I am into the fifth year of my current church board chairing responsibility. During these five years the composition of the church board today has changed almost completely, apart from two other members and myself. And yet I would assert that the productivity of our current church board has doubled in comparison to what it was five years ago. This reflects a disciplined development of the operations of the board, the intentional equipping of board members through specific workshops, the appointment of gifted and competent people to serve as board members, and a deep unity regarding our mission, values and vision.
Three elements of church board operation present ongoing challenges in the midst of this positive context. If you were to poll our church board they might prioritize things differently, but this reflects my perspective as a church board chair. And in identifying these challenges I am not critical of our church board, but rather identifying aspects of our board operations that need to be addressed if we are going to continue to improve our work together.
1. Understanding and implementing good integration of the governance and spiritual oversight responsibilities. From time to time I still hear comments within the board such as “We give plenty of time and focus to issues like organizational renewal, but providing leadership in prayer gets pushed to the end of the agenda.” The premise behind such a comment seems to be the organizing ministry leadership within the congregation is not spiritual work, at least in comparison with attention given to prayer. However, as I read scripture I see God paying considerable attention to the organization of his people (e.g. Exodus 18 and 19, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 2 Samuel 7, Matthew 18, Acts 6, 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, etc.), just as he does to prayer. Yet within our thinking one is more “spiritual” than the other. Perhaps some of the problem arises because it is more difficult to develop and sustain the discipline of prayer within congregational life than it is to plan and implement organizational development. So as chairperson I need to keep reminding our board members/elders that all of our work is spiritual work. If not, it has no business being on our agenda. At the heart of this confusion, I believe, is our struggle to see the entirety of our Christian lives as occupying sacred space. There is no secular and sacred for the believer who is following Jesus obediently because all of life comes under his Lordship. If the matter is pertinent to nurturing the life of the congregation and advancing the kingdom, then it is spiritual work.
2. Leading and nurturing frank but trust-filled discussions that will help us discern God’s will regarding the best means for mission advancement. We have great relationships among our elders and a deep level of trust. This is a gift from God. As chairperson I do not take this for granted, but intentionally cultivate it because without it, our productivity as a board severely diminishes. In a recent Harvard Business Review Blog Solanga Charas reports the results of research on board effectiveness she completed for her Ph.D. dissertation. She discovered “there is something powerful about the way directors speak to one another when they disagree.” She identifies “cognitive conflict” that is “task-oriented with a focus on how to get things done to achieve optimal results.” In her view this kind of conflict allows directors “to offer something creative, innovative and positive.” Conversely “affective conflict” becomes “emotionally oriented and focused on personal differences or shortcomings between people.” This kind of conflict shuts down creative participation.
Although conflict does occur in church boards, I choose to apply her distinction generally to discussions within church boards. Too often discussions become focused upon personalities, theological preferences, or favourite ministries, rather than evaluating the issue in terms of advancing or inhibiting the mission. Encouraging and promoting “cognitive conflict” figures as one of my top priorities as a church board chair. When I sense we are drifting into “affective conflict” territory, I will call this, name it, and seek to re-orient the discussion in more constructive directions.
3. Commitment to a unified understanding of our strategic direction both within the church board and between the church board and pastoral staff — keeping our key leaders on the same page and accountable. I think one of the most difficult tasks of church board governance is achieving alignment of all ministry resources around the mission. Discerning what is core and essential as contrast to many good things that might be done requires considerable coordinated discipline among the board members. Knowing as a board member when to hold on to a specific point of view because you believe it is essential to the mission and when to submit to the greater wisdom of the board in order to sustain alignment around the mission is never an easy decision. However, board members frequently have to make such assessments and act with integrity in each case. Similarly encouraging and requiring all ministry leaders to be working from the same playbook requires constant attention. Within a church staff there can be no “prima donnas” who follow their own playbook. The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts if mission to be advanced.