Boards serve an important governance role, usually well defined in corporations, but less so in churches, where it is often confused with eldership. Regulatory requirements need to ensure that the activities of a church are safely and legally governed, but many board members also function as senior leaders in churches. Some boards therefore tend to adopt a leadership or management role which can create tension while also distracting from the task of governance.
The three overarching responsibilities of a church board – culture, compliance and championing – act like the three legs on a stool which are all needed to support it. Without any of the legs there will be an adverse impact on the church’s overall leadership by its ministry team. Of course, flawed leadership may also have many other causes.
1. Culture refers to the way people actually behave in practice, not simply what they say is important to them. Board members oversee organisational culture and are custodians of a church’s values, but not simply the ‘permission to play’ ones that every church would ideally showcase, such as integrity, evangelism, faithfulness, etc. (unless one warrants specific emphasis). A church doesn’t need to do everything equally well, and healthy boards help to enculturate important practices in the church’s policies and procedures. This involves being relational vision amplifiers to proactively avert unhealthy conflict. Naturally, a church’s key leader sets the vision, one that the board helps to drive and endorse but does not jointly set. When a board collectively seeks to exercise spiritual leadership it ventures outside its sphere of influence, irrespective of practices in non-church organisations.
Without strength and accountability in this area, a church can become a conflicted community at risk of exhausted leadership.
2. Compliance refers to the legal or statutory responsibilities, ensuring a child safe environment, constitutional adherence, sound financial auditing and reporting procedures, policy development, and risk management. These offer greater protection and security, and healthy boards are diligent in ensuring such outcomes. Compliance overlaps with culture; indeed compliance requirements need to be enculturated. Compliance needs can be complex enough to dissuade candidates for smaller church boards from serving. Denominational or campus structures can help to strengthen churches, though, as can consultants and professional ‘back office’ providers. Avoidance of compliance (or the supportive role of denominations) can be spiritualised in some communities whereas, what is needed, is for excellence in compliance practice from the right people, so as to release ministers to minister. It is important to avoid abuses of responsibility or reputational damage through which the devil can gain a foothold in a church (Ephesians 4:27).
Without strength and accountability in this area, a church can become a complacent community at risk of exposed leadership.
3. Championing means supporting and resourcing a ministry team’s expert leadership of the church with appropriate extra professional skills, while ensuring regulatory accountability without undue control or interference. Honouring, remunerating and praying for the minister(s) are key practices. Board members would normally be involved publicly or operationally outside an annual general meeting only by invitation or in the event of a crisis. A board chair’s leadership is of the board, not the church, and they should be the senior minister’s greatest advocate. Their role is an important and proactive one in ensuring accountability for culture and compliance but should not give the appearance of superiority or power at the expense of the minister’s leadership of the congregation and its mission.
Without strength and accountability in this area, a church can become a controlling community at risk of emaciated leadership.
So, what does the Bible have to say about governance? Very little in that it is neither for nor against contemporary boards and seems to imply only one local church leadership group. The need for the modern church board has necessarily emerged as a result of increased regulation. This is not anti-biblical, either (remembering that we don’t wind up our youth groups just because they are not referenced in Scripture). Boards offer helpful and functional support that protects and contextualises the church’s more overtly scriptural activities. Some have questioned the merits of formal membership, often conveniently linked to statutory obligations and official voting, but even Jesus (Matthew 18:17) and Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) implied its existence with the occasional need for removal of individuals from membership among the people of God.
Board members actually serve as ‘deacons’ when providing governance. Biblically, they are spiritual servants (Acts 6:1-6). Theoretically this term could apply to anyone in a serving role in a church but was originally designated to appointed positions that would free the elders to be ministry leaders. The term ‘elder’ may be synonymous with ‘shepherd’ or ‘overseer’ (sometimes ‘bishop’) as seen in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Elders in the Bible were senior leaders appointed in every church and city with prayer and fasting, not by election (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). Just because a board often serves as the legal committee of management of a church today does not imply that the roles should be merged or that they should be filled by means of a ballot.
If a board member happens to be an elder, it should only because their ministry calling is officially affirmed, but they do not necessarily serve as an elder when assuming their board role. The board’s key ‘deaconing’ function supports the church’s ‘eldership’ function without actually fulfilling the latter (even if some board members might happen to serve as ‘elders’).
The terms ‘elder’ and ‘deacon’ are further described in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The fact that people in these roles are required to manage their children and households responsibly implies that a relatively young age might apply, since the positions are taken up by spiritually mature people, not necessarily older individuals, The ministry gifts (of which there are five described in Ephesians 4:11-12) equip the church, and therefore provide what is traditionally affirmed as vocational leadership, so that every member can carry out their unique call (Ephesians 4:1, 1 Peter 2:5-9, Revelation 1:6, 5:10). One of these, that of pastor, is closely related linguistically to the one described in 1 Peter 5, that of a shepherd who also functions as an elder.
Those who say that an eldership board works within their own context (i.e. where there is a merging of the functions) will tend to find that it is the calibre and maturity of their people that sustains this in partnership with a separate minister and/or ministry team. The people involved tend to add valuable maturity and responsibility to their governance role. Usually, they have a minister who operates with high trust, sometimes within generous parameters (but occasionally within ones that are supported while simultaneously being too restrictive).
Reading this article might nevertheless prompt some alarm, given long-term practices in many churches. The purpose is not to dispense with people or positions, even though that may be necessary in some situations. It is also not to invalidate the contribution of hard-working people, either, since all churches ultimately depend on too few people, anyway. Naturally, every person serving is passionately committed to the mission, too. This is about function, though. It is about ensuring that those called to a ministry role, particularly one involving a vocational call and the formation to accompany it, can be affirmed and supported in their leadership task. Certainly, that task often needs to be done more effectively, and to be supplemented with particular training or coaching, but each congregation’s health is dependent on the optimum cohesion of the critical functions of governance, leadership and management in strengthening its important work.
See tomorrow’s post for the first of five governance mistakes that can hinder the growth of churches.