November 9, 2022

Church Governance: The Role of the Board vs. the Staff – Episode 270 | The Unstuck Church Podcast

the role of the church board vs church staff

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Effective Church Boards & Governance Models (Part 2)

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There are three common factors of stuckness we see in churches: lack of unity, complexity, and a lack of strong leadership.

Poor governance structures and dysfunctional church boards contribute to all three. And more often than not, when a church is stuck because of their governance model, the issues come back to a lack of role clarity for both the board and the staff.


In many instances, the governance of churches hinders the leadership of pastors and staff so that they are no longer able to leverage their spiritual gifts to carry out the mission God has given the church.

This week, Amy and I will focus on how churches can empower their pastor and staff by clarifying the qualifications for board members and role of the board itself. We’ll dive into:

  • Symptoms and characteristics of church board dysfunction
  • Clarifying the Biblical qualifications for board members
  • The 5 key responsibilities of the church board
  • The most common governance mistake for large churches and small churches

How to Get Your Church Governance Unstuck


Church boards don’t have to be dysfunctional, but more often than not, pastors reach out to us because they are...

At this free webinar, Tony Morgan, Amy Anderson, and special guests help you identify the governance issues that may be holding your church back.

Thriving churches are led by lay leadership teams that streamline decision-making and empower the pastor and the staff team to lead strong. [episode 270] #unstuckchurch Share on X The easiest way to improve the health of the relationship between the lay leadership and the pastor and staff is to increase the spiritual component of the selection process for lay leadership positions. [episode 270] #unstuckchurch Share on X In many instances, the governance of churches hinders the leadership of pastors and staff so that they are no longer able to leverage their spiritual gifts to carry out the mission God has given the church. [episode 270] #unstuckchurch Share on X There are three common factors of stuckness we see in churches: lack of unity, complexity, and a lack of strong leadership. Poor governance structures and dysfunctional church boards contribute to all three. [episode 270] #unstuckchurch Share on X
horizons stewardship logo

This Episode is Sponsored by Horizons Stewardship:

Church giving has changed due to persistent disruption, economic uncertainty, and changing technology. One question remains: How do I do more ministry?

Horizons Stewardship is a team of generosity specialists, coaching professionals, and ministry strategists. Their data-informed strategies have helped thousands of churches raise billions for over three decades. Every church wants to experience its next level of generosity. But leaders need more time to figure it all out. Visit today to learn more.

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Sean (00:02):

Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. More often than not, when a church is stuck because of their governance model, the issues come back to role clarity for both the board and the staff. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy continue our four week series focused on practical steps churches can take to create a governance model that develops leaders and sustains health in the church. Before you listen though, if you’re new to the podcast, go over to and subscribe to get the show notes. Each week, you’re gonna get resources to go along with the week’s episode, including our Leader Conversation Guide, some bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that is to subscribe. Now, before today’s conversation, here’s Tony.

Tony (00:58):

Before we jump into today’s episode, I wanted to share a little bit about my friends at Horizon Stewardship. You know, church giving has changed due to persistent disruption, economic uncertainty, and certainly changing technology. But one question remains, how do I do more ministry? Well, Horizon Stewardship is a team of generosity specialists and coaching professionals and ministry strategists. Their data-informed strategies have helped thousands of churches raise billions of dollars over the last three decades. You know, every church wants to experience its next level of generosity, but leaders need more time to figure it all out. Visit today to learn more.

Amy (01:51):

Well, welcome back. Hey, last week we launched a brand new series that’s focused on governance and church boards. And before we dive into today’s topic, Tony, would you be willing to catch us up to speed?

Tony (02:02):

Yeah. So last week we did, we talked about how poor governance structures lead to stuck churches, which we don’t want that, Amy. That’s why we do this podcast, right? I mean, looking back at the data, I shared this again last week, but stuck churches have larger boards, about 40% larger, and they have twice as many additional committees. And some of the common factors that we talked about related to stuckness in churches: lack of unity, complexity, a lack of strong leadership, and poor governance and dysfunctional church boards, they contribute to all three of those factors. So last week we tried to tackle some best practices to help churches structure for unity as it relates to church governance. I mentioned that I’m not very optimistic that many churches will take me up on that advice. And the reason why is change related to governance model typically involves giving up control. That means board members are gonna have to give up control. Committee members are gonna have to give up control. Pastors are gonna have to give up control. Church staff may have to give up control. And because of that, I’m just not very optimistic. Now, related to all that, I know there are very few church lay leaders who listen to our podcast. It’s primarily designed for pastors and church staff leaders. However, if you’re feeling enough pain to actually deal with the stuckness around governance, then maybe you’ll commit to listening to this entire series together with your board, and then take the necessary steps to fix your governance challenges.

