Christians working together in ministry teams have the opportunity and responsibility to experience and express spiritual disciplines collectively. If we think of a spiritual discipline as essentially attention paid to the instructions of Jesus such that we follow him obediently and take seriously our relationship with him, then all aspects of our lives can be perceived as a cluster of spiritual disciplines as we live with deliberate “consciousness of God.”
In the New Testament the principle of agapē, i.e. personal sacrifice for the good of the other, as well as the reality that believers together form the family of God in Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, requires us to nurture a collaborative spirit, a Spirit-inspired interdependence, as one of our most significant spiritual disciplines. In other words as a believer I have an obligation in Christ to be a peace-maker, “to please [my] neighbour for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2). Paul appeals in prayer that God would give the Roman believers “a spirit of unity among ourselves as you follow Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5). I presume the Holy Spirit intended believers in the 21st century to take Paul’s words seriously. Following Jesus requires me to tend to relationships with Christians and non-Christians, seeking to work in collaboration to achieve the mission Christ gave to his church. This applies to church board members.
A church board functions as a living laboratory for expressing and testing the nature of Christian collaboration and interdependence in the body of Christ. Such harmony thrives on humility, a desire to learn, and a deep sense that Jesus lives in and expresses himself through his disciples. The Holy Spirit generates this collaboration as his fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). It is our response to the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 — “that they may all be one.” Pursuing this goal defined by Jesus requires a deliberate state of mind and attitude of heart. And Jesus gives us the ultimate motivation — “to let the world know that you sent me” (John 17:23). There is as Paul declared “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
What are some of the polarities within congregations that threaten collaboration at the board level? One would be the tension between preservation (or traditional practices) and innovation. Discussions about worship practices would be a classic example. Another would be the conflict between presumptuous faith and prudent caution. This kind of polarity often emerges in discussions about budgets or decisions about undertaking major building projects. Then there is the common debate between maintaining congregational autonomy and becoming more interdependent with other churches in kingdom work. In this case it frequently finds expression in local church and denominational relations. And then there is the tug-of-war between theological purity and contextualization. As congregations become more multicultural it becomes a challenge to discern what is essential to Gospel obedience and what is merely tradition or cultural convention.
Some of these polarities arise because of generational differences, or modern vs. postmodern perspectives, or theological divergence. People listen to and regard as authoritative different pastors or writers or scholars and adhere tend to champion their divergent views. Often the debates swirl around the merits of diverse methods.
A board chair has to help the board recognize these differences, discern their merits, learn to listen respectfully, and remind the board members that their work as part of the body of Christ requires the spiritual discipline of collaboration, interdependence and harmony. The chair also needs to be reminded that dissimilar views do not equate with the category “enemy.” Rather the chair seeks to discern and affirm commonality in the midst of sincere differences. However a crucial element in this discernment is enabling board members through discussion to establish the relative importance of such diverse viewpoints.
The nurturing of unity does not require uniformity, but it does require repentance and respect for and commitment to one another as Jesus’ disciples. It can only be built upon mutual understanding. Lasting collaboration and relational harmony is founded upon collective agreement about primary gospel truth (usually expressed in a statement of faith), passionate embrace of the local church’s mission, and humble acceptance that we only see part of the picture.
Negotiating differences of opinion is the stuff of collaboration and proceeds in the light of a commitment to a greater good and glory defined by God. A board chair arbitrates and facilitates this exchange so that the board members can discern together with unity of spirit the best way forward and be willing to support it despite personal opinions. The spiritual discipline of collaboration enables the board to speak with one voice.
When a board members no longer believe that they can support the direction being taken by the board because in their view it violates the mission or some ethical or legal principle, then resignation becomes the appropriate response. However, resignation in such cases should be the act of last resort after the board member has exhausted all possible avenues that would enable unity and collaboration to continue. It should not seen as an easy escape hatch or a simple way to avoid the hard work required to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” When the going gets tough, significant spiritual energy must be expended to sustain the deep collaboration that board work requires.
The spiritual discipline of collaboration flourishes as board members learn to pray for one another and the collective ministry of the congregation. Church board members covenant together in Christ to find the best way to advance the church’s mission, to control personal desires and pet projects for the good of the whole, and to work together in faith that the Spirit’s goal of love, joy and peace can be achieved. This is part of the spiritual battle in which church board members engage, realizing that Satan’s agenda is strife, disunity, and enmity within the church body. If he succeeds in generating disharmony within a church board, it will not be long before that disharmony surfaces in the interactions of the congregation.