Pastors and Church Boards

From John Frye:

“For God so loved the world that he did not send a committee.” Fresh out of Dallas Seminary in 1975, I was called to student ministry at a church in Wisconsin. It was a good church in which to learn the ropes of local church life. This church had a constitution that ranked in the eyes of many right up there with the Bill of Rights and the U. S. Constitution. The church had a board for everything. I mean everything and I was an ex officio member of a number of them. It was during those days, I came across a plaque with the opening words of this post on it. I placed it on my church office shelf and the words served as my private mantra on many occasions. I understand that a church is a 501(c) 3 organization and so must have clear by-laws, officers, and structure filed with the state. Yet, when a man-made constitution overrules the biblical directives for the faith community’s life, I get concerned. In another church I served, we had the necessary church constitution and when something of a constitutional nature came up, we had to hunt for the thing. It was usually abandoned in the bottom drawer in some office. We didn’t lean on it for the life of the church. We had something called the New Testament for that.

Overall, I have been lucky with my relationship with church boards. Yet, in my early naïveté‎, I got snookered into a conspiracy by some board members to oust the senior pastor. There was subterranean unrest in that church unknown to me in that attempted coup. Board meetings can be very productive or board meetings can be “bored” meetings. The most productive board meetings are those driven by the mission of the church, not by the maintenance of the church. When Brother Bill and Sister Beulah are mad about the level of juice in the communion cups, you sense something is awry. Yet, when discussions get lively over how much of the church budget has the unconverted in mind, you know you’re in a good place.

The heart of a good board is the relational trust, transparency, and brotherly camaraderie of its members. When the reality of “Christ is head of his church” is embraced by the board and there is a sense in which the board seeks Christ’s will and not their own, the church will be well led. For years I served with a board that had this leadership philosophy: since God is a community of unity, joy and love, then our board should reflect as much as possible those Trinitarian dynamics. We discussed, debated, researched and prayed until we had a unity of mind about a decision that would impact the whole church. A brother could abstain from the decision in good conscience, but he would not resist or speak against the decision to anyone. We felt that majority rule had built into it the seeds of church division. A reported six to five vote by the board was not seen as a good thing. Was it all sweetness and pie? Me genoito! I was in an intense elders’ meeting when the church was going through some turbulent times and one elder responded to another with a flurry of profanity. We had to stop, regroup and remind ourselves of the ground rules of conversation/ negotiation. The New Testament phrase “sons of thunder” came to mind.

A communication reality that church boards should be taught about is “the ladder of inference (or assumptions).” In a high priority discussion, it is crucial that we recognize and express our assumptions. If not, board members can be saying the same words, but meaning different things. The classic text of Joshua 22 should be read and discussed at least once a year by the board. That Old Testament chapter reports that dangerous assumptions were made. The assumptions could have led to the literal slaughter of some tribes of God’s people. Pastors, may the board be with you.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • bob

    hey scot, what do you mean by this statement, “I understand that a church is a 501(c) 3 organization and so must have clear by-laws, officers, and structure filed with the state.” It is not necessary for a church to register as a 501c3 organization. Churches are tax-exempt just by nature of being a church.

  • Myron Williams

    i was first introduced to the the ladder of inference by Peter Senge almost 2 decades ago. Thanks for the reminder, because it’s way too easy to forget and skip steps to “hear what we want” about any communication, or lack thereof.


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