The relationship between a church board and lead pastor always has challenges. For one thing, usually the lead pastor as an elder is a member of the board, but he is also accountable to that board. And so church board members are always sorting in their mind what voice the lead pastor is using — that of a board member or that of primary organizational leader — or perhaps he is speaking as pastor of the board members. The potential for confusion is significant.
But the challenge does not all lie on the side of the board. Often the lead pastor within a church board meeting is not sure about the voice that the board is using. Are they giving advice, are they giving a directive, are they politely challenging his idea, are they giving permission, are they uninterested but too polite to say so? Usually the board minutes do not reflect the nature of the board’s voice, unless a specific motion has been made. But even then, the motion might be quite ambiguous and require further interpretation.
Both the church board and the lead pastor need to be clear when speaking to let the other know what “voice” they are employing. This will prevent some significant and perhaps hurtful misunderstandings. As usual the church board chair finds himself/herself right in the middle of this discerning process and often has to intervene and make sure everyone is clear about the “voice” being employed by either party. However, if the chairperson is uncertain, then he/she must seek clarity, lest the entire board be misled, with unfortunate consequences. If the chairperson does not recognize the “voice,” then the ability of the board to get is work done well is in jeopardy.
I would like to suggest that among a church board’s voices two are of particular import — that of coach and sparring partner. Both of these “voices” assume that the board has a significant role to play in congregational development as the strategic ministry leadership team.
1. The “voice” of the coach. The concept of ‘coach’ arises from the world of sport primarily. Whether the coach is relating to individuals or a team, the function remains essentially the same. The coach seeks to help the athlete develop to his/her fullest and this enables this individual to become the best athlete possible given gifts, skill acquisition, and performance. The coach speaks into the athlete’s life from a more objective place and usually from a wealth of experience. The degree of trust required for this coaching relationship to flourish is significant.
I would argue that church boards, operating as strategic ministry leadership teams within the congregation, function in some sense as the lead pastor’s coach. In their discussions about various issues the church board operates as a council of discernment. If we believe that God’s Spirit provides spiritual wisdom and intelligence to all believers to some degree, then a church board composed of mature spiritual leaders should be able to offer some kinds of coaching advice not available elsewhere. This would include a deep appreciation of the congregational setting and context; a sense of what it might take to bring the congregation together in support of a new initiative; a sensitivity about when to say no to some proposals; an awareness of when the pastoral leadership may be running ahead of the congregation. For its part the church board uses its coaching “voice” because it desires the lead pastor to be as successful as possible in his role, but also because it is committed to advancing the congregation’s mission. Sometimes there is a tension between these two outcomes that requires patient leadership to sort out. So the aspect of encouragement is important, as well as helping the lead pastor keep a clear perspective on issues.
2. The “voice” of the sparring partner. This second “voice” is perhaps more controversial and less recognized. Again the concept comes from the sporting world, particularly that of boxing. The professional boxer hones his skills by practicing his art with another boxer. However, care is taken in this energetic exchanges to limit harm or injury. The goal is improvement of the boxer’s skills and preparation for the next bout.
For some this concept of church board as sparring partner for the lead pastor sounds too adversarial, too combative, too aggressive. It suggests as well a leveling of the relationship between the lead pastor and church board members. Some might also consider this analogy wrong-footed when it comes to discerning God’s direction. However, unless one believes that the Holy Spirit only speaks to and through the lead pastor, then this perspective has much to commend it.
This voice is not one that a church board would adopt frequently, but would be chosen when particularly significant options and strategic directions are being considered. It is useful when probing possible futures and scenarios, evaluating risk, and generating creating alternatives to significant problems.