I want to say this gently but straightforwardly! There is a crisis of leadership in the church as it relates to who we put in leadership, whether we call them councils, boards, elders, deacons, or simply the leadership boards. This crisis is responsible for many of the dysfunctions in local churches. Leadership at this level matters a lot. 

Having served for years as a pastor, board member, or board chair, I know it is not an easy task. That being said, it is vital to the health of the church that we have healthy boards. There is much that I could say - my book High Impact Church Boards is an accessible and readable book for boards. But for the moment, let's look at the top dysfunctions of church governance boards.

Not guarding the gate to leadership.
It takes only one or two wrong board members to sabotage the health of a board. See my blog, Eight kinds of people who should not serve on a church board. What this means is that how we select leaders to church leadership matters a lot. There are actually implicit and explicit qualifications spelled out in Scripture that need to be considered. Most churches do not have a safe and effective way of choosing church leaders, and it comes back to hurting the board and the church. See The profile of an effective church leader.

Allowing elephants to exist in the boardroom.
Elephants are the issues everyone knows are there, but no one will name them. They are dangerous precisely because the board is unable to talk about them. And they are issues that usually matter. Dysfunctional boards allow elephants to exist that healthy boards do not, and those issues are usually issues that cause harm to the ministry and church body. Periodically I recommend that you ask the board if any unspoken elephants need to be named. Once named, elephants are simply issues to be discussed.

Allowing known issues to fester way too long.
There is a failure of courage on many boards. Either we don't talk about known issues (elephants), or we talk about them but never resolve them until they finally become big issues that must be dealt with. Passive boards that avoid conflict lead passive churches that will do the same. Peter makes it clear in 2 Peter 5 that church leadership is not easy or for the faint of heart. Many boards don't deal with known issues until that issue has caused a lot of damage in the church. Here is a principle. When you deal with an issue in a straightforward way when it appears, it is fairly easy to deal with. When you allow it to fester for years, it is far messier to clean up.

Substituting business for the spiritual work of leadership.
Boards must do business, but it is not the only work that they do, which is spelled out in the New Testament as keeping the spiritual temperature high; ensuring that the congregation is taught; cared for; developed and released into the meaningful ministry; protected and led well. Most boards I work with have allowed prayer to become a perfunctory way to start and end board meetings rather than a central priority of seeking out the heart of God. Boards that are devoid of significant spiritual life will lead churches of the same nature.

Not doing due diligence on issues.
I have seen associate pastors fired with no questions from a board on the word of the senior pastor when even a cursory conversation with the affected party would have indicated that what they were hearing was highly skewed and inaccurate. I once interviewed all staff who had left a church over a 12-month period, and they all had the same story of abuse and unfair treatment by the senior leader, yet no one on the board had ever asked and were living in denial. Where there are patterns, pay attention, ask questions, and verify. Numerous times I have encountered boards that knew something was going on but chose not to inquire. In the meantime, people were badly hurt.

Not asking the hard questions.
There is a tendency on boards to avoid those questions that might create conflict or create embarrassment for the senior leader. A good board meeting is seen as one where there is harmony and the avoidance of controversy. This is sad because it is in the hard questions that we get to the heart of issues that exist or ensure that we are covering our bases in the ministry. In fact, the very best board members are those who are willing to ask the hardest questions for the sake of the ministry. Hard questions create the dialogue necessary for a church to improve and get better. 

The inability to police their own members.
I am regularly fascinated by the fact that board members want congregants to "behave" and will even sometimes "bully" them into doing so but are unable and unwilling to police their own behaviors. That is a huge disconnect. I tell boards that they operate without a board covenant at their own risk. In some congregations I have worked with, the behavior of the congregation surpassed that of their presumptive spiritual leaders. 

Lack of a plan, intentionality, and accountability for results.
Part of the biblical mandate of leaders is to lead. Yet many boards cannot articulate where the church is going and why. That is clearly not leadership but rather babysitting the status quo. Where there is a plan, there is often no intentionality about pursuing it, and few church boards hold staff accountable for real ministry results but simply spiritualize the issue (the Holy Spirit is responsible for results). There is a reason some churches see more results than others: they have a  plan, are intentional about the plan, and regularly evaluate how they are doing.

Misusing the authority of a leader.
Some church leaders are frankly bullies and full of themselves because of the title they hold. Most of us have met one. Of course, this goes back to the need to guard the gate on the front end so that people with agendas or a lack of humility don't get into leadership. The predominant job of church leaders is to serve God's people in the spirit that Jesus served people during his life on earth. It is about service more than position, example more than pronouncements, living the Jesus life and pursuing His agenda rather than our personal agendas. I encounter too many leaders who through their weight around rather than serve.

This is, perhaps, the most common dysfunction of boards I have worked with. These are boards that, in the face of obvious issues to any outsider looking in, have ignored the obvious for years. They have simply been passive in the face of issues that need attention. I have often wondered why otherwise very smart individuals choose to park their thinking at the door of a church boardroom. Is it because they don't feel qualified to deal with spiritual issues? Is it because challenging their pastoral leader is messing with "God's anointed?" Or is it simply that we are a culture of "nice," and dealing with issues is a threat to that culture? I am not always sure of the reason, but as a consultant, the issues often seem so obvious that I have to ask why they have been ignored. Passivity is not leadership, and it is a sin of many church boards.

  • Mar 24, 2023
  • Category: News
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