83. “Respect” — The Golden Rule in Church Board Relationships

In numerous publications dedicated to helping non-profit boards do their work effectively the writers often mention the importance of mutual respect among the board members as a critical element. As well, respect, along with trust, oils the relationship between the board and the CEO. In addition there has to be respect for the “institutions” of governance that the agency has created to sustain and advance its ends. But what is respect and why is it so important, particularly in church board work?

Respect includes the concepts of esteem, deference, and showing high regard for someone or something. In the New Testament believers are commanded “to honour everyone” (1 Peter 2:17), as well as “to submit to one another in the fear of the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21), i.e. show deference to one another. This respect demonstrates itself in the practice of agape-love, a love that sacrifices itself for the good of the other out of love for God and for neighbour. The command to love God includes respecting and honouring Him for all He is worth. We also read of commands to respect and honour those who exercise spiritual leadership within the congregation.

In a recent article (75. “Thinking Institutionally”) I commented on Hugo Heclo’s plea for a fresh appreciation for the importance of institutions to the “humanity” of our culture. Within the context of the church similarly, I believe, the day has come for us to renew our respect for, our esteem of, the governance processes that sustain our faith communities. I am not calling for a mindless acceptance of institution for the sake of institution or a thoughtless compliance with authority. What I am urging is that board members and pastoral leaders, as well as members of the congregation, respect the ministry teams that seek to govern and lead the congregation, i.e. church boards and ministry staff.

Respect and esteem does not mean immunity from change or revision. If as board members we respect the institution of the church board and what it seeks to accomplish on behalf of the congregation, then we will press to make that board work as effectively as possible — and this will mean change and revision to board policy and process continually.  Respect is not passive, but active, demonstrating its regard for the potential that a church board has to nurture and enhance congregational health. Respect induces self-control so that my personal conduct will enable the board in its work, and not hinder it. Respect means that I will listen carefully to what other board members say because the Spirit will be speaking through them and giving wisdom to the board in their comments. Respect means that I will take each decision seriously and not merely raise my hand in a rote manner. Respect means that I will invest the time to prepare well for each board meeting, giving myself to prayer and careful reflection about the issues at hand. Respect means that when I believe the recommended motion is not the right direction to take, I will have the courage to express my views wisely and collegially.

A church board chair exercises considerable leadership in modelling and encouraging respect for the ministry of the board and its significant place in congregational governance. The disciplined efforts of the chair to develop and circulate agendas in advance, to encourage and promote good decision-making, to build the relational dimensions within the board, all develop respect for the board and its work. When respect leaves the room, then the chair should call the board or board member to account because of the importance of the board’s work. This does not mean eliminating humour or working with an ethos of grim discipline. Joy and exuberance can be quite compatible with respect. Knowing the boundaries and when to call the board back to a more serious mindset belongs to the art of good chairing.

I think as well that the attitude of the lead pastor to the board is an important factor in building congregational respect for the board. Sometimes a lead pastor or others on the pastoral staff will see the church board as an obstacle to achieving their vision or as a power group in the congregation that only serves to restrict his or her abilities. Such attitudes will be expressed verbally or non-verbally and when perceived become very damaging to the relational realities of congregational life. Pastoral respect for a church board should result in wise work with the board chair to build the capacity of the board and enhance its governance leadership within the congregation. This does not mean that the church board “rubber stamps” every idea the lead pastor presents, but it does mean that the board will give these ideas a robust, prayerful and careful review so that the lead pastor knows the respect the board has for his ministry leadership. Respect begets respect.

Conversely, church board members must respect the ministry leadership of the lead pastor. If questions arise about the capacity of this individual to fulfill the responsibilities defined in the position description, this is something for the personnel committee of the board to discuss with the person. If they determine together that there is an issue to be addressed, then recommendation should be made to the church board. This could include special training, coaching, hiring additional staff, etc. Respect for the lead pastor means that issues are addressed transparently and with a desire for the good of the individual.

A church board should always be cultivating the respect of the congregation for its work. When respect is present then trust and credibility usually are its companions. Sometimes church boards think they should never admit to the congregation that in hindsight their decision about a certain matter was misguided and they are reversing their direction or changing it substantially. The congregation normally will respect a board that has the humility in its leadership role to recognize an error and act expeditiously to introduce remedy. Church boards and its members are not infallible. Good listening to congregational concerns and serious consideration of workable responses also builds respect. I would suggest as well that transparency and effective communications contribute substantially to congregational respect.

Romans 12:10b could be translated “showing leadership to one another in honour,” i.e. lead the way in honouring one another! This applies to church board members, pastoral leadership and Christians in the congregation. A strong indicator of church health will be respect among the leaders for one another and respect withing the congregation for its leaders. But remember, respect has to be earned constantly and cannot be demanded.

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