Resignation of lead pastor, moral failure of a significant church member, financial mismanagement or fraud, accident in which people associated with the church are injured or killed, facility failure, church split — the possibilities for hard news within a congregational setting surely present a daunting array. And they do happen, at points when you as chair least expect. In blog #40 I talked about ‘black swan’ events that overtake a board and surprise everyone. In this blog I take that discussion a stage further and consider a church board chair’s personal response to such events.
Recently, I had to come to terms with a situation where one of our key church partners (members) declared their intention to shift to another congregation. It was hard to hear this news and also hard to process it properly, seeking to learn what God might be saying to our board, our ministry team and our congregation through this event. As I reflected upon this experience, I concluded that the following were important things I learned as a church board chair:
1. The element of surprise is difficult spiritually. Hard news usually catches us in unguarded moments. The surprise factor in this often can be overwhelming initially. You start to question your own leadership or second guess decisions recently made by the board. Sometimes the news causes you to wonder whether you have a clear grasp of what the true state of the congregation is in fact. Surprise leads to doubt, but often equally to a desire to find someone or something to blame for this. Whose fault was it? — becomes a common question. The emotional and spiritual impact of this processing takes a toll that should not be underestimated and it takes some time to recover your equilibrium. Periods of prayer, careful reflection on God’s calling, and examination of your own heart become important activities as you seek to make sense personally of what has happened and gain control of your emotions. Perhaps what might be most surprising to us in such moments will be the questions we have of God, particularly the ‘why’ questions, which can be most difficult to manage.
2. It’s all about relationships. Often the hard news will involve someone you know and respect. Not only do you have to contend with the difficult news, but you also have to figure out how to relate to that person in the light of what has happened or is supposed to have happened. The issues of guilt or innocence often become complex to sort out. People look for someone to blame, but the person or persons who are at the centre of the controversy are friends, members of the church, people you have served with, people you trust! As board chair you have to balance the relationship which you may have with those involved and the good of the whole congregation — not an easy balancing act to accomplish in the midst of a spiritual storm.
3. The chair has to work hard to help others in the board and among the church leadership to make sense of this hard news. As the hard news becomes more widely known, others within the church leadership group will experience their own spiritual and emotional responses. At the same time as you are wrestling with your own personal challenges, you will be expected to help the board members process this situation individually and collectively. The same questions you contend with personally will probably become the same questions the board will have to wrestle with as it seeks to make sense of what has happened or is alleged to have happened. This becomes an exercise in crisis management, with all of the attendant challenges. It will be important to allow space for the board members to express their perspectives within the context of the board as an initial step to help healing to begin and as a way for the board to come to terms with what may have happened. You as chair will need to facilitate that discussion in a context of prayer and careful reflection. Helping the board to discern an appropriate response for the health of the congregation and in line with the congregation’s values will be the primary goal. Above all it will be important that the board have good information and as clear a picture as possible about what may have gone wrong so that wise and appropriate decisions are made.
4. The chair has an important role to plan in ensuring that the appropriate processes have been followed in responding to the hard news. I think one of the key roles that a board chair has in facilitating a board’s work in a time of crisis involves the careful attention to policy, process, and values. Not only must the board discern what is the right thing to do, but it must also determine to do it the right way. This is only way the chair can help the board to limit potential liability, maintain credibility, lay a good foundation for healing to begin, and demonstrate Christian integrity. It may be costly to do so, but in the end, you have to ensure that the board leads in doing what is right for all concerned. Sometimes these processes will apply to the internal operations of the board (e.g. a conflict of interest issue), and sometimes to the congregational process (e.g. resignation of a pastoral leader). One of the significant elements in these matters is for the board to make sure all of its members are working from the same page. If the board is divided in a time of crisis, then no unified action will be possible within the congregation. While it may take some time for the board members to sort things through in order to discern unity, it has to be a priority for the chair. At such times it is particularly important for the board to speak with one voice. And this voice will be articulated through the chair. If the chair also serves as the moderator of congregational meetings, this dual role will add even more weight to the chair’s message on behalf of the board.
5. Use crises as educational opportunities for the board. Of course, a chair cannot do this as the crisis is happening. Once it seems that the board has begun to move beyond the crisis, the experience may serve as a wonderful opportunity to help the board develop its capacity to govern. For example, the board members may have discerned that a current policy proved to be inadequate and needed substantial revision to be of service. Or, the board may have discovered that its mechanisms for ensuring adherence to policy were insufficient. Or, perhaps the board found that its liability insurance was barely adequate to deal with the matter. Whatever the crisis was, it always gives the chair an opportunity to help the board reflect and learn. Sometimes it provides a teachable moment to use a consultant to help the board formulate new vision, new policy, and new processes.
6. It will take extra time. Working through a crisis will always take longer than you anticipate. Recovery may also require more energy and expenditure of resources than you initially discern. As chair your priority is for the reputation of God and health and and the congregation. The initial diligence you take to ensure that things are handled well, even though the expenditure of time may seem inordinate, will usually be rewarded in the months following the crisis. Other matters may have to be set aside until the crisis passes because you will have to give it your undivided attention. Congregations are fragile entities with trust and mutual commitment being critical “glue” that sustains the community. A crisis has the potential to dissolve this glue, with resulting fragmentation. Retaining trust and nurturing commitment will require meetings with key leaders in the congregation and additional consultations with the board and the ministry staff. Sometimes extraordinary congregational meetings will be necessary and each will have to be planned well to ensure a good outcome.
7. Your personal example is incredibly important. How you act personally in response to the crisis will affect the ability of the board and the congregation to weather it well. Your example of wisdom, prayerful reflection, commitment to fairness and due process, has the potential to become a stabilizing influence. Remember that you chair the board — the group of mature spiritual leaders in whom the congregation has entrusted its good governance. If the board does not demonstrate spiritual intelligence in the response to this crisis, how can it expect the congregation to handle it well?
Crises come and crises pass. They are opportunities to grow our faith, to discern God’s faithfulness, and to improve the life and ministry of the congregation. As chair you will find yourself in the midst of spiritual struggles that are beyond your ability to resolve and so you will need to walk with strong faith in and dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Sometimes things will not get healed. Sometimes damage is severe and irreparable. In such situations your confidence in God’s care and ability to bring good out of something that is debilitating may be the means God will use to start the journey into a better future.