One of the toughest roles that a church board has to own is the responsible processing of serious complaints leveled against a senior church leader. The leader could be the primary employee or a key board member, but the challenges are equally significant. Because the board is vested with the authority and responsibility to foster congregational health, it is the body that has to process such issues. It is accountable to the congregation, but also must exercise appropriate care for the employees and volunteer leaders. Exercising wise leadership for these diverse responsibilities can be tricky because the respective interests can be conflicting. The board’s actions and decisions may be viewed as favouring one at the expense of the other.
The New Testament gives some guidance for church boards in dealing with complaints or accusations against church leaders. Paul advises Timothy not to respond to an accusation unless it is supported by two or more witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). That advice is still sound. If the accusation is proven true, then the issue must be addressed (1 Timothy 5:20). Some judgment is needed to discern whether the correction should be shared with the congregation or with other employees, or kept confidential within the board itself. The nature of the accusation and the extent to which harm has occurred will be important factors in such determinations.
A church board has a duty to act and to act prudently, fairly and in a timely manner. The board chair will need to exercise great care that the board’s policies and procedures are followed scrupulously. People’s reputations are at stake, as well as the fabric of the congregation. Violations of clear policy, stated values, and legal principles are more easily dealt with than complaints regarding personal preference or perception.
What qualifies as a “complaint” that requires the board’s attention? If two or more people have made an accusation to one or more board members, then probably this deserves board attention. You might also require that the substance of the accusation be made in writing. It becomes very difficult for the board to deal with an accusation that is reported verbally, because the exact nature of the accusation can be in doubt. Having the accusation put in writing communicates the seriousness with which the board takes such matters, but also provides clarity about the issue.
Some kind of investigation will have to occur in order to determine the legitimacy of the accusation. Depending upon the nature of the charge, the board may ask the employee, elder or board person being accused to step aside from leadership responsibilities until the matter is resolved. Potential conflicts of interests within the board will have to be handled very transparently. Again, depending upon the seriousness of the issue, the board may ask its Personnel Committee to investigate and report. Whatever the board decides, a clear process should be determined, particularly what is communicated to whom and by whom and at what point.
One of the questions that will surface involves the consequences that will happen if the accusation is substantiated. Sometimes policy will already define such consequences, but often if policy does exist, there may still be a variety of options available to the board. Careful discussion will have to occur within the board about such consequences. This again can be a bit of a minefield. No matter what the board decides some will consider the action too lenient, or too harsh.
Finally, the board has to consider the pathway to restoration. Even if the proven accusation is so serious as to require dismissal, relationships that have been damaged need to be mended as much as possible. Here is where the spiritual wisdom of the board may be exercised most strenuously as it leads such restoration processes. Where trust is violated, it is extremely hard to recapture it.