Without question, the senior pastor’s most important relationship is with God, and second to that is with his family. In the context of the senior pastor’s church, however, there are many other relationships that call for his attention. I would suggest, among the myriad options available, that the most strategic relationship the pastor has is with his Elder Board (or whatever your church titles its highest decision-making leadership team). Depending on the quality and health of that relationship, it can either be an enduring source of deep joy or the greatest stress a pastor can experience.
In my last blog, I wrote about governance and leadership, focusing on church structure and organization (the bones of the body, if you will). I suggested that we should return to the model of the early church by having one and only one board to oversee all the functions of each local congregation. Subordinate to the board would be a variety of teams to fulfill the ministry and administration of the body.
In this blog, I focus on the organic element (the flesh around the bones) — in particular, the relationships within that key board, and especially between the senior pastor and lay elders. In my career as an executive pastor and my current role as Operations Director for EDA Move, I’ve had a clear view “behind the veil” to observe the impact of this relationship for good and for ill in a host of different situations. I am glad to say that most EFCA churches are led by well-intentioned, relatively mature persons who want to serve their local bodies well and wisely. Pastors don’t accept a call to a church and new elders don’t join the board anticipating an adversarial experience. Why would they, or we?
If your leadership team enjoys healthy relationships (and many do!), then praise God! Don’t take it for granted, and work intentionally to keep it that way. Exercise mutual respect, empowerment, and trust. Spend quality time together, praying and getting to know one another at a deeper level. Elder Boards are not simply work teams for the purpose of making decisions and getting tasks done. They are leaders under God, spiritual partners responsible for overseeing the Bride of Christ in its local expression. Our calling is worthy and important! The consequences are eternal.
So what happens to change the expectation of harmony to the reality of conflict?
There are undoubtedly more causes we could identify, but three I have often seen repeated are: 1) significant external threats; 2) character defects; and, 3) role confusion.
1. EXTERNAL THREATS:
Even the best of teams will experience seasons of testing and trial from “outside” circumstances. In my own experience, these threats have not been that frequent, but each one was significant, unexpected, and introduced great relational strains. I once served in an evangelical PCUSA church seeking to be “salt and light” in a denomination growing increasingly liberal. After “another” theological line was crossed, the majority of the leadership wanted to leave the PCUSA as a church. The denominational complexities and differing views led to a very challenging season. Other “threats” I have experienced include navigating the transition of “small to large” church, which almost caused the loss of a beloved pastor (but didn’t, praise God); and the recession of 2008-09 when the church had to eliminate several ministerial staff positions, which the congregation wanted to debate. The stress of each of those on the leadership team taxed us to our limits with long meetings, frayed nerves and sometimes loud, heated conversations.
How has your leadership team fared during this pandemic? Doing his disruptive, destructive best to take advantage of a natural calamity, Satan has used our worst impulses to turn our society and even the evangelical church against itself. Our reputation and credibility as a people of God have suffered, undermining our very calling to glorify Him! Not immune from this spiritual infection, it is the very rare board that has not faced conflict and some level of divisiveness. It is in these times that God refines us, compels us to depend on Him, and redeems this unexpected bad with His overwhelming good. We don’t yet know how it will all end, but we do know that He will refine and grow His church by first refining and growing His leaders. It is how we respond to one another that will model how His people should respond in the midst of their differences.
2. CHARACTER DEFECTS:
But what about the board that was already unhealthy before the pandemic began, possibly for years. Sadly, on too many of our boards, some individuals find themselves elevated to positions of honor who fail to exhibit the Biblical character traits mentioned in I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; and I Peter 5:1-4. I know of one retired professional who is an elder, who uses his influence to “run” the church as if it were an extension of his practice, thwarting and undermining the godly pastor on a regular basis. We all know of folks elected to boards because they were popular, or successful businessmen, or had been around “forever,” or were leaders in prominent church families. Yet, too often they lacked spiritual maturity and sometimes even faith in Christ. Such persons do not belong on any Elder Board and their presence will almost inevitably lead to conflict. Even worse, dealing with them in a Biblically appropriate manner has the potential of splitting the church, or the pastor losing his job, all because an ungodly pattern has been tolerated and unaddressed for too long.
3. ROLE CONFUSION:
As difficult as the first two situations can be, I believe misunderstandings and conflicts due to role confusion are the most common and perhaps the easiest to remedy. For example, I have seen board members take it as their personal responsibility to “manage” their pastor, actually using the expression “under their thumb,” to “protect” the church from pastoral ideas and initiatives they didn’t like. Likewise, I have seen pastors who functioned like bad CEO’s who resisted accountability, overpowered their boards, and pursued their own agendas. Praise God, I have never had to serve under such a misguided leader!
That leads us to: Who is responsible? By that, I don’t mean who is to blame (was that your first sense of the question?). Rather, I mean who is God holding accountable to make it better? The answer—every member of the board, with perhaps a double portion of responsibility for that person who is the “first among equals” (either the senior pastor or the board chairman, if not both).
In response to:
- External threats— the team needs to: decide wisely what to do, while genuinely loving one another, and striving for unity in the Spirit. (John 13:34-35; John 17:20-23; Ephesians 4:1-3)
- Character defects— the team needs to: confront sin where it exists among them by speaking the truth in love; hold one another accountable in growing together toward Christlikeness; seek to present as board candidates only those who are appropriately qualified.
- Role confusion— the team needs to: understand and commit to following clear and appropriate roles; create the means to ensure those roles will be observed and maintained.
In my next blog, I will unpack in greater detail some differences between healthy and unhealthy boards and clarify the roles to embrace as well as those to avoid. If I can help your church navigate any of these situations, please be in touch!
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