[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.]
In his second term as church board chair for the Evangelical Community Church Jake was excited when the congregation selected John, a Korean immigrant residing in Canada, to serve as an elder and member of the church board. This was the first time Jake could remember that a non-Caucasian had served in this capacity. Jake saw this as a significant indication that the congregation was becoming more attuned to the multi-cultural reality of their community.
When Jake contacted John to set up a time for some basic orientation, John accepted this offer gladly. Two weeks later over breakfast, Jake had the opportunity to learn something of John’s spiritual journey and his prior church involvement. He discovered that John had also served as an elder in his church in Korea. Jake knew that there would be some adjustments for John because the way church boards work in Canada probably was not the same as it is in Korean churches. In Korea John was part of a Presbyterian church, but now he was serving in an Evangelical Free Church.
Jake worked through the orientation materials in a methodical manner. John was listening intently and did not interrupt. But then Jake came to the part of his presentation where he talked about the relationship between the church board and lead pastor. He explained that every year the board, through its personnel committee, conducted a performance review of the lead pastor. When he heard this, John became quite agitated. He began to ask some questions. Could Jake clarify what the purpose of a performance review was? Who conducted it? What kinds of things were evaluated? Did the pastor “like” this process? What did the board do with the results of the evaluation? What did this process say about the relationship between the church board and the lead pastor?
Jake was pleased that finally John was asking questions. For him it indicated that John was tracking well and wanting to learn more about standard processes. He did not pick up the concerns that were behind John’s questions. From John’s experience in the Korean church, the pastor was boss. No one had authority to evaluate him; rather he had the responsibility to evaluate everyone else in the congregation. So to reverse this authority relationship and have the lead pastor accountable to the church board was a major paradigm shift for John.
Jake responded carefully to John’s questions, emphasizing that the evaluation was designed to help the lead pastor discern with the help of the elders where to expend some effort in the coming year for his development as a lead pastor. The intent was not to judge or criticize in a harsh or destructive manner. John responded that pastors were called by God to their vocation and surely they were accountable to God, not a church board. Jake shared his view that responding to God’s call vocationally was one thing, being accountable for the way that calling was being exercised in a local church pastoral capacity was another. John said that he would have to think about this carefully. He was at this point uncomfortable with this process. When he agreed to let his name stand for elder, he did not realize that he would be part of an annual performance evaluation of the pastor.
Jake thanked John for sharing his concern and agreed to meet with him again in a few weeks to talk further about this matter. Meanwhile, he encouraged John to attend the first meeting of the new board and become accustomed to the church board’s work.
When Jake left his meeting with John, he was not sure what to do. He thought that one thing could be helpful and that was to let the lead pastor know about John’s concerns and have the lead pastor meet with John and explain how he viewed this process in relation to his vocation. Perhaps hearing from the lead pastor himself and seeing his comfort with the process would be enough to encourage John to stay involved.
1. Jake’s experience surfaces some of the hidden dimensions of church board leadership when board members come from diverse cultural and theological traditions. Developing board coherence, i.e. unity without unanimity, is always a challenge, but is a necessity. Learning where to allow for diversity and where to work for consensus is part of chairmanship.
2. John’s struggle was not just cultural, but also theological. However, his theological understanding was influenced by the way leadership is expressed in Korean culture. Working in a Canadian context presented some challenges to John and required him to rethink some of his theological perspectives. This is a classic case of contextualization.
3. Jake’s patience will be an important factor in helping John work with the church board’s policies. He may also need to encourage other board members to be understanding as John takes up this new role.
4. John’s questions might provide an opportunity for the board members to discuss the policy regarding performance evaluations, affirm their theological understanding and as necessary revise it.
5. Biblically the principle in such matters should be to be culturally relevant to the extent that Scripture allows. Sometimes scriptural principles will not allow a cultural practice to be brought into the church because it violates biblical values. At other times it is a matter of indifference because no major biblical value or principle is being challenged. In John’s case there was both a cultural issue, i.e. how leaders were perceived in Korean culture, and a theological issue, i.e. are pastors accountable to other elders in the congregation for their work?