42. Review Article # 3: Les Stahlke. Church Governance Matters

Les Stahlke. Church Governance Matters. Relationship Model™ of Governance, Leadership and Management for Churches (Edmonton, Alta.: Imperial Printing, 2010). 358 pages.

Primary Purpose

Stahlke applies his Relationship Model™ of governance, leadership and managements to church as faith-based, non-profit entities, taking into account the peculiar character of churches. He divides his presentation into two major sections. The first part describes the “operating system” whose elements are common to good governance in non-profit charities and  include six key factors, namely communication, conflict resolution, decision-making, planning, delegating and monitoring and measuring. He seeks to set these key factors within the larger framework of local church realities. Part two focuses on what Stahlke terms “applications” which include designing a governance structure, strategic planning, delegating authority and responsibility and the implementation management by the senior pastor and his team. The application segment builds upon several chapters in which Stahlke seeks to locate contemporary Canadian models of church governance within a New Testament framework and the broader stream of general church history. He argues that general principles discerned in the Relationship Model™ are an effective, biblically consistent way to provide governance within a local church. The proper ordering of relationships is the key. He concludes with a series of appendices that include definitions of terms, a Governance Manual Table of Contents, and a table of competencies for various leadership roles within a local church.

While he believes that his “operating system” can prove beneficial to churches of any denomination, the “applications” in his view “will be particularly beneficial to churches using a form of congregational polity” (preface). If churches get this right, then “the balance between effective ministry and personal fulfillment” (4), which he argues is the central concern, can be established and sustained.

In Stahlke’s view the most serious challenge that local churches face is deciding “how authority should flow among equals” (4). Church governance in short is all about the appropriate use of authority. In his book he sets out a model for defining and applying authority in biblically consistent ways. He is convinced that if local churches adopt the principles of his operating system and apply it ways that are consistent with biblical values, then they will be able to focus on their mission effectively. When the flow of authority and responsibility is defined, delegated, and monitored within the framework of servant leadership, relationships flourish and the church’s strategic plan can be achieved. However, when authority is left without definition, an authoritarian or a laissez-faire style of leadership will fill the vacuum. The result generally is serious dysfunction.

General Observations

I commend Stahlke for the breadth of his vision for church governance. Grasping the importance of this issue for effective church life, he has attended to serious issues, articulated sound principles, and offered reasonable and effective solutions to many of them. As well, he is a Canadian, aware of Canadian church realities and culture, and speaks relevantly to this social context.

No doubt “church governance matters!” Not all would agree, but anyone who has participated in church leadership at the board level or as a senior staff person would say, “Absolutely!” However, I find it a curiosity that Stahlke does not seem to define ‘governance.’ He seems to equate it with church polity (5).  He comes close when he compares governance to good parenting which is “empowering, not controlling….The board delegates as much authority as possible to the pastor….”(181).  A little later he states that “the role of the board is to direct and control the entire ministry of the church through the process of governance” (195). He describes well the activities of board governance (designing the board’s governance structure, strategic planning, delegating management authority and responsibility to the senior pastor, and being accountable for strategic results using appropriate authority and means (cf. 195)), but I did not find a specific definition of governance.

I do not think this is a small matter. So what is ‘governance’ within the religious context of a church board? I would suggest that it is a spiritual calling entrusted to a group of spiritually mature people who collectively are authorized to oversee the effective accomplishment of the church’s mission. The church board together focuses upon the fulfilling of the mission (following appropriate consultation with the congregation) and ensures that this mission guides all the operations of the church. In short, governance is leadership based upon a specific mission, guided by discerned values, and expressed within established authority.  In The Handbook of Nonprofit Governance (San Francisco, Cal.: Jossey-Bass, 2010), published by BoardSource®, governance is defined as “the board’s legal authority to exercise power and authority over an organization on behalf of the community it serves” (15) and accomplished as “a group action.” Stahlke certainly identifies authority/power as the key issue for church boards to resolve and in this he centres on a key aspect of church board governance.

