Clarifying the Roles of Church Boards & Staff (Part 1)
Over the last 11 years working with churches, we’ve seen church governance can either be a barrier to—or a catalyst for—church health and growth. More often than not, church boards are dysfunctional and create complexity. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you know what roles should be taken on by your church board and what roles should be taken on by your church staff, decision making and leadership becomes much clearer.
In this conversation, Sean and I are diving into what we’ve learned…
- How the data shows that complexity leads to stuck-ness in churches
- How to create a healthy, effective church board and navigate the relationship between senior pastors and the board
- The 5 key roles of an effective church board and which areas board members need to lead
- Common mistakes we see small church boards make and common mistakes larger church boards make
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Links & Resources from the Episode
- Best Practices for Church Boards | Part 2 | Episode 170
- Read through the book High Impact Church Boards with your team.
- Take a look at our Unstuck Leadership Coaching options to see how we can help you build a healthy church staff.
Watch the Webinar Replay: 3 Keys to an Effective Church Board + Staff
This practical conversation will help you clarify the essential roles of the board and the staff team, and help you position your church for healthy growth under aligned leadership.
Special thanks to ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) and The Church Lawyers for sponsoring this event.
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Well, hey, everyone. Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. My name is Sean, and I’m filling in on hosting duties today for Amy. And I’m here with Tony Morgan. Tony, you’ve been without power for several days. Welcome back to civilization.
Thanks, Sean. It’s good to be back. Yeah, the remnants of one of the most recent hurricanes came through Atlanta, and we were stuck for a few days without power and no internet. So it’s good to be back connected to the vortex, if you will.
We’re going to get to this week’s content in just a second, but before we do, I just want to remind our listeners to get the show notes before they listen. So if you haven’t yet, make sure you subscribe to get them, so that you don’t even have to think about it. You’re going to get them every week in one email, by going to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast. So, Tony as I work with churches, I’ve often found that governance of the church becomes a barrier to health. And it’s one of the key reasons why churches get stuck. Are you seeing the same thing that I’m seeing?
Well, yeah, Sean, not only do I just sense that sometimes when I’m working with churches that are stuck, that governance is one of the key issues, but we also looked at some of the data that we’ve collected from churches through the years and found some key differences between healthy, thriving churches and churches that were stuck and in decline. As an example, what we found is stuck churches have larger boards, in fact, quite a bit larger, 40% larger. So again, you might think more voices, more people involved, the healthier, the better the decision-making, the stronger the ministry is going to be. But actually, the opposite is true when we look at the data. Another example, we found stuck churches have twice as many additional committees in their structure. So getting more people involved and more committees doesn’t seem to be the answer. And I think this speaks to a couple of common factors of stuckness that we see in churches. One is around complexity, and the second is around a lack of strong leadership. In other words, pastors, staff, and, then I would even argue, lay leaders aren’t empowered to lead in their churches. And as a result of that, we’re seeing this is creating real issues. So let me give you some examples. One of the churches, you’re gonna think this isn’t real, but trust me, these are real experiences that I’ve had. One of the churches we served with had a board and 39 additional committees at the church. Can you believe that?
Wow. I mean, how did they ever make a decision?
There weren’t any decisions that were made in that situation. Another church I was working with, I just felt so bad for the pastor because he was explaining to me how challenging it was getting decisions made because they had over 200 deacons in their church that were involved in issues around ministry strategy and finances and things like that. I was working with another church several years ago that required a congregational vote every year to approve the hundreds of volunteers that were serving on ministry teams throughout the church. So they had to have a vote on people that were just wanting to volunteer their time. So, you know, these are just a handful of examples. These are the more extreme examples, but needless to say, I mean, we do. We run into some common challenges in churches around governance, around their structure and how they make decisions. And I think in many cases, they’re just carrying forward to current times some structures that they embraced years ago, maybe when the church was smaller, maybe when more people in that smaller church could be involved in decision-making, but as the church has grown through the years, it’s created some real challenges. So needless to say, though, one of the things that we’ve learned and kind of an underlying key thought you’ll probably hear in our conversation today is giving more people a voice in decisions doesn’t necessarily help churches get unstuck. Instead, the data would suggest it does the exact opposite.
You know, these issues related to governance, they’re a challenge for churches in normal seasons. Why is it a bigger issue today?
Yeah, so, as an example, I think in our current situation, we’re finding creating additional layers of complexity, a challenge is getting consensus around some core functional areas of the church, including mission and vision. And in this season, where we desperately need clarity and focus in those foundational areas of a ministry, it can become challenging when you have many people involved in decision-making, many people on the board, many committees. It just makes day-to-day ministry decisions more challenging as well. But here’s probably the biggest area of concern that I have for churches that have some governance challenges right now. In this season, we’re seeing churches are having to make pivots. Pivot is that it’s that bad five-letter word that you’re hearing a lot in this current season, but because of what we’re experiencing, it is. It’s requiring ministries to change the way they’ve engaged their mission. But when the governance has broken in churches, it’s preventing churches from making some critical changes that they need to make in the season, not only to survive as a church, but to really thrive in ministry going forward. The other, I would say, big challenge that we’re seeing is, again, these are related, but in seasons like we’re experiencing today, we also need leaders to lead strong. And in many instances, the governance of churches, I think, neuters the leadership of pastors and staff, so that they’re no longer able to leverage that spiritual gift to carry out the mission that God has given the church. So the key thought here is thriving churches need to be led by lay leadership teams that streamline decision-making and then empower the pastor and the staff team to lead strong.