Amy (03:41):

It’s a great challenge, Tony. As you mentioned last week, we talked about best practices related to governance and church boards that’ll help them structure for unity. And this week we’re gonna talk about empowering the senior pastor and staff. And Tony, the fact that you wanted to discuss this must imply that you sense this as a challenge for most churches. Is that correct?

Tony (04:00):

Yes, that’s correct. And it’s because I see these characteristics commonly in the relationships between board and the pastor and staff. For example, there’s an unhealthy perspective of what the role of the boards and the committees are in the church. There’s a focus on accountability as far as the board’s concerned, and it’s all about checks and balances, but there’s not much empowerment happening. Another characteristic is just very little encouragement for the pastor. And that’s especially in smaller churches. Again, it feels like the boards in smaller churches really lean on accountability and just making sure things are done right, but they’re not encouraging and empowering the senior pastor. Another characteristic is deciding how to do ministry and accomplish the mission rather than empowering the staff to actually engage the mission and to really use their spiritual gifts and especially that gift around leadership in order to get the ministry moving forward. And again, it’s just like we’re hiring these paid professionals to serve in these roles on our church staff teams, but the board still is holding on to how they’re doing ministry rather than encouraging the staff to do that. And in stuck churches, the lay people spend so much time in meetings talking about ministry rather than actually doing ministry themselves. And we’re gonna talk about that a little bit today, but we’re really gonna focus on that topic next week.

Amy (05:34):

So the church board you’re talking about leans too much on accountability rather than empowering the pastor and staff. So what are the symptoms that there may be a problem for our listeners thinking about their church? What are those symptoms?

Tony (05:47):

Yeah, that’s a great question. So let me, let me give you some examples of symptoms that I see when this type of dysfunction exists. First one is just some additional layers of complexity around gaining consensus on decision making, especially as it relates to protecting the mission and the vision of the church. So when there’s too many people and too many different groups of people involved in decision making, it’s just very hard to stay aligned on mission and vision going forward. A second symptom of dysfunction is just decision making generally becomes very challenging. In fact, what we see is decision making slows and slows and slows, again because of the number of people or the number of groups of people, and sometimes just comes to a grinding halt where we can’t get decisions made. Another characteristic: in difficult times we see this dysfunction. It becomes extremely difficult to initiate the type of pivots that are required for a church to survive and ultimately thrive in the middle of a crisis situation. And Amy, we don’t have to go back much further than the recent pandemic. We saw a lot of churches where they had dysfunctional governance. And because of that, in the middle of a crisis like that, it was challenging for anybody to make any changes, especially when there were changes in how we were engaging ministry. And related to that, Amy, especially again, in that time of crisis, we need leaders to lead strong. And in many instances, the governance of churches really neuters the leadership of pastors and staff so that they’re not able to leverage that spiritual gift to carry out the mission God has given the church. So bottom line, the key thought here is that thriving churches are led by lay leadership teams that streamline decision making and then empower the pastor and staff to lead strong, especially in those moments of crisis.

Amy (07:54):

All right. So let’s get to the solution side of this again. If poor governance creates a dysfunctional environment where church boards aren’t empowering pastors and staff leaders, where should churches start?

Tony (08:06):

Amy? I honestly think it starts with who. Who is selected to serve on the church board? And then what is the role of that board? So with that, I know this is going to sound like I’m getting a little pastory on you. Is that a word? Getting pastory?

Amy (08:24):

Okay. Alright. Get pastory.

Tony (08:25):

But I’m going to encourage you to begin with the Bible. Have your lay leadership board, your current board and senior level staff, go on a journey through scripture together and look for answers to these three critical questions. What are the characteristics of healthy leaders in a church? What does scripture say about that? Secondly, what is the role God intended for these leaders? Again, what does the Bible say about that? And then thirdly, what structure would best empower qualified leaders to engage this role? And some obvious places to start when you’re studying scripture as it relates to leadership in the church would include 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5. And let me give you a little secret. As you go through the scripture and begin to look at these passages related to leadership in the church. This is what I have found. I’ve learned that the easiest way to improve the health of the relationship between the lay leadership and the pastor and staff is to increase the spiritual component of the selection process for lay leadership positions. It’s just amazing to me when you elevate the spiritual component that’s required for lay leadership roles, it’s almost as if the folks that are considering stepping into these leadership positions, either that helps them to lean in more. Yes, I wanna bring that type of leadership to the ministry. Or it helps people that may not be qualified because of where they are spiritually. It helps them to self-select out. So many times, the most challenging and dysfunctional lay leaders at churches are in roles because they want to control people and money. And when we elevate the spiritual component that’s required for these lay leadership positions, it helps you to make sure you get the right leaders in these roles, which then begins to get a right relationship between the board and the pastor and staff.