Further, the ministry dimensions of church board governance deserve greater focus, I would suggest. Stahkle discusses the ‘call’ that a senior pastor will have, but does not discuss the ‘calling’ that church board members have to fulfill their role. Regardless of whether one’s church polity defines board members as elders, deacons or leaders, within the context of the New Testament the decision of the congregation to entrust the oversight of the church to the members of the church board is a calling, an assignment by the Holy Spirit to certain believers on behalf of the church. By giving so much emphasis to the Relationship Model™’s operating system and applications, little space is given to the define how the spiritual context within which board governance occurs integrates with the legal and strategic activities of the board. The “Ten Principles of Governance in the Relationship Model™” (126) talk about the spiritual needs of the church members and the mission of the church, but do not consider specifically how these principles assist the board to fulfill its spiritual ministry within the church setting. After all, church board work is ministry first and foremost. I do not think Stahlke disagrees, but I think the specifically spiritual dimension of ministry could be emphasized more in his presentation.

Stahlke’s emphasis upon accountability and measurement has to be one of the strengths of the book. Church boards frequently do not know how to ensure accountability with the ministry leadership, how to measure the success of strategic plans, or how to exercise appropriate accountability within the board itself. The focus on delegation of responsibility and authority, the acceptance of the need to provide necessary resources, and the determination to measure progress towards approved goals all contribute to healthy church operations and relationships.

I think that Stahlke’s book might resonate more with church board members who had prior board experience with non-church charitable entities. It would help them find their bearings within the church board world. However, for the person who had never served on a board before and their experience in a church board was their first exposure to the world of ‘boards’, I think it is somewhat overwhelming, particularly for those serving in the smaller churches. It presents a world of board work that is rather different from how church board’s traditionally have operated. And this is necessary. However, the step between what usually occurs in church boards and the vision that Stahlke has for board governance is very large. I would not recommend it as an orientation to church board work for the first time board member, unless the church had already adopted Stahlke’s model and the board as a whole has grasped its essence.

Further, Stahlke himself admits that it will take a board probably two to three years to learn, accept, transition into, and implement the model fully. Full implementation requires considerable staying power on the part of the board, the chair and the senior pastor. To go this direction requires tenacity and significant commitment. It almost means that the entire church board remains together for the duration because orienting new board members partway through the process would take considerable energy and time. As well, the senior pastor would need to make a similar commitment because if the senior leader changes, it probably means that the implementation process would be put on hold or somewhat slowed until a new senior pastor is appointed and able to come up to speed on the model.

Generally Stahlke’s material is helpful and his governance model, when implemented fully, I am sure in the main would be beneficial, particularly for larger churches. In the comments that follow I do challenge some of his assumptions and conclusions, but in doing so seek to advance our understanding of church board governance and how it can be done with excellence.

Specific Issues

1. The issue of authority/power.

Stahlke’s first chapter focuses on the issue of authority and his second is entitled “It’s About Power.” He identifies primary dysfunctions in local church governance that arise because authority is misunderstood, structures lack clarity, roles and responsibilities are confused, and accountability is absent or abused. If church leaders could gain clarity regarding the nature and flow of authority within a local church and the proper ordering of relationships, his experience suggests that this frees churches to become healthier.

Without a doubt church board members and senior church leadership have to understand how authority flows within the congregation and in relation to external bodies (i.e. government regulations, denominational commitments, etc.). However, is authority the place to start when addressing the issue of board governance in a local church? The New Testament certainly gives attention to this issue of authority and we know, as Stahlke himself demonstrates, how this issue has manifested itself within church history. Beginning with this issue, as problematic as it has become for most local churches, gives the impression that board governance is “only” about power and the exercise of authority. But is this where the New Testament begins when it comes to understanding the church and the role of spiritual leadership within the church? Or is the proper exercise of authority a means to a more significant end and does that end need to be the setting within which any discussion of authority must be embedded?

