The members of church boards bring into this entity extraordinary diversity. A chairperson quickly realizes the variety of personality types, the diverse levels of spiritual experience, the wealth of competence, and the wide range of giftedness. But added to these elements often is an imposed distinction. The congregation, because of its bylaws, selects some to serve on the board as elders and others as deacons. Frequently, this mixture of roles within a church board creates some confusion, misunderstanding and tension as the board conducts its business. It may even lead to the feeling that there are first and second class board members. So how does a chairperson handle this reality and lead such a church board to function with unified purpose?
The first principle that every board member has to agree to and understand is that a board member is a board member. Everyone who sits around that board table has the same responsibilities and privileges within the board. Elders cannot claim special jurisdiction over some board matters and deacons cannot argue that they control the finances. All board members have equal voice in matters that appear on the board’s agenda. As board chair you need to insist upon this principle and carry out your responsibilities as chair based upon this principle. If you cannot do this, then you need to let the board know that you cannot serve as its chair.
Secondly, it will be important to define clearly what the role of an elder or a deacon is apart from their service as a board member. In other words, regardless of whether they serve on the board, what does an elder or deacon do as a ministry leader in the congregation? If a particular role has no defined ministry apart from its status as a board member, then perhaps the term is meaningless from the standpoint of board operations. If the role does have additional or separate ministry responsibilities outside of the board, then define these carefully, particularly when it comes to accountability. For example, if the elders carry responsibility for some pastoral care within the congregation, to whom are they accountable for this? Is it the lead pastor? Presumably it will not be the board. If the elders are meeting separately to oversee these responsibilities, then they will do so under the leadership of the pastor, who is accountable to the board for congregational care. However, when the elders are serving in the context of the board, they wear the hat of “board member,” not elder.
Third, make sure that whatever additional committees or councils exist, the church board carries ultimate responsibility and authority on behalf of the congregation. If two officially constituted leadership groups within the congregation have disagreement about the exercise of authority, this will create division within the church. So this question needs to be sorted. Confusion sometimes emerges because of the names we give to these groups, e.g. elders’ council, deacons’ board, leadership team, etc., within a congregation. Often behind these power contests lie beliefs about the spiritual authority of authority of elders, the question of accountability, and opinions about who has authority to make which decisions. Congregations as non-profit charities can only have one board of trustees. If the board considers it wise to delegate the oversight of certain spiritual responsibilities to a committee of elders, that is fine, so long as that committee understands that it is accountable to the board for its management of those responsibilities.
Perspectives on these issues are difficult to change. As chairperson you probably will not be able to change the formal structure very quickly, if at all, and that is all right providing operational principles can be agreed and implemented that support a unified leadership. One of the useful tools to use in developing a unified direction is the distinction between ends and means. The board should retain to itself the responsibility and authority to define ends, i.e. the outcomes that will advance the mission and vision. However, it can within defined limits delegate to other groups, i.e. an elders council, the means used to accomplish specific ends or goals as the board deems advisable. This creates accountability, but grants authority to act in specified areas without micromanagement.
I think as well that board chairs should be able to call upon the spiritual maturity of those involved to find good ways to work collaboratively, given how the Spirit resources God’s people, e.g. the fruit of the Spirit. If spiritual leaders cannot do this, then perhaps it calls into question the level of their spiritual maturity and suitability to serve in such capacities. If at the end of the day you need to appeal to the congregation to help sort the issue by recommending changes to bylaws, then do so. It is better to get the issue resolved than to let it continually fester and poison relationships within the faith community. Denominational help may also be available to assist you in sorting through this question.