A pastor friend recently send me his thoughts after an article I wrote on pastor-board conflict:
“I understand that the pastor has to have some level of accountability and I agree that this needs to be in place however; where is the level of accountability for the board??!!! Why does the board get such freedom to govern as they see fit, and the pastor bend at their beckoning call? When I first came into ministry 14 years ago, I was an idealist and wanted to touch lives, help as many people as I could, and set the world on fire for Jesus. I still have fire for Jesus, but my flame for what happens behind the scenes in churches has grown very dim. What I have discovered in my pastoral career is pastors who go into a pastorate full of desire and passion, many times must go through a board to get permission to do things in ministry. The pastor may be the public figure, but the board runs the church with little to no accountability!!”
I’ve thought long and hard about this issue since my friend sent me his comments. Here are five thoughts on this issue:
First, every church leader needs to be accountable to someone outside his/her group.
This means that:
*a ministry team leader should be accountable to a pastor … a staff member … or a board member.
*a staff member should be accountable to a higher-ranking staffer or the lead pastor.
*the pastor should report to someone … presumably the official board. (If you want a miniscule church or a church split, make the pastor directly accountable to the congregation.)
*the board should account to another person/group as well, possibly depending upon who selected the board members.
When Paul laid out the qualifications for overseers/elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, he meant for Timothy and Titus to select those leaders.
In our day, that’s probably the equivalent of the lead pastor choosing the board members, which seems awkward because then he’s choosing his own supervisors!
As pastor, I always had veto power over board candidates, and used it often, though I probably let a few slip through the cracks that I shouldn’t have.
But churches ruled by congregational government usually vote on or verify the board members in an annual election. It’s almost always a rubber stamp because I’ve never heard of any board candidate being voted down. Most people simply don’t know enough about the leaders who are nominated to reject them … a flaw in our systems.
Second, this “accountability system” doesn’t work in actual practice for official boards.
I served in eight churches over a 36-year period in churches that espoused congregational government.
*The pastor was always accountable to the official board.
In my case, I submitted a written report to the board at every monthly meeting for years and years. I knew that I was accountable to the board for all that I said and did. If a board member had an issue with me, they knew they could speak with me directly or ask me a question in the presence of the other board members. Because I kept the board current on my decisions and activities, I never had major problems with any boards until my last year in church ministry.
*The staff were always accountable to the lead pastor or the associate.
When I had just one or two staff members, they were always accountable directly to me as pastor. When I had as many as ten staff members, most were still accountable directly to me, although I later asked several staffers to report to the associate pastor … a mistake on my part.
*The board was accountable to the congregation on paper … but rarely if ever reported anything to the church body as a whole … which gradually makes them feel as if they’re accountable to no one but themselves.
Third, the lack of board accountability is likely a major reason why so many pastors are forced out of office in our congregations today.
Think about this: who should the official board in a church account to?
*Some might say, “The board is directly accountable to God Himself.”
But then why can’t the pastor be directly accountable to God as well? As Pastor Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa used to ask pastors, “Who do you work for … the Lord or the board?”
But knowing human nature, most Christian leaders would say, “Since pastors occasionally go off track, they require immediate human accountability as well as ultimate divine accountability.”
If pastors require some level of human accountability, shouldn’t board members as well?
*Some might say, “Individual board members should be accountable to each other or to the board as a whole.”
But then why can’t staff members be accountable to each other rather than the pastor? And why can’t the youth pastor account to other staff members rather than the lead pastor?
This might work at first, but over time … if board members are only accountable to themselves … they’ll go off the rails … no matter how “spiritual” they are.
All too many do.
*Some might say, “The official board should account to the congregation as a whole.”
And I agree.
And yet … this is either done rarely or poorly in churches with congregational government.
Why is this the case?
In most of my ministries, I as pastor became the official spokesperson for the board in public. So when the board made a decision behind closed doors, I either volunteered or was assigned the duty of sharing that decision with our church family.
Sometimes I’d do that during the announcements on Sunday morning … or through an all-church email or letter … or through a handout in the Sunday bulletin.
Much of the time, I was more articulate than the chairman in public … and I had authority and credibility than most board members lacked.
