Often the rap against church boards is their perceived opposition to change. Frequently populated by older members of the congregation, they have a reputation for being conservative, reactionary and sometimes intransigent. Instead of leading change, they get characterized as the blockage in the system, or the hurdle to overcome, or focused on the past and complacent with the present.
An important aspect of church board leadership includes preservation of purpose and values, which includes ‘telling the story’ of God’s past work in the community. Church boards should know and be able to tell people in the congregation and larger community the amazing journey on which God has led his people in that place. This understanding provides a frame of reference from within which to view the present and the future. When recounted, it should give confidence that God is at work here. However, knowing and appreciating “the story” is merely the beginning; it cannot be the end. We want to retain the best of the past, but not be imprisoned by it.
Similarly discerning “where” the congregation is now spiritually and missionally is also incredibly important for the board’s leadership. The board must be able to “make sense” of the present situation vis-a-vis the congregation’s mission and vision. Is this a good place, a critical place, a risky place, a resting place, a growing place? Is the congregation at the beginning, middle or end of its current growing phase? If the board cannot define “where” the congregation is, then the board will be unable to provide leadership into the future.
Perhaps the most challenging, as well as exciting leadership that the board offers is generative leadership, i.e. enabling the congregation to discern the road map into the future. “Where are we going” and “what kind of missional organization do we want to be in five years” become the determinative question in this kind of discussion.
As a church board reflects upon the past, present and future, it will acknowledge the many changes that have and are transpiring in the life of the congregation. And perhaps just as importantly, it will articulate additional changes as and when the congregation grows into its future. Mapping this trajectory of change requires a great amount of board time and energy, but this is the essence of board leadership. Leading positive change and avoiding the risks of negative change wherever possible give some boundaries for this kind of transformative leadership.
A church board then leads at the centre of continuing change. We should expect this given that we believe such leadership takes its lead from the Holy Spirit, God’s change agent. God’s kingdom community will be a dynamic, changing, messy place as people become Jesus’ followers and learn to live in obedience to him in community. A church board gives oversight to this changing community, seeking to make it a safe, forgiving place where God’s truth flourishes and grace abounds.
The bottomline is this: leadership always involves change and church board leadership will be no different. Board members then have to embrace change, both personally and collectively. Every decision a church board makes will initiate some change. And where change is happening, risk will also be present. Leading and managing change requires intentional risk management. Because a church board is constantly leading change, it must give its attention to communicating well to the congregation the nature and necessity of such changes. When a board fails in its communication duty, the congregation will become distant, distrustful, and endangered.
A primary role of a church board chair involves guiding the board members to understand, embrace, and lead transformative change. It is not necessarily a comfortable place to be, but it is an essential responsibility. Internal board communications become significant tools that keep the board members on the same page as they mediate change. Deep trust among board members enable frank debate without fracturing relationships. Humble faith in God and his care for this congregation surround the board’s interactions and decisions.