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Battle In The Boardroom — Causes and Cures

By Paul E. Grabill

To live above with the saints we love
Oh, that will be glory;
but to live below with the saints we know
Well, that’s another story.

Another story, indeed.

For many pastors, living with the saints below would not be as hard if it were not for that one meeting every month. The mere mention of the words board meeting can cause pastors to break out in a cold sweat.

Today many are debating what constitutes the most biblical system for congregational leadership. As a result, some congregations are changing their church polity to do away with elected boards.

I believe the elected board system is not only workable, but can also be the vehicle that develops a deep trust within the congregation when board meetings are conducted properly. For most pastors, elected boards are still in their foreseeable future, so how do pastors best minister with them?

I confess that I have had a few less-than-ideal board meetings. But I have had more disagreements with my family than I have had with elected boards, and I would never disown my family.

Many pastors agree that managing pastor/board conflict is their primary challenge in ministry, and yet it is often an element of pastoral ministry in which they have received the least amount of training prior to pastoring. There may be no other single element of our ministry that can affect our overall ministry effectiveness more than understanding the causes and cures of pastor/board conflict.

How Did We Get Here?

Why do pastors and boards, who serve the same Lord, who read the same Bible, and who serve the same congregation, become adversarial? Some reasons are obvious; some are not.

Unwritten cultural rules

This one factor helps explain many disappointing pastor/board relationships. The kingdom of God is filled with cultural diversity, but not everyone is gifted for cross-cultural ministry. Cultural diversity affects more than world missions. There are many subcultures in the United States, even within the predominant, yet shrinking, Anglo population.

An experienced preacher told me that he felt most pastors do best when they minister within a 150-mile radius of where they were raised. I see the wisdom in this statement.

In my district, I have seen pastors come from other regions of the country and have wonderful honeymoons with their congregations. Then, they begin to deal with a culture that can be demanding in many ways and few stay more than 3 or 4 years.

What happened? They violated the unwritten rules and probably did not know it. Either they were unprepared for the expectations they would face in their new surroundings, or they did not understand how important the local values were to the congregation. A fatal loss of ministerial credibility is often the result.

What are some examples of unwritten cultural rules? The list is long and may include: work ethic, punctuality, definitions of honesty/integrity, attire, use of personal finances, kind of car one is expected to drive, tidiness, personal hygiene, and visitation expectations.

Remember, many board members were born and raised in their current surroundings and have limited appreciation for other cultural systems. To them, “this is the way it should be.” It is virtually impossible to convince them otherwise.

It is important for a pastor to communicate (nonverbally as well as verbally) his love for the community in which he is ministering, whether it is in Africa or Arkansas. I often say from the pulpit, “I love central Pennsylvania.” A pastor will have a short-lived ministry if he takes a negative attitude toward the area he is called to pastor (remember Nineveh?) or refuses to adapt to cultural norms that do not violate Scripture. An old saying comes to mind, “Love it or leave it.”

Unresolved hurts and disappointments

Many pastors accept new pastorates, but may feel beaten up from experiences in their previous pastorates. While a honeymoon in the new congregation may give them time to heal, they must be prepared to minister to a hurting congregation as well. The congregation may be hurting from the actions of a previous pastor or from the loss (and possible feelings of betrayal) of a loved pastor.

The board often has deeper hurts than the congregation as a whole because they have dealt with previous difficult issues more closely. Sometimes spouses of board members carry the hurts more than the board members themselves. Although they did not serve on the board directly, their hurts are just as serious.

Even though it is God’s will for you to be where you are, a double healing process may be needed. The healing process may take only a short time, but it is good to talk with the board about the possible need for you both to heal. Like hospital patients in a semi-private room, you can encourage and strengthen each other.

Who has the primary responsibility to diagnose and lead the healing process? The pastor does. Much has been said about the wounded healer, yet the healer must have recovered sufficiently to tend to others’ wounds.

Unspoken fears

Unresolved hurts can easily breed paranoia on both the part of the pastor and the board. The board may think all pastors are trying to get away with as much as they can, and the pastor may feel all boards are out to destroy pastors. Unfortunately, the fear can become self-fulfilling on both parts.

Due to fear, the pastor may be less accountable than he would be otherwise; the board, also from fear, looks to find what is possibly being hidden. The pastor hides from the board; the board presses harder to find out what is being hidden, reinforcing the pastor’s fear. He hides even more, and the cycle repeats itself until some real or imagined dirt is discovered, and a crisis unfolds (often, again).

