Church boards are groups of people entrusted with a specific mandate. It is as Carver states “a body, indivisible in its authority and its accountability….But a board is a peculiar creature. Its task is to be a numerically workable microcosm of a numerically unworkable total congregation” (“Of Trust and Trusteeship”). In my view a church board is a ministry team composed of mature Christians appointed and entrusted by the congregation to enable it to advance its chosen mission. Cohesiveness becomes a critical factor in the ability of a church board as a ministry team to fulfill its potential and accomplish its responsibilities. When present it is a strong indicator that the Holy Spirit is working actively and powerfully in the lives of the board members.
A church board appoints and authorizes a chairperson to facilitate and enable its cohesive, effective operation. The chair needs to develop and exercise some team-building and team-cohesiveness competencies. Larry Osborne talks about “Sticky Teams” and says that “when it comes to building a healthy and unified ministry team, it all starts with the board. As the board goes, so goes the rest of the church” (p.25). In his view board cohesiveness is essential for church health. It’s tough to experience revival when the board has become a war zone.
What factors inhibit or stifle board cohesion? Each situation will be somewhat different, but some of the common causes would include:
1. The ignorance of participants about their personal role and responsibilities as board members. They do not understand that the board collectively must act for the good of the whole congregation and not just one segment or particular interest group. They have not grasped that their most important job is to advance the congregation’s mission, not to be watchdog over the pastor or to promote their personal agenda.
2. A lack of commitment to an agreed vision. Cohesion occurs when the board members know the vision and personally are committed to its attainment. If the board you chair is divided around key issues, perhaps what has happened is a disintegration of support for the vision. It might be time for a review and reaffirmation of the vision.
3. Failure to establish “ground rules” for good board operation and adhere to them. There is no agreement around the need for and practice of confidentiality. Board members are not willing to support board decisions and begin to speak publicly in opposition.
4. Inability to distinguish between unity and uniformity. Sometimes we confuse cohesion with uniformity. Board members will have different perceptions, opinions and insights. God has designed the church, his body, to express diversity. People serve on the board to bring this diverse set of skills, perspectives, and gifts to bear on the achievement of the mission. It is part of their due diligence as board members to ask their questions and probe. Some may vote against a proposal. However, expectation must be that once the board has made a decision it must go forward in unity.
5. The lead pastor’s unwillingness to acknowledge and respect the appropriate role of the board as defined in the congregation’s bylaws. In other words the CEO works in a manipulative way within the board so as to inhibit it from operating effectively. The board is viewed as a necessary evil, an obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of a personal agenda.
6. Sometimes lack of cohesion occurs because a chairperson does not understand his/her role. The board may not in fact be divided around any specific issue, but the chair’s inexperience inhibits the board from working in a cohesive manner.
I am sure you can supply additional reasons why cohesion often is in short supply within church boards. While it is important to discern these causes, it is more significant for board chairs to try and figure out how to move a dysfunctioning board to greater cohesion and effective ministry.
1. If lack of cohesion has plagued the board you are chairing, then realize that it will take considerable time, discipline and prayer to help the board develop a new cultural of unity. Despite the long journey, if you succeed the consequences for the health of the congregation will be very significant. Yet when it happens, few will recognize the cause.
2. Take time to understand your role as chairperson as clearly as you can. If there is no specific board mandate that defines your responsibilities and empowers you to act on behalf of the board, then work with the board as best you can to establish one. The greater clarity you have about your function in the board as chair, the better positioned you will be to encourage cohesion. Without this board mandate you will find it difficult on behalf of the board to confront board members who are acting divisively.
3. In your board leadership continually remind the members that as the church board their primary responsibility is to advance the mission and do this in a way that demonstrates exemplary spiritual maturity. Take time at the end of each meeting to ask the board members to reflect briefly on whether their work has enhanced the health of the congregation and advanced the mission.
4. In the worship times that generally begin a church board meeting consider biblical stories or analogies the describe how God’s Spirit blesses his church with diverse gifts, but also enables it to express oneness. Some great texts for this would include Jesus’ prayer in John 17 or Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:1-5.
5. Help the board members to learn the difference between unity and uniformity. Recognize board members who speak carefully, but truthfully and celebrate their responsible use of their role as a board person to express their opinions in ways that demonstrate spiritual wisdom and maturity. Conversely, when the board is not operating in a cohesive manner, stop the proceedings, identify the problem and perhaps ask the board to convene in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to provide direction and unity. This is a spiritual issue after all and Satan certainly does not want cohesive church boards.
6. Board cohesion probably reflects existing cohesion in the relationship between the lead pastor and the board church. If this relationship lacks a deep sense of unity, then eventually it will affect board cohesion. Attention paid to this relationship will enhance board effectiveness as the board members discern this relational commitment.
7. Take time to build social relationships and trust among the board members. The more they know and appreciate one another, the greater the cohesion will be because trust is the best medium for developing unity.