Three years ago I completed ten years as chairperson of our church board. I continued to serve another two years as a board member, but have now completed that term. The transition has gone well personally and I still serve from time to time in an advisory capacity to the board on specific issues.
As I reflect on this most recent decade of service as a church board chairperson, I would make the following observations:
- Bridging the gap between what is and what could be in terms of board development remains a significant challenge for church board leaders. The years of service pass quickly and progress in board development does occur. However, the advances, adaptations, and improvements require an incredible discipline and determination. And even when you think the board members have bought into the changes, transformations often remain tentative and at risk. The turnover in board members and leaders threaten innovations in effective board operations. Training for new and continuing board members seems haphazard and not always a high priority. Managing the relationship between the lead pastor/CEO and the board continues to challenge everyone. In spite of these things, committed board members strive to provide wise leadership and the Holy Spirit enables their work. While church boards may not be perfect in every respect, they still by God’s grace advance congregational missions.
- Passing the baton of leadership to new board leaders requires considerable trust and faith in God’s care for his church. I think the transitions of leadership create periods of uncertainty for church boards. The board members have adjustments to make to the way new appointees will lead the board. New leaders have to discern what leadership approaches they will continue and what new elements they will try to introduce. Personalities, experience, and skill all factor into these uncertainties. While a retiring chairperson may have wisdom to offer, it is the call of the new chairperson whether he or she will access that wisdom.
- Decision-making for board members is becoming more complex. As congregations grow, the number of factors to consider in achieving good decisions increases. More communication becomes essential. The process of decision-making requires greater care and attention. In society in general individuals are becoming more activist for a variety of reasons. Those in leadership get challenged more frequently regarding recommendations and proposed projects. Knowing how to achieve consensus and sustain unity becomes more challenging.
- The ever-present gap between a church board and the church staff requires continued care and wisdom, if the relationship is to remain dynamically healthy. The question of who’s in charge gets raised more frequently. The board is dependent normally on the lead pastor to help it negotiate this relationship. Knowing when and how to involve the staff in decision-making processes requires wisdom, so that staff do not feel alienated from the board and the board members do not think that the staff are calling the shots. Tied up in this tension is the question of staff accountability and alignment of staff roles and energy with the priorities discerned by the board.
- Perhaps the most difficult element for church boards to manage is that of discerning theological direction regarding emerging issues. Board members and board chairs have to exercise wisdom in developing processes for discerning theological direction and then articulating that direction. Which voices the board should invite into the conversation is a tricky question. The interface between the Christian community and secular culture complicates things. For example, questions about gender diversity, legalization of cannabis, use of technology, end of life choices, etc., require church boards to provide wise guidance for their congregations. Sometimes denominational leadership can offer some help. However, when denominations take a direction that is controversial, this raises other issues, such as the degree to which the congregation needs to be in compliance with denominational policy.
In my personal context God has shown his faithfulness by gifting our congregation with excellent board members and board leadership. So my responsibility at this point is to pray for them and from time to time to contribute wisdom as they might request. The congregation belongs to God and he knows how to care for it far better than I do.