? If God blesses that church and it does grow beyond the capacity of the current facilities, does the current property have any potential for expansion? The questions can be quite complex. Defining vision has to be the most difficult kind of ‘conversion work’ a church board does.

So what is the role of a chair in helping a church board get on with this ‘conversion work?’ I would suggest three key elements.

1. A chair has to assist the board collectively and individually to embrace change as a fundamental ethos for its operations. The board has to see change as a spiritual process which the congregation engages and the board must help it to do it well, if the congregation is to achieve its mission. It is an opportunity for good, spiritual leadership. As noted earlier, people’s attitudes to change are quite diverse and as chair it is important to help the board as a whole to discern an appropriate pace for change that sustains unity within the board as well as deals with realities effectively. When board’s postpone dealing with change because of fear or failure to lead, the risk of congregational dysfunction and impairment increase significantly. Perhaps as well, the chair and lead pastor need to have a fairly similar understanding about the importance and direction of change in relation to congregational health. When a lead pastor believes change is necessary and a board chair disagrees fundamentally, this is a formula for a divided church.

2. A chair has to understand good practices that enable a team to manage change effectively. One aspect to this is timing — how much change, how quickly, how urgently can and should a board seek to implement?  Orchestrating this requires wisdom, skill and sensitivity. Decisions regarding significant change deserve sufficient time for careful, prayerful discernment. Encouraging the board to govern with a focus on the future builds a board environment that will embrace change. One of the stakeholders in the life of a congregation that boards often ignore are the people who will form the church ten years into the future. How are decisions taken by the board today implementing changes that will enable the congregation to be healthy in ten years and minister well to the needs of that future congregation.

3. A chair is a champion for good change because he or she knows that without change the congregation will falter. Maintaining the status quo cannot be the focus of a board’s work. This is not governance leadership. In fact, it would be a fundamental betrayal of the trust the congregation has placed in the church board. Of course, the board must guard the congregation’s constitution, bylaws, and statement of faith. Yet even bylaws can and sometimes should be changed to adapt to new developments. Just like any organism, a faith community needs to grow in order to attain its potential. The church board, in a manner to similar to a parent’s role, attempts to guide the developing congregation for the benefit of all concerned and to the glory of God.

‘Conversion work’ is hard work because it is unrelenting. Conversely it is immensely satisfying to see progress in faith, progress in the capacity of a congregation to minister in its community, progress in articulating a strong witness for Jesus. Keeping in step with Jesus will require constant wrestling with change. As a kingdom agent a church board chair will be a missional change agent.

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