Board Basics

I have had three separate conversations in as many days with pastors or board members asking advice about dealing with church board / pastor conflict.  This is such a critical area!  One board member’s email was particularly searching.  So, at his urging and with his permission, I am sharing my response:

What great questions!  Yes, I have spent many years dealing with governing boards… both in churches and para-church ministries.  I have interacted with some healthy boards who have efficiently helped guide organizations, and some not so healthy boards that really hindered operations and growth. 

Research demonstrates what I hear over and over and over… conflict
between pastors and board members is one of the most destructive forces
in the church.  More pastors leave ministry, and more churches stall and fail, citing conflict within the leadership than any other issue.  That is why unity between a pastor and board members is paramount.

I think one of the most important things for both board members and pastors to establish up front is expectations:

Who sets direction and vision?  Who oversees the day to day operations?  Who leads staff?  What does the pastor need to seek approval for, and what is he free to execute on his own?  Is the pastor a member of the board, does he report to the board as an employee, or does he lead the board? 

All of these questions should be answered/set with absolute clarity as early as possible, in order to minimize friction once underway.  Open and honest communication, especially about the hard topics, both in and out of the boardroom is absolutely critical.  This communication establishes and maintains the trust that must exist for the ministry to grow into the future, and for its leaders to feel empowered and secure. 

The board must trust the heart of the pastor, as well as his character and vision.  If either of these three is ever called into question, some important but hard conversations between the board and the pastor need to happen as soon as possible in an open and healthy environment.  The reasons for the fissure must be presented coolly, calmly, and most of all, clearly.  This act requires courage from the board members, but is absolutely essential to avoid the unhealthy culture created when a board ceases to trust the leader, but avoids  broaching the subject with the leader out of fear (of looking bad, or otherwise).

The pastor, likewise, must trust the integrity of the board members.  He must trust their partnership, their integrity, and their insight.  The moment the pastor is unable to do so, those important but hard conversations must take place at once.  To do otherwise is to invite death through mistrust and judgment.  The small seed of distrust sewn in these vital relationships can sink a church.  The way the pastor and church board view, treat, and respect each other is vital!

If a board views the pastor as a highly competent, hard working, and visionary servant of both God and the people, it naturally creates a culture of confidence and freedom, allowing the pastor to exercise the gifts and responsibilities of a spiritual leader.

If, however, the pastor is seen simply as an employee… uncertain of his job, or in question of keeping it under a cloud of second-guessing and mediocrity, the pastor will feel and act as just that – an employee and not a spiritual leader.  This produces a descending spiral of poor performance and even poorer expectations, resulting in schism and fracture.

Having said that, here are a few key lessons I have learned (and am still learning) about board unity:

  • When in doubt, Hush Up!  The conversations around the boardroom table are protected!  Everyone must feel empowered to speak their true feelings without fear of someone else being told or misunderstanding.
  • Courage is key!  Speak what needs to be spoken, in love, instead of playing politics or having hallways conversations later!  Open and honest (courageous) communication, where both parties really state what they feel, both prevents and solves conflict.
  • Deal with your heart!  If you discover yourself feeling encroached upon, distrustful, or suspicious, deal with it immediately!  The heart of everyone around the boardroom table is the top priority!
  • Own Your Ideas.  Keep speech honest and personal!  The board should agree to leave "group-speech" outside… "I’m speaking for a group of concerned members", or "there are several people who think…" is usually bogus.  Rarely do groups send a message to a board via one person.  Use language of ownership – "I feel that we should" or "I think that this needs to be changed".
  • Be a Rumor Terminator!  Everyone owns the task of rumor termination!  Rumors are fed by the perception of schism and lack of information.  No matter the disagreement around the table, the board supports its decisions as one unified group and seeks to give the appropriate amount of information as needed.  When rumors arise, the board should take the lead in quashing them mercilessly!

I know I have a lot to learn about this vital subject, as I am still learning, still journeying down this road.  But these lessons were learned the hard way (most were anyway).  I hope this helps!

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