96. The Church Board Chair and Lead Pastor Relationship # 4: A Recent Publication

Recently on the website of Odgers Berndtson, Michael Naufal published a short, but helpful article entitled “The Chair-CEO Relationship: 10 Commitments for a Better Partnership.” These principles have application to the chair-lead pastor relationship in a local church. I have addressed some of these issues in previous articles (27. Church Board Chairs and Lead Pastors — Understanding this Relationship; 41. Church Board Chairs and the Relationship with the Lead Pastor #2; 43. The Church Board Chair and Pastor Relationship # 3 — The Unique Setting of the Small Church (less than 100 members)). However, Naufal identifies several additional issues that board chairs should consider as they seek to negotiate and tend their relationship with the lead pastor.

To summarize briefly, Naufal encourages chairs and CEO’s to pay attention to ten principles:

1. Keep everyone focused on the organization’s mission.

2. Clearly define and respect each other’s role.

3. Avoid territorial behaviour.

4. Add ‘innovative’ value.

5. Help to make the board stronger.

6. Develop a positive dynamic between staff and the board.

7. Make communication a priority.

8. Maintain a united front.

9. Protect and support one another.

10. Keep passions and emotions in check.

Each of these principles has application in the work of a church board chairperson, but need to be nuanced primarily because of the relational dynamics specific to congregational life. The spiritual ethos within which the respective roles of the chairperson and lead pastor operate influences and shapes this relationship. However, a chairperson should not be so naive as to think that this spiritual ethos eliminates all difficulties. The human condition of both pastor and chair do affect things, despite our best efforts and intentions. Personalities and professional differences complicate the relationship.

Naufal notes that “the most successful Chair-CEO relationships are built on partnership and a base of shared objectives, or commitments.” I think this statement, while true, is often difficult to implement within the church board chair and lead pastor relationship. The reason, I think, is because the professional mindset of many pastors (I hope I am not being unduly critical) identifies them as the primary spiritual and organizational leader within the congregation and this makes it difficult for them to perceive the board chair as a partner or peer in the fundamental leadership of the congregation. I think this is a source of frequent frustration on the part of board chairs. Conversely, most board chairs are lay people who have informal theological training, but little formal education in terms of church leadership and so they feel inherently a need to defer to the lead pastor’s wisdom.

Naufal also urges that the mutual commitments necessary for the chair-CEO relationship to work well be put in writing or a memo of understanding. I think that is wise advice. The relational ethos of congregational life leads people to assume too much about common understandings and then discover they were quite mistaken. Have a conversation with your lead pastor and seek to discern together your approach to some of these key issues and then formulate them in a memo of understanding. This will help to keep the relationship alive and well.

Two other observations. First, the issue of “territorial behaviour” does operate in some church settings. This is why Carver pays so much attention to developing policies that define the limits of the CEO’s authority. It is the board that defines the role of the lead pastor and the limits of his authority. The board does the same for the chair person. However, within a local church setting it is often hard for the people filling these roles to discipline themselves and adhere the board-established limitations. I think one way to overcome this problem is for the chair and lead pastor to agree that each has the privilege of advising the other in their respective areas of authority, but each agrees that at the end of the day the person who bears the responsibility also has the right to make the decision.Territorial behaviour would include any attempt by the chair to attempt to speak for the board when not authorized to do so and try to direct the lead pastor. Territorial behaviour would include any attempt by the lead pastor to bypass the board in terms of policy matters or other key decisions or refusal to be involved in performance evaluation.

Second, the importance of building the capacity of the board needs to be recognized by both leaders as critical to the health and development of the congregation. The board guards the mission and tends the congregation’s story. It is the strategic leadership body of the church and the stronger its capacity becomes, the better it is able to provide that direction. The board represents a significant body of spiritual maturity within the congregation and its wisdom should carry significant weight in discerning the vision and evaluating various options. The board carries the responsibility to manage risk for the congregation and so needs to be assessing what is happening and building in appropriate protections. I think sometimes lead pastors regard this perspective as counter-intuitive. For them the board is seen as a blockage, a hindrance, a necessary evil, something to “manage” lest it exercise too much power. Of course, there are situations where boards run amuk and need to be restrained. However, by and large church boards provide the most significant resource, apart from God himself, that the lead pastor has to fulfill his mandate.

I think I would add two principles to Naufal’s list. One is that both leaders need to have a commitment to sustaining board discipline. By “discipline” I mean the way the board operates, the participation of each member, the educational development of the board, and the assessment of the board.  There should be respect for bylaws and policy and where they are deficient a commitment to improving them by proper means. Factual reporting with careful analysis should be expected. Good process can be a wonderful handmaid to good decisions and great relations. If the board chair is seeking to keep the board’s work at a high level of  effectiveness, but the lead pastor does not really regard the work of the board as very important, then sooner or later serious conflict and frustration will develop.

The second additional principle would be agreement on the need for and mutual commitment to succession plans for the chair and CEO positions. Within churches succession planning has its own peculiar dynamics. On the one hand, the board will usually have some process for guiding the succession from one pastor to another. Often this is outlined in the bylaws. However, while the process is somewhat clear, the discussions within the board that enable good succession to occur usually do not begin until the pastor has submitted his resignation. There is a sense that if the lead pastor lets his intentions known too soon, that it will prevent a good conclusion from occurring. Yet, the more lead time the board has to plan for orderly and prayer-filled succession, the better it is for the congregation, for the lead pastor and for the board chair. On the other hand, few church boards have any succession plan in place for the board chair. Often this person’s role concludes with the conclusion of his or her term as a board member. Perhaps at the board meeting prior to this the board realizes that it needs to appoint a new chair and it is done in haste and with little forethought. This position is too important to the health of the congregation and the good operation of the board to be appointed in such a fashion.


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