One of the basic premises which undergirds the ideas on this website is that a church board forms the strategic ministry leadership team in the congregation, exercising much of this leadership through wise governance. However, ministry leadership in addition includes ‘advising’ and ‘teaching’ as part of the responsibility and this is no less the case with a church board. In this blog I will consider the church board’s role and responsibility as advisor to the pastoral staff and the congregation.
An advisor describes someone who provides wise counsel when requested. Usually a person fills an advisory role because of a trusted relationship, specific competency, or lengthy experience. Such a person often has faced similar challenges and so brings insight, perspective, support, and suggested direction. However, the decision to act rests with the person requesting the advice, not the advisor.
When a church board functions in an advisory capacity, it fulfills one of its important responsibilities, providing wise counsel to pastoral staff, or the congregation, or another elder. Occasionally the denomination may also ask a church board to advise it regarding a proposed policy or direction.
It is important for a church board to understand that when it acts as an advisor, it is not making the decision. If it steps in and sets direction, then it functions in its governance mode, not an advisory mode. The board chair has an important role in helping a church board to discern when it is being asked for advice and when it is making a decision so that the board members do not have false expectations about the outcome of the discussion.
The agenda of most board meetings will include items requiring decision (governance) as well as requests for advice (advising). Perhaps the lead pastor in his or her report to the board may raise a question about a matter and request the board’s advice. It may be that the lead pastor is uncertain whether he/she has the authority to act in a particular matter and seeks the board’s advice in defining the role’s limitations. Or, perhaps one of the families in the congregation is experiencing some challenges and the lead pastor informs the board members and asks for their counsel regarding an appropriate approach. Sometimes the lead pastor will be requesting guidance in interpreting policy.
Often church boards have some responsibility to oversee the teaching office in the congregation. If the lead pastor believes it is necessary to preach on a controversial issue, he/she may want to ensure that the board is unified in its basic understanding of biblical teaching about it. And so he/she asks for time at a board meeting to explore the question and discern the degree of consensus within the board about a biblical response to that issue.
Should such discussions be recorded in board minutes? It depends. Should the lead pastor want to have public record that he/she sought the board’s advice on a matter, then the board should support the pastor’s request. For its part the board may decide that it is important for the public record to show that it did advise about a matter and the nature of that advice. This might be important when the discussion concerns a matter that carries potential liability. The board may want a record to show it was acting prudently and exercising due diligence. At times it might be wise of the board use an in camera session to discuss a sensitive matter and give its advice. A record is kept, but it will not be a public record.
Sometimes the board will discern that the congregation as a whole would benefit from its advice regarding a specific issue. The congregation may not be aware yet that it needs this advice, but the board, which has to have the welfare of the whole congregation in its purview, knows that this advice is necessary at this time. It is action taken in a preventative mode.
Advising is hard work because at the end of the day the advisor does not control the decision or action of the advisee. When a lead pastor asks the board for advice, but then decides not to follow that advice, it has potential to damage the trust relationship between the board and the lead pastor. So in asking for advice the lead pastor should make clear that he/she will make the decision and this decision may or may not correspond with the advice the board gives. There is risk involved, but the lead pastor is owning responsibility for the decision that is made.