Various analogies can be used to describe the essence of a board chair’s role. Personally, I think the comparison with the conductor of an orchestra or the coxswain who coordinates a team of eights have much to commend. People in these roles keep the entire “team” on mission, united in their efforts, and effective in producing desired outcomes. They have a keen sense of “direction,” as well as competence in knowing how to get the best out of the entire team in pursuit of an extraordinary result. These analogies also fit well with the sense of governance as “navigation.”
Within the dynamics of a church board this role of conductor or coxswain tends to shift between the board chair and the lead pastor depending upon personalities, context, and issue. Of course, if the lead pastor is the board chair, then these two roles combine. However, in most Evangelical churches different individuals fill these positions. So it is important for the board to decide whom it wants to be “conductor” or “coxswain.” Clarity about this issue is important lest confusion of leadership arise. In my view the church board chair should have this role, but may from time to time defer to the lead pastor given special circumstances. But this will be a special and temporary alteration.
If the church board chair is the “conductor” of the board, then it becomes vitally important for the board chair and lead pastor to developed a shared perspective about the congregation’s mission, vision and values. In addition, they should be somewhat united in the longer term goals that have to be realized if this mission and vision is to be fulfilled. Without this shared understanding the church board chair’s leadership may conflict essentially with that of the lead pastor.
When a church board chair has a grasp of the vision and long term outcomes, his or her ability to keep the board focused and coherent in its collective leadership is greatly enhanced. This becomes particularly important when crises arise. I would observe that church boards struggle to keep their focus during the pressures of an immediate and serious crisis. They become so preoccupied with the crisis and its resolution that they lose sight of the bigger picture. The result often is that the resolution to the crisis does not align with the congregation’s mission, vision and values, nor does it advance the ministry strategy that the board has adopted.
This is precisely when the board chair’s role as conductor or coxwain has to be exerted. The chair enables the board to keep in view the big picture even as a great deal of its energy necessarily gets devoted to resolving the immediate issue. Someone has to help the board “keep its head clear” when crisis happens and the board chair is person best positioned to do so.
Of course, this requires a church board church to possess spiritual intelligence, emotional intelligence, considerable faith, and quantities of courage. Pressures, tensions and uncertainties will rise in such periods. Some board members may not appreciate your leadership as chair in maintaining this discipline. However, at the end of the day, it is not about you or the board, but the health and safety of the congregation and its mission.