Tony (10:36):

And if you raise that spiritual leadership requirement based on biblical qualifications, then the line of people wanting to be on the church board or to serve on church committees, it gets a lot shorter is what I’ve seen, because that spiritual leadership quotient a lot stronger. When that happens, people start behaving like servant leaders rather than trying to lead from a position of authority and control. And that alone will fix many of the challenges I see with church boards that tend to focus too much on accountability and not near enough on encouraging and empowering the pastor and staff to lead through their gifts and strengths.

Amy (11:16):

So it sounds like the first step is to lean into the biblical qualifications of leadership to select who serves on church boards, and once a church gets the right people on the team, you mentioned that boards also need to better understand their role. So Tony, if you had to write a job description for church board members that listed out their roles and responsibilities, what would you prioritize?

Tony (11:37):

Yeah, Amy, again, I don’t really want to offer the shortcuts. I mean, I strongly encourage you to go through that journey through the Bible together so that you can put together this job description. But, if this will help, at a minimum, I would certainly include these responsibilities for church board members. And the first one, we’ve talked about it a little bit already, is to model spiritual leadership to the congregation. In other words, just asking the question, am I demonstrating full devotion to Christ? And here I just go back to the words of Paul. If we’re doing that, then we should be encouraging people to imitate us, to imitate me, just as I imitate Christ. So the question is, are you living a life worth following? Are you living a life worth imitating? And some places to be considering in this is are all the board members pursuing spiritual formation? Are they connecting in worship? Are they giving? Are they serving someplace in the ministry? Are they connecting with others? Are they reaching others? Are they practicing spiritual disciplines? Are they making disciples of Jesus? These are the characteristics that we want to see in our leaders. And if they have those characteristics then, they can begin to model spiritual leadership for the congregation. A second important role that I would consider including in the job description is providing both encouragement and accountability to empower the lead pastor. And again, I mentioned earlier, board members tend to really focus on that accountability piece. And I would say especially in smaller churches, we see that, but in those instances, seem to be rarely committed to encouragement, and a healthy relationship between the board and the pastor requires both. Yes, we do need healthy accountability, but we also need healthy encouragement. And by the way, here we’re only talking about the relationship between the board and the senior pastor. It really should be the senior pastor’s responsibility then to provide that accountability and encouragement to the rest of the staff team.

Amy (13:58):

Yeah, Tony, I love these. I think you have more, but those first two. I haven’t worked with too many small churches, but one that I did really had this challenge of accountability over encouragement, and they actually spent an entire year reworking their governance structure to get it back to a healthier place. So I’m glad you called those out. Do you have any others?

Tony (14:19):

Yeah, let me give you a few more. The third one would be just to protect the established mission and vision of the church. And by the way, that does not include the ministry strategy and the execution of that strategy. That responsibility really, again, belongs to the pastor and the staff. They are the ones that need to be thinking more about the day-to-day ministry strategies and what we’re doing to actually accomplish the ministry. But what that means is the board needs to hold tightly to the mission that you’ve committed to, so why do we exist as a church. And then the vision or future direction that you’ve committed to, those are areas where we really need board members, those elders of the church in some instances, to take responsibility for holding tightly and protecting the mission and the vision.

Amy (15:10):

That just reminds me of our friend Lance Witt. I heard him talking to a church once, and he kind of did a football analogy, but he said, you know, the board should be up in the box, and they should be ensuring that the team is running towards the right goal lines and they’re staying in bounds. But it’s the lead pastor who’s, you know, finding the team members, giving them their assignments, making the calls, and we shouldn’t have crossover in those, you know, realms. Anyway, sorry to jump in.