Hmm. That’s really good. So if a pastor and/or a board that recognize that governance is a challenge that’s really causing the church to be stuck, what do they do next?
Yeah, that’s a great question, Sean. And this is going to sound like a hyper-spiritual response, but I would really encourage you to begin with the Bible and have your lay leadership board and your senior level staff go on a journey through scripture and look for the answers to these three critical questions. The first is this, what are the characteristics of healthy leaders in a church? So let’s go on a journey through scripture and try to answer that question. The second key question is what is the role God intended for these leaders? And then the third question is what structure would best empower qualified leaders, leaders that have that spiritual gift of leadership, to engage their roles more effectively. And maybe to help as you consider these three questions, I mean, some obvious places to start in scripture 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5. I mean, those are some great passages that speak to characteristics of healthy church leaders and the roles that God intended for them. But the other resource I would recommend to compliment this journey is to pick up the book, it’s called “High Impact Church Boards.” T.J. Addington is the author. TJ is now one of the co-lead pastors at Heartland Community Church in Rockford, Illinois. Really, it will give you a good framework for some, I think, healthy, helpful conversations that lay leadership boards and senior staff leaders could be having together about what governance needs to look like going forward. But here’s a little secret. I’ve learned that the easiest way to improve the health of the relationship between lay leadership and the pastor/staff is to increase the spiritual component of the selection process for lay leadership positions. In other words, as you elevate kind of the expectation of the spiritual maturity, the spiritual leadership quotient, that’s required for some of these lay leadership boards or committees in your church. As you elevate that and raise expectations, you’re going to find that people will begin to self-select out when they recognize that I’m really not, that’s not who I am. I’m not really qualified to lead. I don’t have those characteristics in me currently. Hopefully that’s an encouragement for them to go on a personal spiritual journey to see that increase. But many times, I find, because churches don’t elevate the spiritual leadership component requirement for these roles, that many times people who want to be in control pursue these opportunities. In other words, they want to control people. They want to control decision-making. They want to control finances, whatever the case might be, but if you elevate the spiritual component that’s required for these roles, I think you’re going to find that people will self-select out. And really the quality of the leaders that you find on these teams will elevate. And that’s certainly going to then help you improve the overall health of your ministry.
Yeah, gosh, that is so good. You know, next week we’re going to talk about some specific governance changes that may be needed to support healthy ministry in the long run. And we’ll talk more specifically about the relationship between pastors and their board, but today though, I’d like for us to focus on the role of the board members at churches. So Tony, maybe you could unpack this by just walking through your recommended job description for a board member.
Yeah. So, you know, as you go through scripture together, I think it’s going to help you begin to draft what a job description should look like for a board member, but at a minimum, I would encourage you to think about these specific roles. First, and I’ve alluded to this already is just modeling spiritual leadership in the congregation. I mean, are the folks that are part of this team demonstrating full devotion to Christ, that Paul expressed it this way and, you should imitate me just as I imitate Christ. So, I mean, the first and the most important role of a board member, I think, is to try to live a life that’s worth imitating in your role on this team and in your congregation. So are you living a life worth following? The second key role is to provide encouragement and accountability to your lead pastor or senior pastor. And I want to just emphasize here both encouragement and accountability. I think too many times what I see in boards is they’re focused on that second aspect of accountability, but rarely are they committed to the encouragement part of this role, and goodness, I mean, I have too many conversations with lead pastors, and they desperately need other people in their life to provide encouragement. And sometimes that encouragement happens with more of a push, but sometimes, and I think more often, what pastors really need is a lift up Sean. They just need some other people that are close to them that are lifting them up in that key ministry role. The third role is to protect the established mission and vision of the church, and by the way, this does not include strategy and execution. That’s the responsibility of your pastor. That’s the responsibility of your staff team. They should be carrying out strategy and execution of ministry in the context of your church. But when it comes to mission, why we exist, and vision, where do we sense God’s calling our church in the future, this is a key responsibility of the board to make sure that they have a voice in this and that they also are protecting this going forward so that we don’t start to move from our sense of God’s direction for the ministry. The fourth key role is to make any significant stewardship decisions for the church. So here, think about maybe your annual budget, the salary of the lead pastor, land acquisitions, construction contracts, so on. My suspicion is somewhere in your bylaws or some of those key documents, these have been defined already. What I would like to highlight here, though, is what I think is an appropriate balance of responsibility of the board and then the pastor and the senior staff in your church, and it’s around staffing. So I think the board should have responsibility for identifying what your overall staffing budget should be. And they may even help to set some kind of guidelines around salary ranges for positions, but where I see boards tending to overstep their responsibility is in churches where they are then taking on decisions related to specific people on the team and the salaries of those people on the team. And what I’ve learned from firsthand experiences, it’s really important for the lead pastor to take on that responsibility. In