Stahlke uses Matthew 28:18 and Acts 1:8 as foundational texts to show how the “authority” of the Messiah is transferred to the apostles at Pentecost, and then through them into the structures of the nascent church. He treats the terms “authority” and “power” as synonyms (22). However, two different words are being used in these two texts. In Matthew 28:18 the term is exousia[1] which signifies authority. Why does Jesus claim that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me?” (Matthew 28:18) In Matthew 16:18 Jesus stated that he was establishing his Messianic assembly (“church”) “and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” His resurrection demonstrates Jesus’ authority to oppose Satan effectively and defeat evil. Because Jesus has established his claim to this authority, he exercises this authority by giving to his apostles the commission to make disciples throughout the world. They can be confident that his authority undergirds their every effort because he is with them. In this case exousia describes Jesus’ right to command and the status necessary to compel the subjection of all other created beings, including Satan (cf. 1 Peter 3:22). God has made Jesus “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). Turning people from living under “the authority (exousia) of Satan” to God is the nature of conversion (Acts 26:18).

The word Jesus used in Acts 1:8 is dunamis which defines ability, capacity, power. Note that in Acts 1:7 Jesus says that “the father has set by his own authority (exousia)” the times related to the return of the Messiah. No one else has the right to establish these plans. Jesus in Acts 1:8 is prophesying to his apostles that he will send the Holy Spirit Who will empower them to be witnesses. This is not a question of authority, but rather the issue of capacity and ability. Sometimes this capacity expresses itself in miraculous activity. At other times it is evident in the wisdom to find solutions to challenges. In other cases it is the power to endure hardships. Authority (exousia) without power (dunamis) becomes an empty gesture. Power (dunamis) when it is not channelled through proper authority (exousia) becomes a destructive or dysfunctional force. Although the concepts of authority and power are related, they are not synonymous in the New Testament. In fact, I am not sure that the New Testament ever used the term exousia to describe “authority” within the local church, apart from the exercise of apostolic authority. But in the case of apostolic authority Paul usually takes pains to state that he did not exercise it (1 Cor. 9; 2 Thess. 3:9). Christians are empowered by God to serve him as witnesses, teach and endure persecution, but again we do not find the term dunamis used in New Testament contexts where church leadership issues are being discussed.

This evidence suggests to me that while sorting out issues of authority or power are essential for well-ordered life together in Christ, authority or power is not what the church is about. Rather in the New Testament we find Jesus creating a community that operates on love, humility, serving, and forgiving so that the reality of the Gospel finds true expression through the power of the Holy Spirit. When authority is involved, it is merely a tool to help the community be what the Messiah has re-created its people to be. The church is all about spiritual care — whether this takes the form of evangelism, teaching, governance, healing, discipline, hospitality or opposing heresy. Authority comes into the picture when the church seeks to organize itself to express this spiritual care. Governance becomes then a means by which a local church structures authority to accomplish its mission, namely to make disciples by giving the spiritual care Jesus has empowered it to give.

In my view this means that governance, leadership and management must be seen essentially as spiritual ministry within the church. They are expressions of faith from beginning to end. The board’s authority has to be primarily “spiritual authority” and this authority as expressed in the Canadian context will include both “strategic/operational authority” and “legal/regulatory authority” (8). However, to suggest as Stahlke does that the pastor has “spiritual authority” but the church board does not, seems to me to distort the picture given to us in the New Testament. While the senior pastor exercises spiritual authority by virtue of the role the congregation calls him to fulfill, the church board also exercises spiritual authority in the policies it established, the strategic plan it creates, and the accountability it requires, because it too is called by the congregation to fulfill a specific ministry role.

2. The nature of “office” in the church.

Partway through his book Stahlke discusses in several chapters (7-9) how the current mission and leadership structures of the church relate to New Testament teaching and its interpretation in church history. In so doing he seeks to express governance principles and application that can suit various models of church polity. I am going to interact in some detail with his description of “the flow of authority: clergy and laity” (131-133) and his interpretation of “New Testament Church Governance” (chapter 8, 135-160). Stahlke contends that “the continuum of values associated with the use of power in the Church is the single most important element in determining the effectiveness of any structure and process (form and function) of church governance” (132). The key question then is “how much authority does each [clergy and laity] have?” (132) As I argued earlier Stahlke use of power and authority as synonyms (as illustrated in the two prior quotations) creates confusion.

