The important ‘culture’ and ‘compliance’ work of church boards can sometimes be fulfilled overzealously. This can result in some church boards trending toward control rather than facilitation, often stifling the person most experienced, gifted and called to lead. This is why a third key element of the work of church boards, ‘championing,’ is needed. It ensures support, prayer, honour, and the resourcing of leadership is prioritised. While any system is only as good as its people, it is these particular people who often unintentionally make one or more of the ten governance mistakes that typically hinder church growth.
When church boards confuse Biblical Eldership with Corporate Governance they will often display the traits below. While ministers are only human and will have their fair share of shortcomings, as will boards in relation to their specific duties, it is foundational expectations and structural problems that so often undermine effectiveness. These usually centre on the mistaken idea that what the Bible refers to as an elder is a senior leader responsible for both the governance and ministry of the church. Many congregations set the church board up with an overarching authority that is too broad and gives rise to the tragic but often-true saying: ‘Ministers come and ministers go, but the board endureth forever.’ So, here’s ten common mistakes made by such church boards.
1. They adopt the role of leadership rather than seeking to facilitate leadership.
The concentric circles of leadership, management and governance will all overlap to a degree. Constitutions may theoretically give boards total power, but delegation certainly happens, so where is the line? It may be drawn differently in a time of crisis, but it would normally see a board avoid direct involvement in operations and, instead, back the leadership of the minister and ministry team. Trusting the minister does not mean they cannot or should not be questioned, but tone will often betray motivation. It is particularly important that the board meeting not be the place to plan or analyse worship services, working bees, or weekly activities, for example. These are all the domain of the ministry team except by specific delegation. Operations will involve a balance of leadership (typically doing ‘the right things,’ those which a minister needs to direct) and management (typically ‘doing things right,’ those in which a minister usually needs assistance). Creating a board charter or delegations policy (or both if the latter focuses mainly on financial authority) can help to document exactly who does what, and why, as well as how long they do it for (given the representative nature of board responsibilities warrants reappointment or turnover every two or three years, with a maximum term of office).
2. They overestimate their own ministry capacity due to mistaking their primary function.
Boards overreach when they end up taking primary leadership or a second layer of management, rather than focusing on governance with its emphasis on compliance, culture and the championing of the senior leader. If assuming that they are also elders, whether or not they are invested, board members will begin to confuse their role and function with that of the ministry team, leading to disappointment or conflict. Of course, true elders still lose their capacity to ‘eld’ if they have no significant relational context within which to demonstrate their ministry, but board members similarly lose their right to govern if they also have no significant relational context within which to demonstrate their governance. Board members should not normally be appointed for life, anyway, since serving is not about indispensability or accruing a power base. Senior personnel nevertheless need to show that they have ‘skin in the game,’ including via their personal giving, but this does not entitle them to public prominence or specific ministry posts. If the size of the church necessitates a board member also serving in a leadership role, then a leadership policy which aspires to raise up more leaders (and therefore streamline the church’s functions), should help to clarify what the limits are on such roles, so as to avoid the creation of positions of permanence or power.
3. They prioritise governance over leadership as the church’s main priority and end up with insufficient governance anyway.
Leadership drives mission and clarifies thinking, and is therefore supported by both management and governance. When a governance team overregulates the ministry team it can unwittingly create a bureaucratic burden. Typically, boards include people who have had some success in life but who have never run a church and therefore shouldn’t presume to know exactly how to lead one, even though they must ask the right accountability questions. Even if having some church experience and even if the current or recently-departed minister has not exactly been ‘firing on all cylinders’ does not mean assuming parts of their role when other requirements then typically fall by the wayside. Even in non-crisis situations, governance that does focus on the necessary elements of accountability usually doesn’t address enough of them or address them thoroughly (see yesterday’s post). Boards need to do their own role well, not someone else’s role less well. Getting external help guards against the development of blind spots and deceptive self-congratulation. A board calendar is an underused means of systematically checking that basic requirements are being fulfilled and that annual audits stay on track with plenty of advanced planning.
4. They presume that ‘every believer ministry’ justifies the board’s seniority in church ministry responsibilities.
If people are differently called and gifted, it seems presumptuous for board members to take on senior ministry roles for which they are not qualified, unless perhaps they happen to be recognised formally in such a capacity. The ‘every member’ (or ‘every believer’) ministry by which each person plays a role values all people having capacity but it can still honour particular individuals for the strength and seniority of their gifting. While everyone can practise spiritual gifts or just about any routine practical tasks, that doesn’t mean someone can, by extension, optimise ministry roles to which they are not called or for which they have not trained. Board members (as with ministers) need to be careful not to pull rank when operating in other church roles, too (e.g. playing music in a band in support of another congregation member leading worship). Where board members do have to step in and provide extra short-term help, they just need to guard against a martyr complex and help ensure that others can eventually step up to the plate, find their voice, and be empowered to lead. This needs mentoring, but board members also need to receive some, ensuring that they don’t derive undue identity from their role. Typically, this would come from elders (i.e. pastoral leaders, as per yesterday’s post) to differentiate from skills coaching and focus more on spiritual growth needs and personal discipleship.
5. They mistake the nature of the ministry needed to make disciples for the ministry needed to satisfy church members.
Church board members are often selected on the basis of popularity or long-service. This can make them overly sensitive to the wishes of long-term members, sometimes including those making larger financial contributions. Rather than governing for growth (which will happen when disciple-making adds new people), some board members govern for what they believe they are protecting (but just what, and from whom?!) If discipleship is at the heart of mission, then long-serving Christians who are not actively discipling in some demonstrable way need to be challenged to repent for their failure to obey the Great Commission, rather than being placated in their attempts to shift the goalposts toward a class of belonging that might resemble membership of a club. Churches that fail to plan for the future are effectively planning to fail in the future and that will one day be an indictment on the people of this generation. No-one legitimately gets to enjoy the privilege of consuming a past legacy for present comfort just because they happen to have inherited responsibility and assets at a particular juncture in time. The needs around us are far to great for such indulgence.
See tomorrow’s conclusion for five more governance mistakes that can hinder the growth of churches.