20. Lead Pastor as Church Board Chair — Good Idea??

A pastor recently indicated that he served as the chair of his church’s board of directors. This conversation raised again for me this question — is it a good idea for a lead pastor to chair the church board?

Historically this was accepted practice in many evangelical churches, even advocated by some as necessary. Reasons included:

  1. The pastor needs to chair the board in order to ensure that his vision for the church is accepted and implemented.
  2. The pastor is the most qualified ministry leader in the church and it makes sense that the board be chaired by a person with this kind of expertise.
  3. The church is a spiritual agency and the pastor has considerable spiritual wisdom and experience. This qualifies him superbly to fill this role.
  4. This arrangement reduces the gap between decision-making and implementation. It also ensures that the person who has the most knowledge about the church and its ministries is guiding it.

Yet, as cogent as these reasons might be, others have rejected this practice. They would argue:

  1. This arrangement creates too much conflict of interest. The pastor is an employee receiving direct benefits from the church and for him to chair the board raises serious ethical concerns.
  2. Unless the board members have considerable confidence in themselves and their spiritual wisdom, their willingness to question the wisdom of the chair, particular the lead pastor, may be compromised.
  3. The temptation to manipulate process to achieve desired goals may be enhanced. Too much ‘power’ becomes focused in one church leader.
  4. It limits the ability of the church to develop additional, competent leadership and suggests that only trained pastors have the competence to serve in such a role.
  5. Formally the chair is not supposed to speak for or against the issues the board is considering, but rather to facilitate the discussion and ensure that good decisions are being made in the best interests of the church. If the pastor is chair and seeks to fulfill this role responsibly, it may limit his ability to speak to significant questions.

How do we arbitrate such an issue? Given the cultural climate, the temptations such arrangements present, and the important voice that the lead pastor, as an elder, brings to all board discussions, it is probably wiser if the lead pastor does not fill this position. In some Canadian provincial jurisdictions it is illegal for a paid employee to chair the board of a non-profit charitable agency. This is not yet the case in British Columbia. As a board member (whether voting or ex officio) a lead pastor has full voice in board decisions and brings his wisdom, experience, and competence to bear. This arrangement also supports greater accountability on the part of a lead pastor, as the board asks him to implement respective decisions.

Perhaps, from the perspective of leadership development, if a lead pastor does fill the role of board chair, it may hinder the development of local church leaders. A lead pastor may be required to fill this role on a temporary basis for a variety of reasons. However, he would do well to move as quickly as possible to mentor a successor and help the church develop additional spiritually wise and competent leaders/elders who can fill the role of chair well.

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