Few events in the life of a church board chair are quite as breath-taking as the words of your lead pastor,”I want you to be the first to know that I am giving serious consideration to a pastoral position in another congregation.” And then when the chair receives the actual letter of resignation, life truly changes, both for the short and long term. Although each church group has different processes they follow when such major leadership transitions occur in a local church, for the board chair some of the challenges seem to be common in the experience of many. I will consider some of these challenges as they affect a chair personally and as they affect the role of church board chair during such transitions.
1. Personal challenges.
No matter how hard you try, if you have a reasonably good relationship with the lead pastor, then you are going to experience some negative feelings. While you want the best for your ministry colleague and know that for him to follow God’s will is the most important thing, you are going to feel let down, perhaps even angry and betrayed. So working through these feelings and working with your lead pastor to help him finish well will need certain attention and some grace.
Such transitions rarely happen at “convenient times” and so your schedule over the next few months, perhaps even as long as a year, will suddenly be filled with more matters requiring your attention than normally is the case. You will need to be careful that you do not become frustrated or overwhelmed by the increased demands. It might be helpful to see what aspects of your current responsibilities in the church, over and above your chairing, you might hand over to others for the time being. In other words try to create space to cope well.
Let your spouse know that you will be carrying some additional responsibilities and seek her help and understanding during this period. It may be that you will face some criticisms about your leadership as things move forward and when this happens, it is hard for your spouse to hear these things and not be upset. Of course, you too will need special spiritual resources so that you are able to respond well to all of the various changes and difficulties that will occur.
2. Challenges as Church Board Chair.
a. Ending the employment relationship well.
The church board has responsibility to ensure that the employment relationship with the lead pastor ends well. Because emotions may be somewhat roiled in this period, the board members need to make decisions based upon principles, both biblical and legal. Be fair in all financial matters, and do not be afraid to error on the side of generosity. If the church has entered into specific agreements with the lead pastor (often these will relate to housing), then make sure that all details related to their resolution are handled appropriately. This may require legal advice or other technical expertise. If the church has supplied the pastor with a computer to support his work, then review the agreement related to that and follow the stipulations that will permit him to purchase it, should he so desire. As well, some congregational gathering should be arranged for people to express appreciation for the pastor and his wife for their leadership.
b. Getting Advice.
Take the time necessary to review your congregation’s policies regarding pastoral transitions and appointments. Understand the processes. If you need clarity, then seek advice either from a denominational resource person or a prior board chair or someone else you have confidence in. Most denominational offices will have good resources to assist you in such situations.
c. Preparing the church board.
It is wise to alert the board members to the lead pastor’s decision as soon as possible. Probably as well you should call for a special meeting of the board within the week. At this meeting you should share the letter of resignation. Your primary goals for this meeting will include: reviewing church policies regarding how to proceed in the period of transition, what process is set out for seeking a replacement, and how to oversee the ministry of the congregation during this interim period. If the lead pastor was your primary employee, then more responsibility for day-to-day management will fall to the church board and its chair. If your church has an associate pastor, then you might consider asking that person to serve as interim lead pastor. However, if that person sees himself as a potential candidate for the role of lead pastor, it not be advisable to appoint that person as interim lead pastor.
The board will want to ensure that the pulpit ministry is sustained well, pastoral care within the congregation continues at a reasonable level, and that decisions regarding the administration of the congregation (i.e. supervision of other employees or volunteer ministry leaders, financial oversight, etc.) are being cared for.
If no one currently employed by the congregation is able to serve as interim lead pastor, then the church board will need to seek external help or make some other arrangement.
At this meeting the board should also determine what needs to be communicated to the congregation and how this will be done.
It would be advisable at the next meeting to review such things as the lead pastor’s position description, policies regarding moving expenses, salary expectations, housing issues, and also assess where the congregation stands in terms of its vision and what kind of pastoral leadership is going to be required in the coming decade to enable the congregation to flourish. If the bylaws require the appointment of a search committee, then the board should also discuss its mandate, its process, and its composition, so that it can be established as soon as possible. Consider as well what costs might be entailed in this process, i.e. advertising for candidates, costs for interviewing, costs to bring someone to candidate for the role, moving expenses, costs related to interim assistance, etc. While the congregation may save some money on salary during an interim period, it is wise to keep the salary budget in place to cover costs associated with the transition.
d. Communicating with the Congregation.
If there is one thing a board chair needs to oversee well, it is communication with the congregation during this period. Although the church board will not have all of the answers to every question, some formal communication from the board to the congregants will be necessary to assure them that the ministries of the church will continue, good leadership is in place, and that such transitions, while difficult, are normal in the life of a church. It would probably be wise for the church board to schedule a congregational meeting shortly after the lead pastor has completed all of his responsibilities in order to review with them the process the church will follow to discern their next lead pastor, indicate how the board is arranging interim leadership and answer questions that they may have. While you and other board members may have been through this kind of experience before, for some believers in your church this will be their first pastoral transition.
e. Dealing with unintended consequences.
Undoubtedly in this transition issues and questions will arise that are new. Some people may decide this is a time for them to leave as well and volunteer leadership resources may dwindle. Hopes will rise and be dashed as a promising candidate decides not to go through the process. Finances may experience some reduction. Other staff may decide that it is an appropriate time to make an employment change or become less responsive to supervision. Be wary of making other large scale changes during a transition period, unless they are deemed absolutely necessary. As chair you may discover one or two board members become more strident or more fractious in discussions as they seek to cope with the uncertainty and pressure. The more you can demonstrate faith in God’s timing and provision, clear understanding of process, and consistency in following policy, the more you will help the board to make good decisions and retain the confidence of the congregation in their leadership.
Finally, be careful of assuming that your authority has changed. You are still only the chair of the church board, unless and until that board decides otherwise and empowers you to expand the scope of your leadership.