85. Book Review # 6: “Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders” by Charles Olsen (Alban Institute, 2001).

Charles Olsen writes as a seasoned “church renewalist” who has a special passion to enable church boards  understand themselves as spiritual communities who are “inspirational to the congregations they lead” (xvi). He speaks from a wealth of research directed particularly to the difficulties and lack of fulfillment many church board members experience.  Over several years, supported by a grant from The Lilly Endowment, he developed a model that enables church boards to integrate spirituality and administration and through this new integration to transform church boards into “communities of spiritual leaders.”

His model for church board meetings develops around four practices:

  1. History giving and story telling
  2. Biblical-theological reflection
  3. Prayerful discernment
  4. “Visioning” the future (xi).

He desires church board members to grow in vitality and maturity of faith, to develop new capacity to theologize, to recognize and value corporate spirituality, to develop a more positive climate for recruiting new board members, and to enable church board members to enjoy a vital experience of serving (xii). The overall motif that describes the model is the phrase “worshipful work” which enables the board member to function as a spiritual leaders in this role and enables the board as whole to emerge in its own right as a spiritual community (xii). This community does its service-work from within a framework of praise, study, caring, discernment, and hope (xv).

The first two chapters present the concept of “worshipful work” within a church board setting and how this approach can combat “creeping cultures: the Spirits of the Agenda of Board Meetings.” The initial chapter presents the idea of shaping the agenda in the form of a service of worship. He provides a specific example (Appendix 1, 181-182) of an agenda that revolves around assembling in God’s name, celebrating the past (reports), proclaiming God’s Word (studying specific issues), presenting our offering (giving oversight to ministries), giving thanks to God (concluding in prayer and intercession), and going out in God’s name (charge and benediction).  Such an approach controls the temptation that church boards have to function merely as an advisory group, a political interest group, a “brokering of interest” group, a bureaucratic agency, a managerial committee, or a business entity. The outcome is to generate a church board culture in which true spiritual leadership blossoms. This requires the spiritual art of discernment, vision clarity, and “breadlike” (i.e. nurturing) implementation. He urges the presentation of reports as stories or opportunities for theological reflection, the development of an annual agenda, use of consent agendas, and agendas that are structured around common worship themes.

In Part 2 Olsen shares four “transformational practices for the agenda of meetings.” He begins by reminding us that each congregation has a “thick history” replete with stories of God’s leading, provision, and grace – and church boards need to rehearse past and present stories. These establish a context and consciousness of “sacred space” from within which the board members engage their responsibilities. Sharing stories helps to clarify and generate vision and enables discernment.  Some stories need to come “from the edge” in order to challenge complacency or misunderstanding.

Chapter four focuses on “distilling wisdom.”  How does a church board understand and  employ  biblical, theological and church traditions or values in order to inform their current ministry? Often biblical-theological reflection among the board members needs encouragement because many have never done it and feel intimidated in the presence of the pastor. Conversely, there is the danger of someone pronouncing God’s will and shutting off debate and discernment prematurely.

“Prayerful discernment” forms the focus for chapter five. I think this is perhaps the most helpful and creative part of Olsen’s book. Discernment is to see or know what God has already decided and have the courage to pursue it. The challenge is to create a corporate process that enables a church board to practice “discernment.” The spiritual ethos of a church board requires a process that integrates elements of rationale decision-making, with the prayer-filled activity of biblically-informed reflection. It requires the church board to relinquish personal and corporate ego (90-91) and be willing to take hold of the direction God is giving. Some key principles Olsen proposes for prayerful discernment include:

  1. Be selective in the number of issues to be discerned – limit it to no more than one per meeting;
  2. Begin with corporate and private self-surrender. The goal is to reach a point of personal indifference as to which direction God chooses – each person only desires God’s direction;
  3. Gather information from many sources, including scripture;
  4. Agree on what the corporate prayer is in relation to this matter – what is the church board asking God to do in this decision;
  5. Seek consensus by clarifying what is good about each option until board members perceive what is “the weightier good.”

He suggests five stages in any discernment process:  rational stage (data gathering); communication stage (enabling all to understand); guiding principle stage (what is the issue); analytical stage (focus on options that only relate to the guiding principle); intuitive stage (coming to consensus) (95-96).

The next issue Olsen tackles is “Going Somewhere: The Practice of ‘Visioning the Future” (Chapter 6).   In his view “vision is connected to history and stories” (biblical and otherwise), “vision is connected to biblical-theological reflection” (a prophetic sense of what God is about), and “vision is connected to discernment” (discernment sees things as they are in the present; vision has eyes for the future) (104-106). For Olsen it is critical that vision is only implemented when it “is worn or embodied by the vision holder” (107).

The final section of his book is cast in the form of “an open letter to Board and Council Members.”  With considerable creativity Olsen tracks the various stages of participation in a church board that an individual experiences, from the initial request to consider such service, to ending well. This section responds to the data he gathered in surveying hundreds of church board members. He describes the decision to serve as “no longer a matter of convenience or choice. You will have made a covenant with God and the faith community. Be sure to count the cost, for there is a cost to be counted” (125).  Preparing to serve requires some awareness of the nature of spiritual leadership in contrast to natural leadership (130).  He defines such service as “a call to Scripture,..prayer,…fast,…generosity,…special graces,…destiny” (132-136), which form the spiritual disciplines that sustain such spiritual leadership. Of course, the orientation of new members to the policies and procedures of the board and its current issues remains a significant component.