Some years ago, another experienced preacher told me the one thing to remember in church conflict, “People are not against you, they are for themselves.”

Unholy fleshly fixation

While the previously mentioned old preacher’s conflict maxim is often helpful in diagnosing conflict dynamics, there is also the danger that pastors and boards will constantly focus on each other’s flesh.

People have mixed motivations in life; some are holy and some are self-serving and fleshly. The more godly we are, the less fleshly we become.

It is helpful, however, to assume that both pastors and board members have, at the core of their motivation, a desire to serve God and see His kingdom advance.

Undeveloped empathy

Most pastors have no idea what it is like to serve as a board member — to give one’s time without remuneration, to serve in what is often a thankless role (when was the last time you had a Board Appreciation Day?), to even hear deacon jokes at gospel concerts. On the other hand, few board members have a grasp of the overwhelming demands pastors face.

The inability to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes creates the difficulty that results in many kinds of human conflict, not just church conflict.

We cannot lead people by trying to get them to feel sorry for us. I have tried it. It does not work.

Uncertain role definitions

The continual challenge for those with a congregational polity is the role of the primary board. Who is in charge — the pastor or the board?

On one hand, the pastor is the leader, but the board often controls the purse strings (including the pastor’s salary). Is the board merely advisory or (as has been my perspective) a team of leaders with the pastor?

Early in my present pastorate, we changed the name of our board to the board of elders, though they are still nominated and elected the same way they were when they were called deacons. This acknowledges that many of them are seasoned, mature believers who are perceived as elders by others in the congregation.

I have learned that holding people down holds me down with them. Lifting people up usually results in the leader also being lifted up. I prefer the latter.

Unsure leadership

One of the greatest challenges in pastor/board relationships is when the pastor, the titular leader, abdicates leadership to someone else who may be a more gifted leader. This can either be the pastor’s spouse or a leader in the congregation.

This arrangement may work temporarily; but when it becomes apparent that the real leader of the congregation is not the pastor, his respect is diminished. If he leaves, the succeeding pastor will have difficultly wresting the leadership role back.

Someone has to lead. The pastor must be more than a chaplain or counselor. If the true leader is not the pastor, the system may adapt, but will eventually become dysfunctional. Thankfully, God has raised up ministries, such as John Maxwell’s, to help pastors develop their leadership skills.

Unfairness

We all know how lonely pastoring can be. It is difficult for a pastor to maintain a balance in relationships so he is not perceived to have favorites on the board and in the congregation. The more imbalanced our relationships are perceived to be, the more problems we will have. This is particularly true in a smaller congregation, where everyone expects to be close to the pastor.

Maintaining this balance can be a challenge when the pastor has knowledge of an individual’s giving records. Some pastors feel they need to be aware of their members’ giving, but I choose not to. While knowing may not influence my evenhanded treatment of parishioners, the perception within the board and congregation may be different. Perception becomes reality.

Some districts and sections have recognized the need ministers have for close relationships and fellowship. They are restructuring to provide opportunities for friendships to develop between ministers so their need for fellowship will not have to be met within their congregation. Other pastors are finding close, accountable relationships with evangelical pastors and spouses in their local communities.

Unnerving change

It is the role of leaders to lead, and that often involves change. When pastors lead churches into new territory, they need to be sensitive to the pace of change, ownership of the change process, and the perceptions of the motivation behind the proposed change.

Excellent material is available today on leading change. One or two of these books should be in the pastor’s library. (See Resource List.)

Now That We Are Here, What Do I Do?

We may understand how the difficulties have developed between pastors and boards, but how can pastors work with adversarial board members?

Treat them with love and respect

First, remember that the adversarial board member is within your pastoral charge. He may be your worst nightmare, but you have been called to pastor him. Not only does he need your unconditional love, but also your pastoral wisdom to help him understand his own frustrations, even those he has with you. If God did not think you could handle him with His help, He would not have placed you where you are. Treat the board member with respect even when he does not deserve it. It will pay rich dividends in the end.

Listen and be understanding

Second, listen, listen, and listen some more. Do not interpret what adversarial board members are saying as artillery rounds. Listen objectively and empathically. Objective listening is not influenced by preconceptions or reports from others. Remember, everyone filters information through his own lens. Filter what you hear through the Throne of Grace and utilize the empathy of Christ. Do you understand what it is like to be in their shoes? Do not respond until you do.

