A group within the church has managed to elect to the church board a person whose singular agenda is to be ‘watchdog’ for that group’s special interest, namely controlling the lead pastor. How will you as chair help the board fulfill its trust to the entire congregation in such circumstances?
Or consider another scenario. A board member who has served with distinction for many years for some reason recently has become agitated about the ‘direction’ the church is going. He has become obstructionist in his board dealings and at times quite confrontational in discussions with other board members. Can you as a board chair allow such behaviour to continue, knowing that it is affecting the ability of the board to fulfill its spiritual ministry?
Or maybe the board has decided to recommend to the congregation a statement that proposes to define the position of the church about a critical issue, e.g. an approach to evangelism. However, because the essence of the position has been shared informally at previous congregational meetings, the board is aware that a small, but vocal group in the church, people respected for their many years of service, does not like the proposal. Yet, after much prayer and deliberation the board still thinks the recommendation is appropriate and necessary. How can the board chair speak to this question at the upcoming congregational meeting so that this group, while not agreeing fully with the position, will nevertheless continue to be a part of the congregational family?
You probably have your own stories of disgruntled church or board members who have become particularly challenging for you in your leadership as board chair. What can you do to minimize such things from happening in the first place, and when they do occur, what approaches can you adopt to enable the board to continue its ministry and function with some degree of effectiveness. These are tough situations which tend to sap the spiritual energy and joy from the board’s ministry. Here again the leadership of the board chair potentially serves to sustain the health of the board and the congregation.
As you become aware of such situations, take each seriously and treat it respectfully. Sometimes individuals or groups desire to know that their concerns are being heard, even though the final position of the church board about the issue may give good reasons for not accepting their preferred outcome. As well, you may discern a perspective that the board has not considered and needs to evaluate. A church board does not have a monopoly on wisdom and God’s Spirit does guide all of his people. Usually when you as chair show respect, it will be reciprocated.
Work hard to discern the key issue generating the misbehaviour or contrary position, but not getting distracted by the emotion with which it may be presented. People often feel very passionate about their causes and their emotions lead them to express things more graphically or forcefully then the issue warrants. This will require careful and intentional listening. Take time to restate the issue as you heard it so that you confirm that you have heard them correctly. Write it down so they know you have captured it accurately. I have found it helpful in such situations not to try and respond at that point but to say something such as, “Let will think about this for a few days and then respond. As well I will make sure that your concern is shared with the full board.” This gives time for me to calm my own emotions, prayerfully consider their concerns and prepare a thoughtful response.
Build on the credibility and trust you and the board have built through past leadership. If you and the board have led well or if the board has a history of functioning well together, then you have a legacy of trust and confidence upon which to build. If you deal well with minor issues that may be contentious, this also prepares groundwork and establishes process for resolving more significant questions. Conflict resolution is a learned skill, and the learning has to occur on the part of leaders and followers.
Communicate responsibly and always Christianly. As hard as it may be to control yourself, if you as board church in a board meeting or a church meeting lose your cool, then it will be very difficult for matters to move forward. In the case of a board member suggest that you meet him or her for coffee and try to understand as fully as possible what the problem or issue might be that is generating the unusual response. Explain carefully that the board needs to work in unity, but not unanimity and illustrate the difference. Let the person know that he or she does not need to speak angrily to or disrespectfully of other board members in order to express a viewpoint. Perhaps, if it is a board member, remind them of the code of conduct that the board has agreed to follow in their deliberations. If it is a procedural issue, then you might invite the board member to define it and proposed a change so that the board might debate the proposal on its merits. In a case where a group within the congregation is opposing the direction being recommended by the board, build into the formal, written proposal explanations that respond to their concerns (i.e. anticipated questions and answers) and give a rationale for not adopting their preferred plan. However, if the board is able to make some adjustments in the proposal so that is partially responsive to their concerns, this can be helpful in demonstrating their ideas are valued, were considered, and in some cases adopted.
Sooner or later matters will have to be resolved and sooner is usually better. When disagreements arise, often our instinctual response will be avoidance. Few people ‘enjoy’ conflict and the pathway to resolution can be risky and arduous. However, delay usually will not resolve the issue. Even if people become frustrated because they see no response to their concerns and therefore decide to leave your faith community, the issue is not resolved – it has only morphed into a different and often more complex one. Scripture encourages us to embrace differing ideas and viewpoints and also guides in how to sustain relationships with those whose ideas are at variance with our own. For example, Paul devotes considerable space in Romans 14-15 to such questions. Conflict per se is not evil, but often the motivations and emotions that get entangled in it create opportunity for sinful behaviour. Often reaching out to such people and seeking reconciliation or resolution through informal means serves to demonstrate your concern for them, your desire to maintain their trust, and your determination to help the board make the best possible decisions.
Be prepared to take matters as far as necessary for resolution, so long as you are prepared to accept the consequences. For example, if the disgruntled board member does not adjust his or her behaviour, you may need to ask the board to censure the board member and even ask for his or her resignation. If a group in the church refuses to follow the leadership of the board and the majority of the congregation, then the board, on behalf of the congregation will need to address this. No matter what the size of your congregation, this is tough stuff and it requires you as board chair to help the board follow proper process, go the extra mile in seeking resolution, but in the end taking seriously its responsibility to advance the mission of the congregation. Ultimately the congregation will make the decision at the next election of the board members.
You won’t succeed all the time. No one bats a thousand in such matters. No matter how hard you work at such things, you will not reach suitable resolution with all parties. Accept it. At the end of the day you as chair have to be able publicly to demonstrate that the board have listened carefully, evaluated wisely, and for very good reasons reached a different decision and outcome than that desired by an individual in the board or a group in the congregation. If you as chair have led well in such instances, then how the individual or group responds is out of your hands. They are responsible to God for their behaviour.
It is in such situations that we prayer earnestly that God’s Spirit will enable us to possess and model the peaceable wisdom that has it source in God (James 3:17-18). As well, the principles expressed by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-35, by Paul in Galatians 2:1-10 and by Luke in Acts 15 provide spiritual guidance in the matter of conflict resolution.