Stahlke observes correctly that the New Testament has little to say about leadership offices in the church, but a considerable amount about functions that are helpful and in some cases necessary for sustaining a healthy Messianic community. He is also right in discerning the distinction between these spiritual principles of leadership and their various contextual applications. Church history demonstrates how much freedom believers in fact do possess when it comes to the contextualization of these principles of community organization and leadership. Whether there is a separate class of people in a local church who carry the title “the clergy” continues to be a debated question. The New Testament, in my view, indicates that assemblies of Christians were empowered by the Holy Spirit to entrust (with accountability) to spiritually mature and tested individuals the spiritual leadership, i.e. the total leadership, of the local church. In some cases these local communities of believers are aided by the apostles or apostolic delegates in this selection process, who by placing hands upon such people “blessed them” for their spiritual labour.

There is little evidence to suggest that the early church “borrowed terms from the Jewish tradition, e.g. elder” to define its leadership. A.Campbell in his book The Elders. Seniority within Earliest Christianity argues that “there does not seem to have been an office of elder as such to which a person might be appointed and with clearly defined functions” in Jewish synagogues (239). Evidence suggests that the term ‘elder’ arises from the household context of the early church, where the leader of the family household in which the church met was naturally, by dint of his household leadership and his patronage of the Christian group, was considered functionally an elder. However, this is not so much an office, as a familial role both in Jewish and Greco-Roman social realities. The diakonos functioned as the agent or assistant of the household leader, i.e. as the client who supported the patron. A diakonos could just as likely be another household leader, as a woman or a slave. Stahlke concludes correctly that operational structures in the early church were fluid and spiritual leadership functions were more important than office.[2] The term diakonos was necessarily a derogatory term. After all the consistent term used by the early church writers to describe the activities of people in the church is the cognate noun diakonia. Consider how it is used in Acts 6:1-6.

The term “elder” occurs rarely in Paul’s letters (1 Tim.5:1,17,19; Tit.1:5) and only twice in Peter’s first letter (5:1,5).  Paul also refers to “the elders of the church” in his speech at Miletus (Acts 20:17-35) and in this context says that “the Holy Spirit has set them as overseers to shepherd the flock of God” (v.28). However, we cannot say from this data that the term “elder” defined at this point an office, rather than primarily a social status in house churches, which naturally led such persons to exercise care among the Christian group meeting in his house. This would include hospitality, generally guiding the worship, and perhaps as well providing some teaching or other forms of direction.

Stahlke assumes that the terms “elder” and “overseer” as used in the letters of Paul and Peter are always synonymous, something we cannot verify from the evidence. Some elders were not “overseers”, but probably all overseers were elders, i.e. already household church leaders. When on pages 142-143 Stahlke applies the categories of authority, limitations of authority, responsibility, expectations and accountability, he mixes texts that refer to elders and overseers.  What’s my point? I think in his desire to ground his categories of governance operations within Scripture, he has imposed on the biblical data a synthesis of early church structure that it cannot bear. How soon the early church began to define roles with as offices with specific functions remains uncertain, despite our desire for it to be otherwise. Using the term “office” to refer to these functions may be quite anachronistic. It is quite possible as A. Campbell proposes that the discussions in the Pastoral Epistles represents a transition from the presence of multiple by separately led house churches in a city, to a city-wide, inter-connected “church” coordinated by an episkopos (overseer), even as the individual house churches still were being led by presbuteroi (elders).

A similar situation exists for the function of diakonos, deacon. While many persist in seeing Acts 6:1-6 as the context in which the “service of deacons” is first mentioned, a close reading of the text suggests otherwise.

The New Testament does provide general principles regarding accountability of leaders, limitations for authority in the church, the need for appropriate relationships, the requirement that leaders be found faithful in their responsibilities, and the stewardship of gifts and abilities. How these principles are to be applied in a cultural context where local churches choose to construct themselves as non-profit registered charities is another question. In another culture that does not construct local churches in this Canadian manner, the application of these principles with respect to church leadership may look somewhat different.

