Recently I led a series of workshops with the board of a small church. The church has considerable history and its own wonderful facility. The people are good, godly leaders, desiring to make an impact for God in their community. As I interacted with them I discerned afresh some of the unique challenges that board members face as they serve in small churches which over time have developed a specific culture.
First, relationships become much more significant in the decision-making process. It was interesting to hear the discussion about specific issues and the care being taken to think with sensitivity about how certain actions might impact relationships within the limited group of committed church people. The board members were challenged to discern ways to present new directions so that they would be accepted not just by the majority, but by two or three key stakeholders. What was good in this is their care for one another. What was not good is the potential paralysis this created regarding decisions that needed to be made.
Second, board members have to be much more hands-on and this creates tension between their work as ministry managers and strategic ministry leaders. In the smaller church the board functions in reality as the church development team. They carry the load in terms of establishing vision, creating and setting policy, and also implementing decisions made. These are complex, interactive and inter-changing roles. The chair in such situations must work hard to help the board understand what it is doing at any precise point and keep the board on track. Agenda building becomes a significant tool to assist in this leadership. When a board member is both ministry leader and board member, it creates the potential for conflicts of interest, as well as an unbalanced loyalty for part of the church’s work, rather than keeping the whole mission of the church in mind.
Third, every board member is already busy to the point of overload and suggesting significant changes that require more work presents a significant challenge. When people feel overwhelmed with the weight of sustaining current ministry, it is a great challenge to clear space to even think about and develop the will and motivation to consider doing new and different things. A church board chair can help the board with this issue by encouraging the development of good board process so that the required spiritual oversight and other responsibilities are being handled in a manageable way. As well, the chair might suggest that the majority of one meeting occasionally might be devoted to brainstorming about the future. As ideas come forward, the board together might agree on pursuing one of them over the next six months and see whether God might be in it. Pacing the board’s energy and time-resources is critical in this. Making small gains and celebrating them are also crucial.
Fourth, it is easy for board members to become so caught up in the immediate circumstances (both good things and difficult things) that governing with a view to the future requires an effort almost too great to manage. Because the board of a small congregation has responsibility both to govern and manage ministry, it tends to get overwhelmed by the minutiae associated with overseeing the daily life of the congregation. Board meetings become the opportunity to coordinate ministries, sort out problems, and make management level decisions about purchases or other matters (i.e. what colour to paint the bathroom walls). Reports tend to dominate the agenda as board members responsible for specific ministries communicate what is happening and seek the counsel of other board members. Now these things are not bad in themselves and are necessary to the health of a small congregation. However, if this is all that board does, then the church cannot advance. So in such cases the board chair again must help the board to find time in the annual agenda to dream about the future and lay plans towards fulfilling such dreams.
Fifth, change has to be paced and taken incrementally. The fabric of the congregation is too fragile to withstand seismic shifts. If the board does conclude that changes are necessary, then it must also give careful attention to discern the process that will help the congregation achieve consensus and maintain as much unity as possible as the changes are implemented. Sometimes this will require some “back-channel” conversations with key voices in the congregation to encourage them to be supportive. Once again the board chair will carry significant responsibility here to help the board give due attention to defining an effective process that corresponds to any bylaws or other governance policies. One simple strategy to consider is to introduce the new idea(s) at one congregational meeting and let the people know that no decision will be made at that meeting. The board only desires to present concepts, answer questions and receive input. Let the people know that the board will be seeking a decision at the following meeting. In between take into account the feedback, adjust the proposal accordingly and re-represent the revised proposal for further discussion and decision.
Church boards are incredibly important within small congregations and the chair must display wise leadership and exercise it in close collaboration with the pastor. However, much can be accomplished when wisdom, good process, prayer and spiritual intelligence are being applied.