In conversations I have with church board members and chairpersons the question of ‘authority’ usually arises in some form. That topic is like the glowing coal that is too hot to handle. Church boards know they need authority, their congregations have entrusted them with defined authority, and they have to exercise their authority in order to act responsibly. Les Stahlke’s view, expressed in Church Governance, is that the most serious challenge local churches face is deciding “how authority should flow among equals” (p.4). I am not sure the term “equals” is most appropriate in this context, but he certainly identifies a key issue. I would rather frame the issue for the local church as discerning “how authority should flow among various decision-making bodies and authorized personnel.”
Part of the problem is that the term ‘authority’ has different nuances. The Oxford English Dictionary notes several:
1. Power or right to enforce obedience; moral or legal supremacy; the right to command, or give an ultimate decision.
2. Derived or delegated power; conferred right or title; authorization.
3. Power to influence the conduct and actions of others; personal or practical influence.
Within the context of the New Testament we find examples of all three kinds of authority. Jesus Messiah as Lord has the right and mandate to exercise authority as defined in the first option. To some extent the apostles seem to exercise this kind of authority in guiding the church with respect to moral and doctrinal development. However, most of the authority employed in the house churches would come under the second and third definitions, in my view. Authority in the context of church boards is a “derived authority” and normally is exercised through “influence.” I think 1 Peter 5:1-4 with its emphasis upon elder accountability and the requirement to lead by example would support this conclusion.
Now I would hasten to add that this emphasis upon derived authority and the exercise of influence as the primary mode of exercising authority does not mean that a church board in the context of congregational polity lacks “authority,” i.e. the right to command. However, it does so within the scope of authority that the congregation has defined for and entrusted to it. In other words the church board does not determine the nature and scope of its authority. This is something defined carefully by the congregation in the society’s bylaws.
In the case of church boards which operate within a congregational polity their authority is delegated to them by the congregation. As often expressed, they steward the trust of the congregation in providing strategic ministry leadership for the congregation. This is their spiritual service. When this derived authority is exercised wisely and appropriately, the board should expect the congregation to follow. Sometimes congregants will challenge the authority that a church board has exercised. When such controversy arises, it may be wise to explain the congregation how the board has interpreted its authority based upon the bylaws and seek the congregation’s support for its actions.
The spiritual and legal realities of church board work sometimes lead to confusion in the understanding and use of authority. I think this often occurs where a tradition of “elder-rule” has influenced some board members who regard their position as one that is authorized by God. This means in their view that they hold in themselves the power to tell congregants what the vision, values and strategy of the local assembly will be. I think this misconstrues how the New Testament, to the extent that it speaks to this issue, defines the service of elders within a congregation. Because most local congregations are constituted legally as “non-profit societies,” the boards of these ‘societies’ have their power defined by the bylaws of the society, as well as any legislative prescriptions made by government. Normally this means that a church board is authorized by the congregation to speak to external bodies on its behalf.
The individual who chairs a church board needs then to understand carefully the nature, scope, and appropriate exercise of authority by such a board. How can a chairperson develop this wisdom?
1. Read the congregation’s bylaws and define as clearly in your mind as possible what they establish as the scope of the board’s authority. If you do not know this well, how can you guide and counsel the board as to its decision-making powers? In your review note the places of ambiguity. These may be areas of potential discussion by the board and may suggest principles that the bylaws should clarify or that the board may define through specific policy.
2. Ensure that you understand the legal authority that your church board has as the board of a non-profit charity in your provincial, state or national context. Legal requirements do vary among jurisdictions. Your denomination office should be able to assist you in defining this. Another source would be the Canadian Council of Christian Charities.
3. Examine carefully how your board and congregational documents define the authority relationship between lead pastor and church board. This will be one of the most significant and complex contexts in which authority is exercised. Has the church board defined explicitly what the lead pastor does not have authority to do? Does your church board have the authority to make such decisions? Are there any boundaries?
4. Think carefully about the relationship between conflict of interest and authority. In other words when does a board member not have the right to participate either in discussion or vote on a matter before the board? What happens to the moral authority of a church board when decision-makers include those who have specific conflicts of interest?
5. It is one thing to possess authority, but quite another to ensure compliance to that authority. Within congregational contexts church boards are often reluctant to press for assurance of compliance because of a culture of “assumed compliance” and “Christian goodwill.” No one wants to be seen as a “the bad guy” pressing for evaluation of results. It seems unspiritual or unkind or untrusting. Not everyone will agree that the church board has the authority to require ministries to align with the mission. When the board presses for this some resistance may arise.
In Matthew 28:19 Jesus said that all authority in the universe belongs to him. What a claim. That is why he is Lord. However, this is not a claim a church board can make and so it must parse carefully the nature of its authority, understand it and then use it wisely and prudently for the health and care of the congregation. A church board can only do that well if the chairperson first knows how to do this and is committed to its accomplishment to the glory of God.