Tony (15:37):

Yeah, yeah. No, I love that picture. That really helps to illustrate what we’re talking about there. The fourth role is just to make significant stewardship decisions. So think about those responsibilities around approving your budget, approving the salary of the lead pastor. Any other big expenses, like land acquisitions or construction contracts or things like that, all of that, again, that should be the board’s responsibility. And then what I would say is once the budget is set, and once your senior pastor’s salary is set, this is a key difference that I see in healthy churches. In healthy churches, boards than, what they do is they set the overall staffing budget, but they let the pastor and the other staff leaders set the salaries, the specific salaries of the people working for them because for those salaries, other than the lead pastors, we need the supervisors, the people that are leading the people on the staff team to set the actual wages and salaries based on the work that they’re seeing for the people that they’re leading. And as the church grows, especially, it becomes very difficult for board members to know how they should be compensating individuals on the staff team because they don’t see the work that they’re doing. And so we really need to empower the pastor and the other senior staff leaders to make those decisions. And then lastly, this role is all about advising the lead pastor as requested on key strategic decisions that the staff leadership is processing. And again, remember, you know, ultimately ministry strategy should be the responsibility of the pastor and the staff team. But what we’ve seen is in healthy board-pastor relationships, as trust increases, then there can be a healthy give and take on both vision and strategy. So the board will desire the pastor to have a voice on shaping changes in vision. And when this relationship is healthy, the pastor will desire the board to have a voice in major strategy shifts.

Amy (17:57):

That’s a great list. Tony. Anything else you’d like to add?

Tony (18:01):

Yeah, I think what these five roles point to though is that necessity to make sure we have a great onboarding process for new board members. I mean, that’s just absolutely critical. I think many times board members step into these roles because they’ve had previous leadership experience in their jobs or on other boards, but they may not have a correct understanding of what their role needs to look like on a church board, and it’s not that they’re bad people, it’s just that they’re not informed and they’re not equipped for this specific leadership position. And so you may wanna consider, just for future perspective board members, having some sort of mentoring process to help prepare people for future leadership. Again, make sure you have a thorough selection process, and that would include within that selection process describing what the board’s responsibilities are and then making sure once they are selected, having an intentional on-boarding process to prepare them for joining this leadership team. And one of the biggest learnings for most new board members may be around this responsibility for protecting the mission and vision but not being involved in the day to day ministry, including defining the ministry strategies. Again, working on ministry strategy and actually the day to dayness of ministry, that’s the responsibility of the senior pastor and the staff team.

Amy (19:36):

Yeah. And I would also probably guess they need to be coached to take off maybe their passion hat in the church and just put on their church hat. I’ve seen boards where they do, they wanna control certain things, probably about worship or various ministries, and they probably need to be encouraged to or reminded where their place is on this board.

Tony (19:57):

That’s right. Amy.

Amy (19:58):

Yeah. All right. Well, before we wrap up today’s conversation, Tony, you’ve been working with hundreds of churches for more than a decade. What are the most common mistakes you see boards making when it comes to their roles and responsibilities?

Tony (20:10):

Yeah, it’s actually different for small churches and large churches. So let me start first with small churches. The biggest mistake I see in small churches, and we’ve talked about it a lot in today’s conversation, is getting involved in the strategy and the execution. And rather than letting the pastor and staff do that, and so this is, it’s a common mistake, but it’s something that can be addressed. And we’ve seen small churches address this, and it’s really then because of that start to create that healthy relationship that we wanna see between the board and the pastor. For large churches, the common mistake is actually the inverse of this. What we’ve seen is in large churches, sometimes the board is too hands off, and they’re not providing appropriate accountability and then empowerment to the senior pastor and then through the senior pastor, the rest of the staff team. And where this really stands out is as it relates to the lack of a succession strategy for the senior pastor role. And so we, in larger churches especially, we really need the board members to stay engaged, to take responsibility, for those roles that we talked about. Even if you have a great pastor, a great staff team, and they’re winning when it comes to the mission, they still need your leadership. They still need you to fulfill those roles that we talked about so that the church can remain healthy moving forward.

Amy (21:43):

Really good. Well, Tony, any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?

Tony (21:47):

Yeah, let me speak directly to the lead pastors who are listening today. I know this can be a delicate conversation to have with your board. They are your bosses, but as I mentioned earlier, the health of the relationship between the board and the pastor, it’s really a critical factor that impacts the overall health of your ministry. So if there’s dysfunction in that relationship, you need to engage this conversation. Lean in. And if you need some help, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at

Sean (22:21):

Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If the governance issues that Tony and Amy discussed today resonated with you, I want to invite you to a free webinar event coming up on how to get your church governance unstuck on December 1st. Tony and Amy and special guests will be diving even deeper into governance issues and how you can solve them. So register for free now through the link in the episode’s show notes. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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