Publications such as Gary McIntosh’s “One Size Doesn’t Fit All” have helped us discern that the size of a church community affects, perhaps even determines, many aspects of its life. One of the more critical elements that is affected as churches increase in size is the relationship between the church board chair and the lead pastor. In this blog article I focus upon several issues in this relationship that are specific to the small church, i.e. a church that has 100 members or less.
Smaller churches generally operate with two paid employees (pastor and administrative assistant, often part-time). All other ministry leaders are volunteers and this means resources are often minimal. The church may have its own facility or be meeting in rented or leased space. Relationships are central to the church’s ethos, with informality being the norm. A family atmosphere is often touted as a significant plus. The board itself will often be quite small, three or four people. Sometimes small churches have a very long history, but in other cases they often are newer, emerging from the hectic ethos of a church plant. The current pastor may be the church’s founding leader.
The nature of the church board in a small church.
Usually the church board will include key volunteer ministry leaders. In a small church people have to wear many hats because the leadership resources are limited, but the responsibilities are multiple. The church board of necessity becomes the primary ministry leadership team in the church. This means that the board’s agenda will include governance and management issues. In some cases the pastor may in fact be the board chair, until another leader is identified and trained for the role.
The implications for the board chair (even if this is the lead pastor):
a. the need to balance the agenda so that matters of governance and matters of management can be engaged appropriately, but also clearly distinguished. The agenda could be divided into two sections, one part identifying those issues that relate to governance and those that relate to management, helping the board to understand its role in respect to specific issues. For example, the development of the budget would be a management issue, but the approval of the budget would be a governance issue. Assisting the lead pastor to plan the church calendar would be a management issue, but evaluating the performance of the lead pastor would be a governance issue. Helping the board to distinguish these kinds of issues begins to develop their capacity to cope with changes as the church may grow. But it also enables the board members to understand their role more clearly.
b. the need to identify key ministry priorities among many competing possibilities will challenge the board. Defining the vision is just as critical for the health of a small church as it is for the health of a larger church. Scarce resources, however, will require the small church to focus much more pointedly on the one or two key things that it can do well to advance its vision. Many good ministry ideas might be proposed, but the board chair will need to help the board discern which of these multiple opportunities the small church can in fact handle, without creating financial deficits, harming the goodwill of volunteer workers, or creating a bad impression in the community because an event was managed poorly. This can be a challenge because participants in small churches often have interest in a specific ministry and if the leadership is not prepared to support it can threaten to leave. Or the pastor may push hard to implement a ministry project, even though the church just does not have the capacity to accomplish it and if it is not supported, he might become discouraged. The chair fills a significant role in helping the board sort through such difficult issues.
c. the challenge of accountability when relationships are so close. The annual performance review of the pastor in a small church has to be handled very wisely and fairly by the board. This means an effective policy needs to be articulated, with the pastor having input into its development. The application of the policy must be done fairly and with integrity by the board. One way to build in fairness might be to involve an external person as part of the evaluation group, i.e. a board member or ministry leader from another church. The goal always is the enhancement of the pastor’s spiritual leadership in the congregation, so that the mission of the church is advanced. The evaluation should measure progress towards outcomes that the board and pastor have decided twelve months earlier.
d. the discipline and determination to embrace best practices. In a small church the temptation is strong to operate in a very informal and unprincipled manner. Decisions are made on an adhoc basis, perhaps. Personal interests often overwhelm the larger good of the congregation. Most of the energy is expended in just keeping the basic ministry systems functioning without the luxury of thinking where the church needs to be 24 months ahead and how are we going to get there.
In such an ethos the relationship between the chair and the pastor requires careful cultivation. In small churches that have considerable history, change becomes very difficult. A pastor who has vision for growth and impact can easily be frustrated by a board chair who is very conservative and does not see the need for much change. Personal trust and respect become the currency that enables change to be considered and gradually embraced.
People are highly networked in a small church. The decisions a board takes are known quickly throughout the congregation and the board members interact with the constituents in a rather closed set of relationships. The chair and the pastor must be on the same page rather consistently. It does not take long for the church attenders to sense dissension, with ensuing implications.
In small churches people often sense they must have say in a wider range of decisions. So it is important that the chair and the pastor agree on the matters that require congregational approval and which do not. Perhaps the church bylaws are clear about this, but practice may have tutored the congregation to expect something different. A consistent reference to the bylaws and restriction of congregational decisions to those matters specified in the bylaws becomes an important matter of agreement between the chair and the pastor.
It is most likely that the board chair in a small church will be a primary confidant of the pastor. When the pastor is considering some change or ministry initiative, usually the board chair will be one of his key advisers. While this will be true in every church to some degree, it is even more of a reality in a small church. The pastor requires absolutely the support of the chair in such matters. Their unity becomes critical for the well being of the church and its ability to be innovative and grow as opportunity permits.
Gary McIntosh observed that “with all the leadership power the governing boards have in small churches, they do not use it to move the church forward” (54). This power gets focused in telling people what cannot be done. The church board chair and the pastor have to develop mutual confidence so that the leadership invested in the board is focused on moving the church forward. This requires many conversations, often “fierce conversations”, as these two leaders sort out the issues and forge the spiritual bonds required for healthy governance and good management.