27. Church Board Chairs and Lead Pastors — Understanding this Relationship

I recently did an informal survey of approximately 45 lead pastors and church board chairs to gather data to support a recent workshop presentation. In analyzing the responses, some interesting factors emerged which may help us understand the relationship between Lead Pastors and Church Board Chairs. While certainly not scientific, the results uncovered some interesting features.

First, only half of those responding indicated that the chairperson had a description of responsibilities. Second, most board chairs had served less than four years in their role and probably would only serve one or two terms. The turnover rate for church board chairs is significant. Sometimes this is mandated by policy, but more often other factors are instrumental. Third, most lead pastors had worked with the current board chair for less than four years.

With undefined responsibilities for church board chairs, significant turnover, and short-term relationships with lead pastors, we should not be surprised at the struggles that board chairs experience in seeking to fill this role well. There is a connection between this reality and the fact the churches often lack consistent direction. The seeds of board dysfunction may be sown in these details.

The survey also indicated that on average church board chairs are a decade older than lead pastors. Further, board chairs tend to have long connections with their churches (fifteen years is quite common), whereas in the case of lead pastors their relationship with the congregation tended to average around five years. Two observations arise from this set of data. First, some of the differences of viewpoint that emerge in discussion between a lead pastor and board chair are probably generational. Discerning this age differential and being conscious of it will help both individuals realize when conflicting views may arise because they come at issues from diverse, generational perspectives. Second, the extended tenure of the board chair personally in the life of the congregation in contrast to that of lead pastors will probably create a more conservative approach to change. Relationships with people in the congregation are stronger, his stake in the development of the congregation is considerable, and his experience of the past life of the church probably all influence his view of future potential substantially. A lead pastor who is relatively new in the church will need to work carefully in the nexus of these realities as he introduces change and seeks to garner the support of the board chair for such change.

In another set of data more than one third of church board chairs and lead pastors indicated that their boards lacked a clear statement of the congregation’s authority. In other words the board was not certain about the kinds of decisions they could make and the decisions that had to go to the congregation for final approval. Normally bylaws would define such matters. However, it appears that in a significant number of churches either this is not the case or the board is not aware that such bylaws exist. In either case, this needs to be remedied because it creates significant opportunity for conflict. If neither the congregation nor the board understands their respective authority, then jurisdictional disputes will certainly emerge. It will only be a matter of time.

As I indicated at the beginning, this is a small sample and the results are not scientific. However, the results have sufficient weight to offer some explanation as to why the relationship between the lead pastor and church board chair needs intentional care. Further the results suggest that unnecessary conflict occurs within churches because attention has not been given to develop clarity around roles and responsibilities. By helping the board recognize such deficiency and create clarity, a church board chair will reduce potential, harmful conflict, and free space within the life of the board to focus on fulfilling the mission of the church.

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