Deal with issues, not personalities

Third, deal with issues rather than personalities. Find areas of disagreement and deal with them instead of labeling some people as loyal and others as troublemakers. Doing that does not require wisdom or guidance from the Spirit. When I have dealt with issues rather than with personalities, I have won over those who have been troublesome to previous pastors. They were not devils. They only needed to be talked to, loved, and understood. If you always assume a group of troublemakers will be against you, then there will always be a group against you. In a previous congregation, I had my biggest differences with a couple that loved me as a son. I loved them, too, and they knew it. I was often at their house, eating their food … and sometimes even arguing. Everyone in the congregation knew it was not personal, and respected me deeply because of it.

Seek counsel from mature pastors

Fourth, seek counsel from other mature pastors to diagnose the problem. Sometimes the core of the matter is quite simple; sometimes it is deeper. It may be one or more of the symptoms of dysfunction listed above. Nevertheless, it is your primary responsibility to seek God for understanding before moving on the problem. Remember, the wrong medication can kill a patient. You should seek to determine what the adversarial board member (or spouse) wants, since it is usually true that they are more for themselves than they are against you. An objective person will not be clouded by the fear, or even paranoia, that can occasionally grip a pastor’s spirit. You may not be able to give them what they want. You will be able, however, to deal with the core issue and distinguish between it and the many peripheral matters and feelings that often surround it.

Apologize

Fifth, apologize when you have offended other leaders. This is the right thing to do. An apology will often open the closed heart of the leader who has been offended. Once I inadvertently offended a leader here at State College Assembly. When I discovered what I had done, I apologized and offered to apologize publicly, since it was a public offense. The leader said, “Oh, no. It is OK.” I watched as his heart opened up to me more than it had been before. Resolved problems can often draw people closer together. A willingness to apologize comes from walking by faith, not from fear.

Ask a trusted third party to help resolve the issue

Sixth, if you are unable to resolve difficulties one-on-one with a single adversarial member (that is the preferred way), consider bringing in another party to assist you. If possible, choose someone that is reasonable and whom the other party trusts. Otherwise, the adversarial member will feel outnumbered and defensive. I do not mind feeling outnumbered if I am doing the right thing. If God is on my side, I feel safe. If not, my problems are bigger than a difficult board member.

Remember, solving most congregational problems is a process. A pastor who follows preventative and positive steps to develop a strong, healthy board can influence the whole board and weaken the power of a single adversarial member. In an extreme situation, it may be warranted to ask an adversarial member to step aside for a season for the sake of unity.

Address the problem; take the heat

Seventh, if it becomes necessary, be prepared to pay the price. It is better to deal with multiple adversarial members and take the heat if it is the best way to fix a deep, systemic problem. These issues need to be resolved before you give your resignation. Do not leave the problem for a new pastor to deal with.

If after you have sought trusted, objective, outside counsel, and are certain you occupy the moral high ground, gently inform the adversarial board members that a church cannot function properly if the pastor is not permitted to lead. If this has been a reoccurring problem with pastor after pastor, try to diagnose with them (yes, with — we may be at odds, but we are sharing the problem) when the problem began. If the problems originate from a pastor’s actions years ago, address the need to forgive and let go of the past. If it is the result of a previous pastor abdicating his leadership, discuss how this hinders a church’s growth. As a last resort, invite district leadership to assist you.

Our district recently launched a conflict reconciliation ministry with three regional teams (because of regional differences and travel distance). Each team consists of trained clergy and laity who are available to intervene when invited.

Where Do We Go From Here?

What are some preventative and positive steps to develop strong and healthy relationships with church boards?

Spiritual growth

The best thing I can do as a pastor to improve my relationships with God, my family, the church board, and with everyone else is to keep growing spiritually. Remember to practice what you preach. Do you believe your loving Heavenly Father will care for you and your family in every situation? Then walk with a confidence that will win you respect and admiration. Otherwise, your insecurity will breed problems and create a self-fulfilling crisis. When you walk in fear, you become the problem that others will feel forced to fix.

If I focus on myself, if I minister in a controlling spirit, if I am not the spiritual leader at home, if I tell everyone else that they need to be more like Christ, but they do not see growth in me, it does not matter what wisdom or techniques I employ, I will always have trouble with the people I have been called to lead.

This admonition is not intended to cause anyone undue guilt and shame. Even Jesus had trouble with His followers, but He overcame the same way we overcome. We live by faith, we walk by faith, and we overcome by faith.

Sowing respect

We reap what we sow. Sow respect and you will reap respect. I have already spoken of treating elders with the respect they deserve.

Some may disagree, but I take this even further. I chose early on not to have other pastoral team members regularly attend board meetings. If the church staff agrees, then board members feel ganged-up on. If they disagree, it is even worse. They show staff disunity before the board.

