118. Case Study #7: Stepping in or Stepping Out as Chairperson

[Although the story in this case study may seem to resemble a real situation, the names, places and actual circumstances do not describe any actual church, church board, pastor or chairperson.]

John was partway through his third term (a two year stint) as the chair of the Brighton Community church board. He had six months to go. During his first two terms the board responded well to his leadership and he felt good about the progress they were making together. The “guys” were energized, pulling together, and willing to tackle some tough stuff – and they did it with prayerful courage. But John also was entering a new phase of life as he was enjoying semi-retirement and making plans for some new adventures, including a few short term mission opportunities. Recently John was diagnosed with high blood pressure and his physician had advised him to lower stress, lose weight and begin a disciplined diet. He now took a prescribed drug daily to deal with his blood pressure.

The composition of the board changed at the last annual general meeting. Two of the members whom he had relied upon for wisdom and leadership in the board had stepped off, even though they could have continued. John had sought to encourage several people to serve, but none had agreed. The nominating committee worked hard to select good nominees.  In the election at the annual general meeting one of the people appointed to the board had never served on a church board before and the other, although he had some prior experience, was not a collaborator. The total number of board members at this time was five, including himself.  One of the other seasoned board members was signaling he wanted a change as well.

The lead pastor, a solid, caring leader, turned sixty-five last week and John knew that retirement was imminent. In the next year or so the board would probably be leading the search for a replacement. In addition the church facility required considerable upgrades in the next year or two – new roof, internal and external paint jobs, and heating system replacement. The church had few financial reserves and the costs for this would be several hundreds of thousands of dollars. The last time the church had to raise funds for facility maintenance things had not gone well and memories were still rather raw for some. The pastor had also revealed confidentially to John that a serious matter of membership misconduct was about to become public. This event would send some shock waves through the congregation.

The chair of the nominating committee had asked John to meet him for coffee and John knew he would be asked to let his name stand for another term as a church board member. Without doubt if he did the board members would plead with him to continue in his role as chairperson. John was also aware that one of the current board members had the capacity to become chairperson, but John was uncertain whether he would agree.

So how should John respond to the nominating committee chair? Should he step in and continue to provide significant leadership for the church and its board? Or should he step out, having served faithfully for six years. What would you advise John to do? What factors should he consider as he makes his decision?


1.  Obviously given the circumstances the church board will be doing some ‘heavy lifting’ in the next two years. The chairperson will be a critical player in the board’s ability to lead the congregation effectively through these institutional changes. So John has to be willing to give considerable time and attention to this role. John needs to evaluate whether he has the heart to devote this kind of care to the role, especially as he moves into semi-retirement. Would he be able to accomplish the plans he has in this new phase of life and still lead the board as chair? If not, is he willing to sacrifice some of his personal goals (which included short term missions opportunities) in order to enable the congregation to flourish?

2.  When institutions experience significant change the leaders experience stress. Given the new situation with his health, John has to evaluate whether another term as chair of the board would create  serious health risk.

3.  The leadership vacuum is also a concern. Perhaps one of the “negotiations’ that John needs to engage with the board is the question of succession. He may be able to manage another term if the board will identify and appoint a successor to serve as vice-chair. This would allow for a period of mentoring, but if John’s personal situation warranted, the opportunity to resign as chair before his term was completed.

4.  There is also the pastoral leadership succession issue that is looming. Perhaps John needs to have a private conversation with one of the people who recently completed work on the board to see whether he/she would be willing to chair the anticipated search committee. If a commitment would be given, this would give John confidence that this process would be led well, alleviating a significant “worry point.” Similarly he might need to have some conversation with the chair of the board’s finance committee to consider what strategies might be proposed to secure the funding for the necessary facility upgrades. If a clear path could be discerned in this matter, again it would shift some of the leadership burden. In other words, John could serve another term if he were to plan carefully and gather around himself two or three key leaders who would help him lead the congregation through this period.

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