We used to call them “sidewalk superintendents” — people wandering by a construction site and commenting on what the workers or project manager were doing right or wrong. The assumption of such people was that they knew the final plan and so could offer advice to the project manager on what he should be doing to improve the construction process. It might have been the rare person who had enough background knowledge to offer valid advice, but in the majority of cases such commentary arose from ignorance and the advice was rather misdirected. Most did not understand the work.
A church board’s primary responsibility involves good governance of the congregation — navigating the entity so that it achieves its essential purpose. However, if a church board is to do its work well, then it needs to understand the work of a church — what a church is there for. Dan Aleshire, executive leader of the Association of Theological Schools, writes in his book Earthen Vessels that “theological schools have two primary jobs. One is the work of the schools….The second is making the schools work — attending to the systems of governance and administration” (95). I think his analysis applies with appropriate adjustments to the responsibility of church boards. In this blog article and the next I will be exploring what a church board needs to understand about the work of a church and making a church work.
My observation is that most church board members assume that everyone sitting around the board table knows what the work of a church is and so there is no need for intentional discussion and debate about this question that drives all church board work. However, in my experience when a church board chair assumes this, he/she is making a false assumption.When a congregational member is selected as a board member, what efforts are made to orient this individual to the work of a church? Of course the individual will normally have had extensive experience in a church, but has this person formed biblically sound and well-formed understandings about the nature and purpose of a church and what its primary work should and must be? If you have not included such a discussion in your board orientation process, you might want to revise it.
Most congregations today have a mission or vision statement in which they seek to capture succinctly the work of their particular congregation. This is a good place to start, if you want to unpack in greater detail the work of your church for new board members. However, you are also aware that such mission or vision statements require considerable interpretation and detailed explanation before one can use them helpfully to guide church board work. Undoubtedly it will have something to say about evangelism, discipleship, worship or glorifying God, spiritual care, and impacting your community. It might also include something about social justice concerns. If these elements comprise the “work of a church,” how do board agendas reflect this work and how do these focuses influence board decisions?
But an equally pertinent question is what do individual board members know and understand about the work of a church? They may know a bit about evangelism and discipleship. Perhaps they have led a small group or been involved in one of the ministry programs such as youth or children’s ministry. Maybe they are part of the worship team. Or maybe they have none of this experience. So what then do such individuals understand about the work of a church and who will teach them? And if they do not quickly develop such an understanding, how will this deficit affect the way they process board work?
I think a classic case which expresses this deficit occurs when Christian businesspersons become church board members. Frequently a disjunction surfaces very quickly between how decisions are made in the business world and how they are made in the ‘church world.’ Frustration may arise because the businessperson has not considered deeply enough how the work of a church differs from the work of a corporation or small business.
At times church board members will defer to the wisdom of the lead pastor who is the presumed expert in “the work of a church.” Of course respect must be given to a lead pastor’s wisdom, competence and experience in such matters. However, this does not excuse church board members from striving to gain a modicum of understand about this work. If they do not, then they have difficulty evaluating proposals with some degree of independent wisdom. Instead deference to the direction offered by the lead pastor will become the norm. In most cases this may not be a problem, but eventually some issue will arise and the board members will find themselves struggling to know how to respond.
Church board chairs carry some responsibility in prompting and encouraging board members to develop a deeper and fuller understanding about the work of the church and in particularly their church. Some ways in which this can be done would include:
1. Consult with the lead pastor and consider giving the church board members an article or book upon which discussions about the work of the church might occur as an educational moment in the church board meeting;
2. After the board has wrestled with a challenging decision, take some time at the next meeting to reflect with the board on how their perspectives on the work of the church influenced the discussion and the decision;
3. At the board meeting where you review the work of the board over the past twelve months purposely include a question for discussion about the work of the church and the board’s understanding about what this might be. Brainstorm together as to what the five or seven key things might be that define the work of your church. Seek to develop some consensus about their prioritization. Then over the next few months use this list as check list to see how much time in the board agendas is being devoted to this “work.”