other words, they are the ones that are determining the “who” that are going to fill team roles, but then also that the senior pastor or other senior staff people would determine what the salaries of those positions should be as well. In other words, salary should be determined by the people who directly manage the staff in consultation with the senior pastor or executive pastors or some of those other senior level people. To dive deeper into that, I think, is a misstep that I see many times from board people. The fifth area here is to advise the lead pastor, as requested, on strategy decisions that the staff leadership has processing, and here the way I would maybe express this is as trust increases between the board and the lead pastor, I think there’s going to be a bit of a give and take on both vision, but also on key strategic initiatives. In other words, the board is going to desire the pastor, when this relationship is healthy and when trust exists, the board’s going to desire their pastor to have a voice on shaping changes in vision. And likewise, when that relationship is healthy, the pastor is going to desire the board to have a voice in any major strategy shifts. So those, Sean, I think, are the key functions within this job description that I think you do need to articulate. And again, as you go through that journey through scripture, you’re probably going to identify some others, but here’s a final key thought related to the job description. I think it’s really important for there to be an onboarding process for new board members. I think this is critical. And the reason why I say this is many times people serving on church boards are coming with their experiences from their jobs, maybe from serving on a board in a different organization. And there’s a uniqueness around this board responsibility in a church that it distinguishes what’s required for this type of a role compared to other roles maybe outside the church. And because of that, I think sometimes people come to these positions with maybe some incorrect understanding of what the role really is like, and it’s not that they’re bad people or they’re trying to do something outside of expectations. It’s just that they’re not informed. And that’s why I think a training process, an onboarding process, is required here, which then may open the door for you to consider how can we start to do some mentoring with potential board members before they actually become a part of the board itself?
Tony, that is so good and practical. I can think of several churches that I’ve been in contact with that if their board had been organized around these five things, I don’t think they would have been nearly as stuck as they were. So, you, you know, in the last decade or so, a little more than a decade, I don’t want to age you too much, but in a little more than a decade you’ve been working, I mean, we’ve worked with hundreds of churches. And so I just love to hear from you, what are the most common mistakes you see boards making when it comes to their roles and responsibilities?
Yeah. Good question, Sean. And actually, I think my responses is a little bit different depending on the size of the church. And so what I’ve seen, I would say the most common mistake I see in smaller churches, it’s when boards get involved in the strategy and the execution. In other words, they’re getting involved in the day-to-day decisions regarding ministry, and for there to be a healthy relationship between boards and the pastor and the rest of the staff, we need to let the staff drive strategy, drive the day-to-day execution of ministry as board members and not get involved in those types of decisions. And then likewise, as I mentioned earlier, the lead pastor and the staff shouldn’t get involved in the roles and responsibilities that really the board members need to be owning as well. Now, like I said, I think the common mistakes I see for larger churches are a little bit different here. I would say the most common mistake I see boards making in larger churches is not taking the lead on succession strategy. In other words, they’re waiting for the senior pastor to come to that decision that succession needs to be a conversation, and the board is not taking the initiative to drive that conversation. It’s not to push the senior pastor out, it’s to make sure there’s a plan, that there’s a strategy in place. So that as succession becomes more reality, that there’s a healthy process already established to guide that conversation.
Yeah, that’s really good. I think the most recent research I seen from Barna was that the average age of a pastor, senior pastor, at least in the United States, is in the late fifties now. And so that is just a pressing conversation for many churches.
All right. Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s episode?
Yeah. Let me speak directly to the lead pastors who are listening today, because I know this is a delicate conversation to have with your board. I mean, they’re your bosses in many instances, at least that’s the way churches and their governance is structured. But as I mentioned earlier, the health of the relationship between the board and the pastor, it’s critical, and it definitely, what we experienced anyways, it definitely impacts the overall health of your ministry. So if there’s dysfunction in this relationship, you need to engage this conversation today. And we’d like to help with that. I mean, as Sean alluded to, for the last 10 years or more, we’ve been providing pastors with coaching around issues like this, that help lead your churches forward with a new vision, to lead hopefully your church forward and develop this healthy relationship between you and your board. I mean, ultimately we want to come alongside you to help you take your next steps toward Christ, but also to help your church take those steps as well. And many times, that has included providing coaching to pastors and boards around roles and responsibilities like we’ve discussed today. So, if we can help you provide some coaching in this area, we’d love to do that. And you can learn more by visiting theunstuckgroup.com/coaching.
Tony, thanks for letting me jump in and host this week’s podcast with you. And I know we’re thankful for everyone who tunes in and listens to the podcast as well. So if this podcast has been helpful for you, we’d love your help in just getting the content out. You can do that by subscribing on your favorite podcasting platform, wherever you listen to podcasts at. You can give us a review there, or you can just tell somebody else about this podcast. Next week, we’re going to be back with week two of our series on healthy church boards. Until then, we hope you have a great week.