But by always reporting board decisions to the church as a whole, I made a huge mistake … one that most pastors make:
My actions did not communicate to the congregation that the official board was accountable to the church as a whole.
Let’s say that the board decided that all greeters and ushers had to wear yellow shirts every Sunday, and that they wanted me as pastor to announce that decision during the next worship service.
Even if I said, “If you have any questions or comments about this decision, please contact one of our board members,” many people would be more likely to approach me because I’m the one who made the announcement.
It’s like I had an unspoken pact with the board: “You decide … I’ll announce.”
But in my mind, that seemingly insignificant pattern sends a strong message: the church board is not obligated to report their decisions to the congregation.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
Fourth, the presumption is that since there is only one lead pastor along with multiple board members, there’s a check-and-balance system already built into board proceedings.
But I would strongly dispute this argument because without their pastor, church boards sometimes make horrendous decisions.
Ten years ago, I took a sabbatical for six weeks, and spent an entire month in Europe.
While I was gone, something unexpected happened at church, and two staff members went to the church board with a proposal that I would not have approved.
I wasn’t around to consult, so the board made a decision … the wrong one, in my view … and when I returned home, I had to try and undo the damage that was created … but my intervention-after-the-fact ultimately made things worse … even though I handled the situation as well as possible.
I’m not saying that church boards can’t make good decisions without their pastor, but they will always make better decisions with him than without him.
But when the board tries to make decisions about their pastor in secret … and without his wisdom and experience … their decisions may be based on business experience or raw emotion (think hatred or revenge) rather than Scripture or the church’s governing documents.
For that reason … and I’m just guessing here … I’d put it this way:
*When the pastor and board make decisions together, they have a 90% success rate.
*When the board makes decisions without their pastor, they have less than a 50% success rate.
Add to that last statement a couple of spiritually immature members … a degree of high anxiety … pressure from influential or wealthy churchgoers … and the feeling of, “If we get rid of the pastor, we’re in charge of the church now!” … and you can see how many church boards can slip into “termination thinking” without knowing the pitfalls ahead.
Finally, there are three possible solutions to the issue of board accountability:
*The board needs to make every decision in conjunction with their pastor.
Not the associate pastor … not a former pastor … not another church’s pastor … but their own pastor.
But if their pastor is guilty of a major offense, then it’s appropriate for them to meet without the pastor and consult outside Christian leaders – at least five, in my view – so the board doesn’t cherry pick someone they know will agree with them.
There is safety in multiple counselors.
*The board is accountable to a Conflict Resolution Group (call them the CRG) for the way they choose to handle conflict … especially anything involving the lead pastor.
I’ve made the case for this in articles over the past few weeks, but the CRG should serve as a watchdog concerning the process that the board uses whenever they engage in conflict management with the pastor, staff, or congregation.
*The board needs to report as many decisions as possible to the congregation as a whole.
In many churches, this is done on an annual basis through a verbal or written report, but this simply isn’t adequate.
If the pastor has to account to the board at every meeting – usually monthly – then why does the board only have to account to the congregation once a year? Doesn’t that disparity lend itself to abuse?
If board members don’t interact with churchgoers regularly, they will be woefully out of touch, and in effect, minimize their chances of making God-blessed decisions.
Instead, the board should publish edited copies of their agenda before a meeting … and their minutes (edited) after a meeting … to anyone and everyone who wants a copy. (Some boards post this information on a bulletin board, but I think it’s better nowadays to send the information via email to those who request it.)
Board members also need to publish their email addresses and let people know that they will read and respond to churchgoer concerns promptly.
The very act of being accountable on a monthly basis will keep board members on their ecclesiastical toes … help take stress off the pastor … and make for a more harmonious and productive church.
And if the board ever has to dismiss the pastor, they will already have a delivery system in place for reporting to the congregation.
There is nothing worse than a board never reporting to the congregation for a year or more … and then trying to establish accountability when they announce that the pastor has left the church.
This is one reason why all hell breaks loose after a pastor leaves: the board doesn’t have a track record of credibility with the congregation.
And what many, many boards do … sad to say … is to lie about the pastor … and destroy his reputation … as a way of covering up how badly they handled the conflict.
I’d love for what I’ve written to be the beginning of an honest conversation with my readers.
What works and doesn’t work for you in what I’ve written?