The chapter suggesting good ways to assimilate into a church board recognizes that this transition can be very positive or very frustrating. Board leaders should not assume that new members “can fit right into the old scheme and begin to operate” (140). He describes various stages of the development of new board members: inclusion, elation, disillusionment, and commitment (145-152). His comments about the reality of disillusionment pinpoint a serious issue among new church board members. He references Bonhoeffer’s treatment of “disillusionment” in Life Together (particularly the first 22 pages). Disappointment inevitably happens in a board member’s service, but this has the potential to be a doorway into true community and true service in God’s grace as we replace our dreams with the vision God has for his church.

The metaphor of “Rowing the Boat” captures the work of the “active, established board members” (153). The key principles Olsen identifies include working together, working in confidence (i.e. trust in God), depending on the gifts and presence of the Spirit, identifying with people in friendship, engaging in a ministry of healing, announcing the Gospel, accepting and learning from failure, and living graciously with success (157-163). Using Christ’s metaphor of wolves and lambs, he urges church board members to adopt a lamb-like character which includes trust in the Shepherd, willingness to be vulnerable, determination to work in an honest, straightforward manner, being hospitable, and being peaceable.

He concludes with some reflections on how to finish well. He warns that at such points of transition people should be prepared to “adjust, grieve and discern what your next calling will be” (169). Exercise the spirit of forgiveness and be thankful. Ask for an exit interview with one or two elders in which you can share your observations and counsel. This is for the good of the board as well as for the good of the board member. It enables the church leadership to think with you about ongoing ministry involvement and helps the board member avoid the dropout syndrome.

In several appendices Olsen provides a sample meeting agenda, suggesting ways to incorporate worship into the agenda’ s flow; a tool to discern a board’s culture; and a tool to identify natural leadership.

I think Olsen by and large succeeds in his goal of enabling church boards to change their culture and become communities of spiritual leaders within their congregation. The steps he proposes, both on the part of individual board members, the board leadership, and the board as whole, if taken seriously and implemented will change perspectives and enable boards to transform their operations into sessions of worshipful work. However, this is all premised upon a well-developed partnership between pastor and board members.

He believes in the power of story, whether biblical, congregational, or personal, to change perspective and attitude when time is given to reflect carefully on them. The ability to set our stories in the context of the biblical traditions is transformative and hope-giving.  He places the emphasis in church board service where it needs to be – on the spiritual context in which it is occurring. Church board chairs will discover numerous innovations by which to embed more intentionally the board’s entire agenda in the context of sincere worship (Romans 12:1-2).

I am not sure Olsen helps a church board chair and lead pastor understand their relationship within congregational and board life. Perhaps the diversity of church polity that occurs within the congregations he works limits his ability to address this in a principled manner. Within churches adhering to congregational governance this relationship remains a critical issue. In pages 77-80 Olsen outlines various stances that pastoral leaders take within church board settings (stances that vary from meeting to meeting). These include visionary, gatekeeper, spiritual director, mentor, architect, liturgist,  politician, or officiant. I appreciated his encouragement to pastoral leaders to invest themselves in the church board because it “is a crucial arena for congregational renewal and revitalization” (76). However, where is the church board chair in this mix?

Some discussion in his presentation about various models of governance used in non-profit agencies and their relevance, if any, for assisting the worshipful work of a church board would also be helpful. It is one thing  to recognize the limitation that business and organizational models have for church leadership, but the reality is that most congregations are organized as non-profit entities. Such models can be seen as part of God’s natural revelation and thus have potential value. Church boards have to create some model of board governance that is consistent with their mission, vision, values and history. I think church board chairs struggle with this question as they seek to help church boards integrate spiritual values with the operational requirements.

Olsen also avoided some of the more challenging aspects of church board work – pastoral evaluation, employee failure, relationship  between governance and management, board assessment, and managing risk. I realize that his goal was to present a wholistic approach to church board ministry, but demonstrating the benefits of such an approach by showing how it helps a church board to handle specific challenges such as these would be helpful.

Some congregational traditions are not tilted towards formal liturgy. However, I think that the suggestions Olsen makes can be adapted to the worship ethos of most congregations. The bigger challenge for most congregational board members is to discern how their work with the board is “spiritual work” and to keep this connection strong and relevant. Apart from an introductory Bible reading and reflection, with some prayer at the beginning and end of the meeting, helping board members keep spiritual leadership in focus is a challenge. Perhaps as Olsen suggests, considering reports as rehearsals of the ways that God is working and giving thanks to Him for his continued activity in the congregation is one way. This might require such reports to be reshaped or at least include one story that specifically demonstrates how God is working within the congregation.  Also the idea that the board as a whole should discern what it should pray for, i.e. the desired outcome, as it wrestles with a key issue has some merit. Incorporating the phrase “worshipful work” into a church board chair’s vocabulary could be in important first step.

Lastly, I would observe that in many Evangelical congregations the emergence of the ministry staff team tends to overwhelm and upstage the role of the church board as spiritual leaders in the congregation. While we may give lip service to the idea that church board members should be spiritual leaders, rarely do they have opportunity to live this out in their congregational settings because the pastoral team is seen as the collective spiritual leadership in the congregation. The pastoral leadership does not know how to integrate the board in a meaningful way into the active spiritual leadership of the congregation. Until this changes church boards and church board chairs can work diligently to transform their approach to their work, but still not be able to fulfill their role as spiritual leaders within the congregation. Of course, such recognition must be earned by wise and trusted leadership and cannot be demanded.

This entry was posted in Board, Board Chair, Board Governance, Board Member, Book Reviews, Senior Pastor and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.