Stahlke also proposes a specific understanding of call and laying on of hands. He argues that there are “two timeless elements associated with apostles, elders and deacons….They are the Holy Spirit’s call and the laying on of hands by the church” (152). He sees these two elements working compatibly because “the call of the Spirit” is confirmed “by delegating authority and responsibility with the laying on of hands”(153). We do not have space to consider the theology of calling, but I would suggest that in the New Testament a Christian’s primary calling is to discipleship, i.e. following the Messiah. Exactly how this gets accomplished is a secondary matter. So whether one is an apostle, elder or deacon, this is not a person’s primary calling, i.e. to be a Christian. So in the context of church leadership we have to respect every Christian’s calling as a disciple and the ways in which the Holy Spirit is leading that person to live it out. I also agree with Stahlke that God, the Holy Spirit, enables a local congregation to discern which believers the Spirit is gifting and enabling to be their spiritual leaders, i.e. elders/pastors and deacons. The practice of laying on hands is a means to express this identification and pray God’s blessing upon such individuals. In Acts 13:2-3 the church leaders lay hands on Barnabas and Saul, not to appoint them to office (Saul had already received his apostolic appointment from Christ), but rather to pray God’s blessing upon them in their ministry endeavour. I would argue the same perspective for Acts 6:6. In the case of Galatians 2:9, I do not see how the “right hand of fellowship” can be construed as a “laying on of hands” (153). Rather, here again we have the exchange of mutual blessing and confidence in the respective ministries of two groups of Christian leaders. Finally, I would note that the decision of the so-called “Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is made not just by the “apostles and elders” but it included “the whole assembly” (Acts 15:22), in parallel with pattern expressed in Acts 6:1-6. The fact that the letter is written by the leadership of the Jerusalem church to Gentile believers does not void this reality, in my opinion.

I think it is important that board members identify how their Christian discipleship is being fulfilled in their role as a board member. The same should be true of pastoral leaders. Let each recognize fully and respect how their discipleship is being accomplished in their respective roles, as they provide the spiritual leadership required by the local church. There is advantage to dispensing with specific titles which can be confusing and using a more generic term such as “leadership council” or “board of trustees”, providing the ministry functions identified in the New Testament as necessary for healthy church are being fulfilled effectively by spiritual mature individuals identified and affirmed by the congregation for these roles.

3. Accountability.

Stahlke states several times that the board members and pastoral leaders have various levels of accountability — to God, to the congregation, to external regulatory groups. But how is this best expressed so that abuse does not occur? For example, if a church board collectively believes its accountability to God is independent of its accountability to the congregation, it is quite probable that at some point the church board will reach a decision that contravenes the intent of the congregation, but which the board will argue is an obedient response to God. How are such disputes arbitrated? Similarly a lead pastor who is accountable to God separate from his accountability to the church board could argue that he is offering services to the congregation that contravene the values and articles of faith or violate the limits of his authority, but that he is doing so in obedience to God’s directives. Such things happen.

I would suggest that the ordering of accountability has to be from the congregation to the church board and through the church board to the lead pastor. Individuals as Christians carry out their responsibilities as good stewards who will give an account of their lives to the Lord. However, in the specific roles of church board members they are accountable to the congregation. The lead pastor is accountable to the church board. By faithfully fulfilling these roles within the context of this authority, they express their accountability to God. Should a board member or a lead pastor ever come to the point where he or she believes that the actions of the board are in contravention of biblical principle, the case is made and the board must arbitrate. But at the end of the day, it is the decision of the board that will prevail.

3. Values, vision and mission.

I found Stahlke’s use of the terms vision and mission rather interesting. In his template “vision determines mission, not the other way round” (224). Of course, a writer has freedom to define and use terms as he desires. However, it seems that a more usual understanding is that mission is foundational and somewhat common to all churches because it has been given by Jesus Christ in what we call the Great Commission. The way a particular church discerns how to fulfill this mission becomes its vision, contextualized to its history, internal ethos, and cultural reality. Values then are also foundational to discernment of vision. I would suggest mission is the most critical input, because it establishes all outputs (234).

Stahlke’s proposals for developing a strategic plan and its differentiation from tactical plans are very helpful, particularly his elaboration of “critical success factors” (231-232).

