When you are in the midst of serious board work and struggling to keep the board functioning at a basic level, it is tough to find time, energy and motivation to step back and ask — is it time to rethink the role of the church board chair? Churches, like academic institutions, tend to be very traditional and conservative in their operations. Once structures and processes become embedded in the life of the congregation it is very difficult to alter them. Church boards reflect this conservatism and I suspect that in many cases the way the board selects and appoints the chair, the role expected of the chair within the board, and the way the chair interacts with the lead pastor are all very similar to the way things were done ten or twenty years ago. People get into comfortable, expected patterns. Change becomes threatening, frightening, or unimaginable. Process becomes confused with values and altering process raises suspicions that cherished values are being challenged or ignored,
There may be another factor at work and that is the relative age of those who serve on church boards. I have no statistical basis for assuming that the average age of those serving on church boards is any less or greater than that for other nonprofit boards. Research does show that according to recent statistics that 49% of those serving on US nonprofit boards were 50-64 years of age. I suspect that in the case of church boards this statistic would hold true and the actual percentage of those serving in this age bracket might be somewhat higher. Generally, as we mature change becomes more challenging. However, there are many exceptions to this generalization.
The reality is, however, that changes occur continually and congregational life shows the influence of change in many different ways. The perceptions that pastoral leaders have about their role, the relationship between pastors and church boards, the place of the congregation’s voice in decisions, perspectives on the nature of the church, the role of the board within the life of the congregation — all of these are moving targets, as it were. For example, there is a significant movement that considers Paul’s statement in Ephesians 4:10-12 (God has gifted to his church “apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers”) as a prescriptive formula for contemporary church leadership. The argument is made that when churches only recognize “pastor-teachers” as leaders, they have settled for a maintenance ministry. Churches need to recognize and appoint apostles, prophets and evangelists if the church is to recover its missional edge. Of course, such a position, if a correct reading of Ephesians 4 and when implemented within a local church, has immense implications for congregational life, leadership, boards, etc. Another movement within North America is the establishment of “house-churches.” Again, adopting this perspective as the model for church life shapes the role of leadership, the nature of the congregation and whether or not a “board” is even needed. At the other end of the scale we see the mega-churches, with several thousands of people clustered in one congregation. Such entities require extensive organizational structure in order to flourish and not implode. The way leadership works, the role of boards, and the nature of congregational life similarly changes. And then culturally diverse churches will discover their various cultural understandings of leadership and group dynamics shaping congregational life. I could add other factors generating change such as the increased interest of government in regulating nonprofits, the shifting perceptions about denominations, and the trend for congregations to be more involved in social justice issues.
If your congregation constitutionally operates with a board and you are the chairperson of that board, then you will need to cultivate a strong appetite for change. I would suggest that the following are some of the key challenges requiring the “re-imagining” of the chairperson’s role:
1. Board responsibilities and work are becoming increasingly complex. The number, nature and diversity of issues continues to multiply. This complexity requires board members to commit more of their time and wisdom in order to contribute responsibly to the board’s work. The same goes for the work of a chairperson. You will probably sense the need for more external help to understand the issues and make good decisions. The composition of the board may also need to change so that the board includes within it the necessary gifting and expertise to guide the congregation. Training, educating, and supporting board chairs needs to become a more important priority if church board are going to cope with these diverse demands.
2. Pastors’ perceptions of their role, place and authority within the congregation, particularly in relation to a church board, are very diverse. Sometimes a denomination will prescribe the relationship, requiring a lead pastor also to serve as board chair. In the other contexts the board members have status as deacons, which gives them a ministry status that supports, but is perceived as subservient to the pastoral leadership. Other board are formed of elders, of which the lead pastor is one, albeit with more experience and theological education generally than other board members. Some pastors consider themselves ‘apostles’ and so they perceive they are not under the authority of any church board. In some cases a lead pastor will claim to be accountable directly to the congregation and not the church board. As lead pastors change within a congregation they bring diverse perspectives on these issues with them. Wise boards and chairs will seek to understand carefully the perspective on governance that a pastoral candidate has before recommending the candidate to the congregation. The point is that chairpersons have to figure this out in order to enable the board to work collaboratively with a lead pastor. Sometimes the conflict becomes quite intense. It may be that church boards will need to define more carefully through written policy how they understand the relationship between board and lead pastor. Statements in bylaws rarely provide enough direction when things become tense.
3. Communications technology is altering the board landscape. This would include the use of social media, online communications with the board, digital record-keeping, IT security, employee policies re misuse of internet sites, policies fir provision of computers and cell-phones for employees, use of online video streaming to broadcast services, use of internet for training purposes (e.g. webinars), use of technology in worship, etc. Technology is a moving target and just when you think you are getting some handle on it, new developments emerge. As chairperson you have responsibility to assist the board develop policies regarding the use of media technology by the board, by the staff, and within the congregation. Unfortunately small incidents can create major problems when someone decides to place on facebook some video that records embarrassing or immoral behaviour by a congregational member, adherent or staff person. Security of information that the congregation has stored digitally becomes a major question because of privacy issues. Abusive behaviours can become problematic when people use social media to attack or berate a person. Addiction to online pornography and gambling or use of video-games also affects congregations and spiritual leaders.
4. Member expectations for their congregational boards are shifting. Within the corporate world shareholder activism is at an all-time high it seems and still is growing. I suspect that this will spill over into the world of nonprofits, including congregational relations with church boards. Board chairs will need to help boards communicate effectively, transparently and with integrity. When congregants raise concerns, board chairs have some obligation to take note and work with the board to respond appropriately. Respecting bylaws, acting with legal and ethical compliance, following good policy and procedure will become increasingly important. Church boards cannot act arbitrarily without creating crises of confidence within the congregation and staff.
5. The implications of construing the primary leadership team within the congregation as a “board of trustees” or “board of directors” continue to generate change. Issues of authority, accountability, and strategic leadership all come into play. If the presumption that the congregation through bylaws entrusts the church board with the advancement of its mission, then this gives the church board, not the pastoral staff, the authority to oversee the advancement of that mission. A church board has to work respectfully and collaboratively with the ministry staff, otherwise the mission will not get advanced. However, when all is said and done, the congregation holds the church board accountable for mission advancement. A lead pastor normally will be part of the church board and has significant voice in the decisions taken by the church board. At the same time, the lead pastor is accountable to the church board. Church board chairs have to help the board to guard its role, exercise its role properly and effectively, and collaborate well with the lead pastor and ministry staff.
This list of challenges is selective, but seems to illustrate will the need to be re-imagining the role of the church board church in the next year or two.