[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.]
Dover Community Church (DCC) was approaching its fortieth anniversary. During these years some great ministry had influenced the local community. In some periods more than 300 people had attended Sunday services and regarded DCC as their church.
Ten years ago some leadership issues had created serious division with the congregation. The board worked hard to provide direction and good oversight at that time, but was not able to prevent about 100 people from leaving. This event also led the senior pastor to resign. The credibility of the church board came under serious scrutiny.
After several years without a lead pastor God seemed to direct the congregation and board to a new senior pastor. They extended the call and he accepted. For two years people worked with enthusiasm and some progress was made in healing relationships. At the beginning of the third year of this pastor’s mandate the board thought it would be wise to sell the manse that the church had purchased thirty-five years ago. No lead pastor had used it for twenty-five years. It produced modest rental income, but did not really contribute towards any program of the church in a meaningful way. Several board members felt it would be wise to sell the property which had appreciated significantly in value and use the funds to repay some minor debts and support some struggling programs. The remainder would be invested, with the income used to support a youth pastor’s position.
People in the congregation accepted the board’s recommendation and the sale proceeded well. Monies were used as planned and the remainder invested (about $300,000). Unfortunately, the investment instrument chosen by the board did not perform as expected and within six months the principal had lost half its value and the expected income did not materialize. When the congregation learned about this, the credibility of the board was damaged and relationships became so difficult among the leaders that the senior pastor resigned.
For two more years the board struggled to provide leadership as the search for a new pastor proceeded. A year into this process a group in the congregation lost faith in the congregation’s leadership and the ability of the board to move the church forward. The result was that ten families left. The financial impact was severe. They could no longer sustain the salary for the youth pastor, board members were getting frustrated and some resigned, and the search committee became fearful that the congregation would not have the resources necessary to support the salary required for a new lead pastor. In the midst of all of this the board chair, who had served in this role for five years, was transferred by his company to another city.
Because of these events several board members were losing confidence in their ability to discern direction and make good decisions. A spirit of timidity and discouragement was evident. When faced with major decisions, the board became indecisive and debates were becoming more fractious. Some thought the solutions were spiritual and urged the board members to examine themselves and repent. Others traced the difficulties to the board’s unwillingness to manage well the leadership responsibility the congregation had entrusted to them. The board was unsure what its operational culture was or should be.
The board has approached you to serve as the new chair. You have filled this role a number of years ago at another church, but you are wondering, given this board’s history, whether the board’s culture can be renewed and refreshed and the confidence of the congregation be restored in its leadership. If so, how would this be done and what kind of board culture should you attempt to nurture?
1. Church board cultures become entrenched and they often incorporate unhealthy features. Changing and renewing a church board culture are daunting tasks, often related to changing the composition of the board. I suspect that every church board needs to be evaluating and re-shaping its culture consistently, lest its ethos become toxic to the life of the congregation. “Can a leopard change its spots?” asks the prophet Jeremiah (13:23), as he wonders whether those accustomed to evil can learn to do good. I think in the case of church board culture that answer has to be yes, as we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. What are some indicators that suggest to a chairperson that some culture adjustments may be necessary? Fractious debate about key elements on every agenda might provide some evidence. Lack of enthusiasm for and commitment to the mission and vision probably would be another signal. Loss of credibility with the congregation or key segments of it may point to some board culture revision. Inability to recruit good people to the board probably is another indicator — word gets around! Maybe the board just keeps making the wrong decisions! Or maybe you sense that the board is just too compliant and has no courage to ask the hard questions.
3. Changing a board’s culture, i.e. the way it does things, will take time. However, as chair you are in a particularly critical role to act as a catalyst. Your first step is to analyze what aspects of the board’s culture need to change and why these changes would increase the ability of the board to provide strategic spiritual leadership in your congregation. If you do not know the what and the why, then when you are challenged you may not be able to respond convincingly. Of course, this analysis also implies that you have a good sense in your own mind about what a better board culture will look like. This also should be related as clearly as possible to improved effectiveness of the board in its strategic, spiritual leadership.
4. Then there is the question of process — how will you lead the board from its current “culture” into an era of improved board effectiveness? I would suggest you begin with making small changes that are within the scope of your authority. You do not need the board’s permission for doing these, because they have already given you the authority to make such changes. For example, when the next idea for ministry development comes to the board and it does not address several critical issues, suggest that it be returned and the critical information be provided before the board makes a decision. This does two things. First, it informs the board that it has to do its due diligence in making decisions. Second, it tells the church administration that proposals coming to the board have to include all necessary information that enables the board to make good decisions.
5. When you think the board has done a good job in its work, give them due praise. You can encourage such celebration by ending some meetings with a short evaluation period. Perhaps ask one of the board members prior to the meeting quietly to make observations about the board’s operations during the meeting. Then, at the end of the meeting invite the board member to share these observations about what worked well and what may not have been helpful. This process encourages that individual board member to become more reflective about board practice and also signals to the whole board that improvement is possible. The current culture is a choice and can be changed.