Should a church board give attention to the way the congregation is viewed within the larger community? Who is responsible to maintain a congregation’s good reputation and why is it necessary? In some sense establishing and supporting a congregation’s reputation is the responsibility of every member and adherent, including the employees. But we know that what is the responsibility of all often is the responsibility of no one. The wider we spread the responsibility, the less we can require accountability. Others might suggest that it is the lead pastor’s responsibility, as the organizational leader, to ensure that the community holds the congregation in high regard.
In my opinion it is a church board’s responsibility to sustain and enhance a church’s reputation. The importance of good reputation in the community for a church receives emphasis in the New Testament. Believers are to live at peace with all to whatever extent is possible (Romans 12) and voluntarily support the local magistrates(Romans 13). Peter urges believers to be active in doing good so that the slanders of their neighbours will be negated. One of the qualifications for church leaders that Paul mentions in 1 Timothy 3 is a good reputation in the community. A local church bears the name of Christ and how it operates within the community directly affects how that community perceives the Gospel. So developing and sustaining the congregation’s good reputation is missional and thus comes within the purview of the board’s various responsibilities.
Several of a church board’s activities directly contribute to the congregation’s reputation. Operating within a clean annual audit or financial review speaks volumes with respect to the integrity of the congregation. This includes paying bills promptly and conducting any local business with appropriate skill and professionalism. Requiring and overseeing fair employment standards gives a good example to follow in the local business communities. If a congregation is known for mistreating its employees, it will be hard to encourage anyone to give ear to the Gospel.
Perhaps an even more important element relates to the ethical conduct of employees and volunteers. Nothing damages a congregation’s reputation more than charges of child abuse, harassment, or immoral behaviour laid against a congregation’s representatives. These will lead many in the community to view a congregation as being hypocritical in its claims.
Reputation also gets helped or hurt by the way in which close neighbours of the church’s property feel about the way the congregation operates in the neighbourhood. Issues of parking, unkempt grounds, loud and noisy events, large crowds disturbing the neighbourhood — all contribute to poor community relations. While we enjoy religious freedom, we still need to work with neighbours to the best of our ability to be good institutional citizens.
Where does a church board chair fit into this equation? Does the chair have to be concerned about issues of congregational reputation in the way he or she facilitates the board’s work? I think the answer is yes. Two things might be considered. First, when the church board is making decisions that will affect not just the congregation but also the surrounding community (e.g. building plans, major events, ministries intended to benefit the community, significant financial commitments that require credit arrangements) does the board recognize the potential impact on the community and factor this into its decision? Does it know what concerns the neighbours might have and does it seek to mitigate those to the best of its ability? Does the board respect legal processes related to building and facility usage? Does it care whether the facility is a safe place when others rent or use it? Does the community know the congregation is present because of its beneficial contribution to the people in that community? In its dealings with the business community is the congregation respected or perceived as a poor risk? Second, when the board acts to manage risk, is one of the key questions the risk to reputation? If this never arises in the course of discussion, then perhaps the board members do not have this aspect of board responsibility on their radar. In either case, a chairperson can through direct comment or other means inject appropriate cautions and considerations into the discussion. View it as part of the board’s education.
But how can you help the board evaluate how the congregation is perceived in the community?
1. Is the congregation ever mentioned in the local paper, social media, or other community media and is this notice positive or negative? In other words when your church does get notice in the community, does this notice reflect a good reputation? If not, what are the reasons for this and what might the church board propose as means to repair the reputation?
2. When congregation representatives meet with civic officials is the reception cordial because they recognize positive contributions by the congregation within the community? When you do a review of the various ways your church touches the life of the community, what do you discover? Do you have any substantive ways that the resources of your congregation contribute directly to enhance the lives of some within the community, apart from church members and adherents? If not, then do not be surprised that your interactions with civic leaders may receive a cool reception. Perhaps your board needs to rethink its missional priorities. If you are making an impact, then how can you respectfully and appropriately draw this to the attention of civic leaders?
3. What has the board done recently to inform civic leaders about the work and aspirations of the congregation for the community (cf. Jeremiah 29:7)? Who from your congregational leadership is making connections with civic leaders and in what contexts? Perhaps your local Chamber of Commerce sponsors an annual prayer breakfast. Is your congregation represented? Do you invite local civic leaders to a service of recognition and prayer at any time in the year? What civic initiatives does your church support because you believe they are consistent with Christian values? Is your presence at local civic meetings only to protest, or are you also present sometimes to support their initiatives?
4. Has the board reviewed recently policy and procedure regarding prompt payment of bills, oversight of contracts with local businesses, etc? Are complaints known and dealt with properly? Do you as chairperson know how local businesses view your church in terms of business relations? Do they appreciate your business or run and hide when they see you coming because of past, difficult experiences?
Lawsuits, immoral behaviour, poor employee management, facility issues, or fraudulent activity probably comprise the most common reasons for poor congregational reputations in local communities. Today the use and abuse of social media can bring a church into the spotlight very quickly, often with serious consequences. Your board should have some protocols in place so that when such things happen you know who is designated to speak to the media on behalf of the congregation. These individuals should receive some training in how to manage such encounters well.
When something does go wrong, make sure you get good, professional advice. This might include legal counsel, financial direction or human resource protocol. Often when we try to fix things on our own, we only make it worse because of our misconceptions, despite our good motivations.
We also recognize that sometimes local congregations create a stir in their communities because of a stand they choose to take about a particular issue. With pressure upon congregations to become more active in the arena of social justice and political policy your church will be more in the public spotlight. So prepare for this — perhaps it is the price to be paid for being salt and light. However, make sure the issues for which you choose to advocate are central to the Gospel and not peripheral, reactionary, or someone else’s agenda. Remember that the testimony of the Lord Jesus and his Gospel is at stake.