My objective here is not to revisit the specific controversies of Willow Creek but to draw some lessons for those of us who serve on church boards to consider. For my part, I am drawing on decades of working with church boards as well as having served for years on various boards. The recent issues at Willow Creek simply serve to illustrate my observations. I suspect that the good people who serve(d) in leadership at Willow would agree with most of these observations.
One. You can have as sophisticated a board structure as you desire and still get into deep weeds. If you google Willow Creek and church governance you will see all kinds of advice for how churches should structure their governance. They used Policy Governance and wrote about running great meetings. In the end none of that mattered when the board could not hold the senior pastor accountable and failed to guard the health of the church.
There are governance structures that will make ministry easier and some that will make ministry harder but the structure itself is only as good as the people who are leading. The bottom line is that governance structures while important are not a substitute for wise leaders. Sadly, the very ministry that held up its leadership paradigm as a model (Willow Creek), ended up with its whole leadership team resigning with no credibility left. It is a warning to all boards.
I am very curious what the dynamics were at Willow that prevented people on the board who asked the right questions from staying in leadership. When discerning people ask discerning questions and they get shut down by the rest of the board it is a sign of a dysfunctional and unhealthy board and organizational culture.
Two: Any structure that prevents board members from asking questions of a senior leader and verifying their answers is flawed. I have encountered situations where in the name of Policy Governance, the board was not allowed to press into staff issues, or even ministry philosophy and they acquiesced to the senior leader's pushback. Even while the senior leader was mistreating staff, creating a toxic workplace and making ministry decisions that alienated huge portions of the congregation. When it all came apart, the boards no longer had any credibility and had to step down.
Only after the fact, and after huge damage had been done did these boards realize that they had failed to ask the hard questions, insist on answers and verify those answers.
Three: Unhealthy pastors can and do use their boards to protect them and to silence discerning members of the congregation who are asking penetrating questions. When you try to silence others you either create a cult like atmosphere and healthy people leave, or there is a blow up when the voices persist (Willow Creek and Mars Hill), and finally leaders must confront it. Certainly not all voices in any organization are created equal but when people of good reputation and discernment speak up as they did at Willow Creek and Mars Hill they are ignored at the board's own peril. As they discovered.
One other observation. Boards cannot be intimidated by their senior pastor. If they are they will not be a healthy independent board.
Four: Unhealthy governance systems or groups will eventually cause significant issues in the congregation. In the case of Mars Hill, the church ended up disbanding. In the case of Willow Creek, the leadership resigned. Think of the pain felt by the congregation in both cases. When there are unhealthy pastors or boards, that health issues will eventually be felt by the congregation.
Five: Sometimes a board needs an outside voice(s) in order to help them see beyond their desire to protect the pastors, themselves or the church and to do the right thing. In the middle of a crisis or when people feel under siege, poor decisions are often made. What might have happened at Willow if the board had brought in and listened to a wise outside voice. Someone who has stature in the Evangelical community. This is not a sign of weakness but a sign of maturity. If nothing else an outside voice of reason and wisdom can verify the board's approach - or challenge them.
Six. A sign of a healthy leader is their willingness to be accountable to a board even if they disagree with some of their decisions. Healthy leaders solicit the opinions of others, listen to their authority, respect it and abide by it even when they may disagree. If a senior pastor will not abide by board decisions or allow the board to make those decisions beware! It means the board has authority in name only and not in reality.
See also Willow Creek and governance. A watershed moment