I am sure it is not news to any long term church board member or board chair, but crises happen on a regular basis. The test of a church board’s leadership comes in such contexts. If the board fails to show effective leadership, then other voices within the congregation will try to step into the vacuum. Part of such board leadership is planning for crisis — or risk management. However, in this blog article I want to address how a board chair can assist board members deal with crises. What spiritual disciplines and habits of mind will generate solutions and shape a pathway through these difficult situations? We have Jesus’ word: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Board members sometimes will respond to a crisis emotionally. If the crisis arises because of moral failure, then a sense of betrayal and grief can become quite overwhelming. If the crisis is financial, then anxieties of various kinds can paralyze board members. The problem can seem overwhelming and the possible solution highly unpalatable. When the crisis is of a legal nature, then church board members may have their courage challenged. A wise board chair in the course of discussion will encourage board members to express their feelings. However, once that is done, the chairperson has to help the board move toward discerning a resolution to the crisis. Depending upon the nature of the crisis, the resolution may come in a short time or may be prolonged. It is imperative that the board collective demonstrate confidence in God, emotional intelligence, and careful discernment. If the board’s decisions are influenced too much by emotion, then probably those decisions will not be the best.
In my experience resolutions to crises within a congregational context generally encompass both spiritual dimensions and practical dimensions. Prayer will always be necessary, but prayer by itself will not solve the issues. Crises get resolved through wise discernment, careful weighing of the options and their implications, and strategic understanding of the multiple stages that such resolution normally will require. A significant crisis will be multi-faceted, affecting people in diverse ways. Solutions will be complex and require hard work and sincere determination to implement. Board chairs have to help board members understand the complexities, appreciate the implications, and define a pathway into a more positive future.
Communications are vitally important in weathering a significant crisis. The board members should agree about who is going to speak on their behalf and what their message will be to the congregation and to the staff. Discipline is important in this matter because mixed messages will generate unnecessary anxiety, distracting everyone from the critical work needed to resolve the crisis. Normally the board chair will serve as the board’s voice, but it may be appropriate in some cases for the lead pastor to present part of the message, so that the congregation discerns the unity between the board and the lead pastor on the issue.
The content of the communication needs to be shaped carefully. Different people will be affected by the crisis in various ways. They hear the message through their grid, their perceptions and their anxieties. Sometimes a shorter message is better, at least initially. People need to know that the board is aware, is deliberating and will provide leadership. If the congregation needs to have a voice in some aspects of the crisis’ resolution, then they should be assured that this will indeed occur. Often some aspects of the crisis will need to be kept confidential because of privacy issues, legal implications or general prudence. The board chair assists the board in discerning what the message should be at each stage of the crisis and ensure that it is communicated clearly and consistently.
Crises test the metal of a church board and require board members to use all of the spiritual resources God provides to his church. If a crisis is handled well, even though it might be painful, it will build confidence in the board’s leadership. However, if a church board fails in its leadership responsibilities in the midst of a crisis, then great harm can result to the congregation.