The term “politics” generally does not have good press within church life. When a person is accused of “playing politics,” their activities connote manipulation, coercion, or even guile to achieve a goal that has some personal benefit. Church boards have to give due regard for developing and sustaining Christ-honouring relationships among a wide array of constituencies. When significant constituencies perceive that a church board is “playing politics” and not relating to them in healthy ways, then it compromises that board’s ability to lead and erodes trust. Suspicion replaces confidence. Transparency, continuing and clear communications, respect for legitimate process, and rejecting a win-lose mentality become important values and means to encourage respectful, empowered relationships. The chair tutors, facilitates, and helps the board discipline itself so that it handles all of its relationships in ways that will advance the congregation’s mission.
A helpful, simple exercise for a church board chair to do is to list the various internal and external constituencies that his or her board deals with in the course of a 12 month period. Internally, this would include the entire group of people that constitute the “congregation,” the members of the society specifically,the lead pastor, the employees, the volunteer leaders, specific committees. Externally, these constituencies probably would be denominational leadership, other churches, parachurch agencies, civic entities (government or otherwise), groups that use the facility, businesses, etc. Obviously some of these relationships will be more significant or more frequently engaged and so some prioritization is helpful. But select the top three in the internal and external categories. Then ask yourself how the board currently is interacting with these various constituencies and whether this engagement could be enhanced so that the work of the board and the mission of the congregation can be carried forward more effectively.
Let’s consider the internal category of staff, as a significant constituency that church board has to manage well, whether your congregation has one or ten paid employees. In a small church with one or perhaps two paid employees the tendency is to manage this relationship quite informally. The pastor may not have a job description or even a formal letter that has invited him to fill the role and under what terms. Rather all of this may have been done verbally and is “understood.” While this informality might work for the first few months of employment, at some point issues will arise that will require greater formality, defining the relationship more precisely. Why not do it properly from the very beginning? A ministry leader will welcome this definition and clear communication. It reveals the church board’s determination to do things properly, it expresses the value that the board places upon the person and the relationship, and it enables a good relationship. Similarly, in matters dealing with vacation, benefits, use of office equipment (i.e. cell phone costs), travel costs, etc., careful attention by the board will reduce sources of irritation, avoid misunderstandings, and demonstrate care and concern for the employee’s well-being.
If your church has multiple employees, then the importance of developing and sustaining good relationships with them becomes even more critical for the church’s success. How does the board ensure that the church is an excellent employer? Should this be a corporate value? How do you communicate this verbally and through specific actions? When issues arise, do you deal with them promptly and seriously? If an employee is failing, how does the board ensure that all is being done to turn the situation around? Does the church board have a fair process for releasing employees? When conflicts occur within the staff, does the board have mechanisms that inform it appropriately and ensure that the issues are being dealt with fairly and carefully? In such contexts the church board will work with and through the lead pastor for resolution. However, what if the conflict is between the lead pastor and another staff person? How does the staff person know that his or her situation will be handled fairly?
Let’s consider one external relationship, namely your church’s relationship with civic leadership. Take the case of a church that has received a letter from the local city council informing it that it is in violation of parking bylaws on Sundays because its parking lot is too small to accommodate the growing congregational attendance. Neighbours have complained about people parking too close to their driveways and the local mall that is adjacent to the church property has objected to church attenders using their lot for parking. How will the church board handle such matters? Will it be informed adequately? What outcome does the church board desire to achieve in resolving the situation? Is it important for the church board that the church’s relationship with the local government be courteous, respectful, and congenial, living out Romans 13?
The church board is not an island unto itself. It operates within a wide network of relationships. Ignoring or mishandling these relationships will generate needless conflict, sap the energy of the board members, and prevent a church board from stewarding the trust it has received from the congregation as well as it should. A church board chair will be alert to these dynamics, helping the board make and communicate its decisions with wise discernment about this ‘political dimension’ of board life. When managed well, these relationships will promote and nurture the congregation’s mission.