If it has not happened yet, it will — a discussion at a board meeting about how the congregation might respond to issues of social justice. The discussion may be scheduled in the board’s agenda or not, but some board member will introduce the topic. The people in the congregation are talking about it. Church leaders are seeking to discern a Christian approach that expresses Kingdom values and purpose. How then might a church board chair assist the board members to have a strategic discussion and develop a sense of direction, i.e., to guide itself and the congregation?
A church board can delegate the matter to the pastoral staff and advise them to respond in some way. However, if the board does this, I think it is shirking its duty. Church boards have the responsibility to form policy so that employees have a framework within which to respond to issues. Without a policy the board lacks any means for setting direction, defining responses that are appropriate to the congregation’s mission and values, and establishing accountability. Further it says to the staff that whatever they do in response is fine, because the board has not defined a frame of reference for shaping a strategic response. Of course, senior church leadership will be engaged with the board members in developing such a policy.
Church boards develop policies regarding theological, spiritual, and ethical issues as a matter of course. It is a basic tool they use to order the life of the congregation so that the faith community stays on mission, flourishes, and remains biblical attuned in all facets of its corporate life. It fosters unity, but not uniformity, and protects the staff by setting limits for their actions as employees. In the case of this particular policy, it also protects that board because it has defined what is a prudent, missionally-appropriate framework to respond to questions of social justice.
What might such a policy contain and how should the board proceed to develop it? Here is where lead pastors can provide counsel to help the board fulfill its responsibility.
- Introduction. This will provide a rationale for the policy, as well as include definition of key terms, such as “social justice” so that people in the congregation know what the board means by this term. Attached to this definition might be some examples from the congregation’s past or current ministry that would fit within this new policy. A short paragraph should describe the intended purpose for the policy. It might be helpful here to define the integral relationship between the congregation’s witness to the gospel and its ethical responsibilities regarding matters of social justice.
- One section should define to whom the board delegates responsibility for leading and managing the congregation’s response to social justice issues. Presumably this would be the lead pastor. The board may define some limitations regarding such leadership, i.e., it has to be legal, express the values of the congregation, not put the congregation at undue risk, etc. For example, if a response to an issue of social justice is viewed as a political statement that contravenes government policy, this might be seen by authorities as valid grounds for voiding the congregation’s status as a non-profit charity. This might include some guidance on public statements and media usage. There may also be responsibility assigned for how and when the lead pastor reports actions taken within the policy’s guidelines. The board should also reserve to itself the right to raise possible social justice issues or discuss responses to such issues.
- Another section should define what kind of responses to issues of social justice might require the congregation’s approval. It is one thing for individual Christians to respond based on their conscience, but the congregation needs a mechanism to discern its collective response. For example, some responses might require the use of financial resources, or the reallocation of personnel, or the use of the facility. Part of this section might define who speaks for the congregation when it comes to matters of social justice — is it the church board, or the lead pastor, or some other person or group in the congregation? This is important when it comes to managing media relations.
- It might also be wise for the board to include in the policy something about the use of legal resources. If a staff person is arrested for protesting, for example, or a group of congregation members publishes something on social media that is ill-advised, what will the church do to help such people with legal help and expenses? This policy might reference other board policies regarding liability insurance for board members and staff.
- The board might also consider including a section that identifies specific social justice issues that form the focus of the congregation’s attention. These might be identified because of local concerns, historical experiences of the congregation, the demographics of the congregation, or current ministry initiatives that already are seeking to address such issues.
I am sure other elements might be included, depending on how a particular church board might discern the best response in their context. Perhaps two board members and the lead pastor might form a task force to develop an initial draft of such a policy. Someone in that group might write a short piece that describes several experiences in which the congregation has sought to address issues of social justice. This will help the congregation to see that this policy is not dealing with a “new thing,” but trying to provide a clearer understanding for the congregation’s continuing and future responses in such matters. This could be an appendix to the policy.