When I came to my current pastorate, we quickly came to an understanding that the pastoral staff was accountable to me, and I was accountable to the board. I told our hardworking pastors to enjoy that night of the month with their family. Then I moved the chairperson’s seat to the side of the table (not the end), to indicate that we are a team, with me serving as the player-coach.

In addition, I bless the board members before the congregation. I engage them in the ministry of praying for the sick and praying for the offering. I also frequently express appreciation for them. Occasionally, I reassure my congregation their board is not made up of yes people.

When there is a difficult decision to share with the congregation, I try to take the brunt of anything that is unpopular. Conversely, I make the board the heroes when something is popular. They (and their spouses) do not forget when they are treated with respect.

Shepherd first, CEO second

In today’s environment, pastors with growing congregations are sometimes told they need to become ranchers more than shepherds. This may be true, but a good rancher must demonstrate the heart of a shepherd before he can oversee undershepherds.

The board members may be wowed by your management expertise, but they will not follow you to the end of the earth on that basis. They will follow you if they see the heart of Christ in you. This is particularly important as you determine the pace of change. The pace of change is determined by the needs you have and by the amount of change your church can handle. Pastoring is not a mechanical operation, just as doctoring is not working on living machines.

The saying, “I would love the ministry if it were not for the people,” may elicit a laugh in a preachers’ gathering, but can speak of a lack of love on our part. Can you imagine Jesus’ earthly ministry as a pseudo-loving, mechanical enterprise? I hope you cannot.

How you express your shepherd’s heart will be determined not only by your gifting, but also, to some degree, by the culture in which you serve. Is home visitation expected? How much time are you expected to spend with people at the altar? Will you be expected to go hunting, fishing, or golfing with congregational members? These questions are best asked during the interview process, but can be ascertained by asking your board.

Shepherd with fairness. If your role includes hospital visitation, do not visit a select few. Also, an occasional phone call will bless people. Call those whom God lays on your heart. They will be blessed and will not forget that you were thinking of them.

Securing trust

I minister under the assumption that most board members respect the church as well as the office of pastor, or they would leave. (Would you give as much time and energy as your board members do if you received nothing tangible in return?) I also assume that I was elected because the board wanted me to succeed, not fail.

I do not take respect for granted. Most of the respect and trust I am given will not be given automatically because I am called “Pastor Grabill.” Most will come because I earned it.

Most pastors reading this article have probably discovered that they cannot effectively minister with a deficiency in their board and congregational trust level. In any relationship there are times we need to make withdrawals from our account. For pastors, it may be a sermon on a controversial issue; it may be addressing a sensitive personal issue with a key board member.

But how do we add to our account? How do we avoid becoming overdrawn?

Many activities that pastors do as part of their ministry are considered winner activities. Hospital visitation, attending family members’ funerals, and home visitation are ways you can minister to your people and show love and concern. These quickly add to your account. I still remember those from our congregation who traveled 1 hour to attend the viewing and funeral when my father passed away. Congregational members remember times when you went out of your way to minister to them as well.

There are a myriad of other winning activities. Consistent follow-through is another. If decisions are made at board meetings but nothing changes within the month, the pastor loses ministerial currency. Live by this maxim: “Do it now.”

The list is long: returning calls within 24 hours (4 hours is better); being an example in personal evangelism; spending time with board members outside of formal meetings; taking criticism as constructive even when it is not meant to be; honoring the older, faithful members in your congregation; loving children; being a good loser (especially in board meetings, winning 90 to 95 percent of the time is probably the ideal range); asking for forgiveness (publicly if need be); loving the community where God has called you to serve; keeping fresh by constant reading and growing.

You primarily determine whether your board members hear good reports or bad reports about your ministry. While the motive for doing these activities is not to add to your account, these activities done in love will help you develop the kind of deep, caring relationships you need with your board and people.

Pastoring is the greatest privilege in the world. It may be challenging, but you and I can do it, with God’s help.

I have loved the boards with which God has given me to work. Not all of God’s great saints will get the credit they deserve here. I know, because I have had the privilege of serving with some of them on the local level.

Pastoring is what we make it to be. There are joys and tears — even after board meetings. But as colonels in God’s army, we will never accomplish what God has called us to do without a team of captains and lieutenants. They can become our best officers and our best friends as well.

Take a moment and thank God for them. God will honor your gratitude.

PAUL E. GRABILL, former senior pastor, State College Assembly of God, State College, Pennsylvania.

 

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