4. Relationships and “servant leadership.”

One of the ten “Principles of Governance in the Relationship Model™” is that “authority, responsibility and accountability are the primary components [my emphasis] of all relationships” (326).  This may be true for non-Christian non-profit boards, but is it the case in the Christian context? I would agree that “authority, responsibility and accountability” are important components defining how various groups and individuals within the church inter-relate. However, I would suggest that these factors build upon a more primary foundation of a person’s possession of God’s Spirit and the beliefs, values, and behavioural renewal that result from conversion. Issues of theological commitment, character, and spiritual wisdom enter into these relational equations. It is important to order relationships in a local church clearly so that the flow of authority, the nature of responsibility, and the requirements for accountability is well understood by all concerned. However, one cannot “order” a servant heart, or a sacrificial spirit, or a loving attitude. Relationships in a local church are never just working relationships. We are ‘family’ and this reality conditions all relationships. It is probable that Stahkle considers his emphasis on servant leadership as a necessary condition for such relationships, but the expression of this principle does not seem to take this into account sufficiently.

5. The spiritual ministry of the board chair.

Stahlke devotes several pages (197-206) to the role of the church board chair. This is an important feature of his book because there exist few resources to assist church board chairs to understand their roles. He highlights two competencies that are particularly important for board chairs, namely “process orientation” and “objectivity” (201). The chair is “the servant of the board” and thus carries specific responsibility to ensure that the governance processes of the board are sustained and developed, as well as applied objectively. His advice that a chair should relinquish his position temporally when speaking to an issue is well-taken. His “board chair checklist” (203) helps a chair facilitate meetings well. A full “Board Chair/Board Relationship Description” is provided (197-205).

One aspect of the chair’s role which in my view is missing or severely under-valued is the spiritual dimension. Take out the words ‘pastor’ and ‘church’ and Stahlke’s description of a church board chair’s role can be applied usefully to the role of any non-profit charity’s board chair. What difference does the church context make to the role and work of a board chair? I would argue that there is a spiritual dimension to a church board chair’s role that has to be factored into the equation. For example, the chair is responsible for the worship life of the board and to find ways to help the board members sees all of their work as spiritual work, worshipful work. As the board proceeds in its work, the chair from time to time will remind them of the particular mission, values and vision that must guide every decision — again this is embedded in spiritual realities. If a church board is one of the primary ministry teams of a local church, seeing to the accomplishment of that church’s mission, then the spiritual dimensions of the role are significant.

Stahlke uses the analogy of the conductor and his/her relationship to an orchestra to describe a chair’s role. This is helpful. However, to say that the chair, like a conductor, creates the music “without personally producing any of the sounds” (199) does not represent fully the role of a church board chair. A chair is involved in the spiritual work of a church board, he or she does contribute to the discussions through leadership and sometimes appropriate participation, and he or she is equally accountable with all of the board to the congregation for the spiritual leadership the board provides.

The personal spiritual life of a board chair also has to be considered. We know how devastating a pastor’s immoral conduct can be. Unethical behaviour on the part of a church board chair is equally harmful to a local church.

I appreciated Stahlke’s emphatic statement that “the board chair and the senior pastor are peers” (237). In my experience this principle is rarely accepted or practiced. However, having made the statement, Stahkle only discusses its implications with respect to communication of board decisions to a senior pastor and the access a senior pastor must have to the whole board. Again the focus is upon authority flow. So how then does this “peer” relationship really work? Having made the statement, I do not think Stahlke helps a pastor or board chair discern how to make this relationship work well. Does this mean that the board chair oversees the board as ministry team in a manner parallel to a senior pastor’s leadership of the staff ministry team? How does this peer relationship work when it comes to discerning major directions for a congregation? What happens when either party does not want to recognize this significant “peer” reality? Who arbitrates? What are the implications of this principle when the senior pastoral position is vacant?

[1] This is the term Paul used in Romans 13:1-3 to describe the “authority” wielded by government officials as servants of God. Similarly in 1 Corinthians 9:4-18 Paul used this term numerous times to describe various kinds of authority, particularly apostolic authority or rights.

[2] Stahlke’s idea that the term “the twelve…gradually shifted to the apostles” (139) is interesting, but can it be substantiated? Luke alters his use of this terminology in his two volume Gospel and Acts, but this does not mean historically that Jesus did not apply the term “apostle” to the twelve (note Luke 6:13).

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