Churches boards don’t have to be dysfunctional.
But more often than not, pastors reach out to us because they are. Many feel their board is stuck in traditional thinking and untrusting of staff. Or, in some cases, their church governance structure includes several boards and committees with varying levels of control. When functioning poorly, the church board becomes a restraint rather than a resource.
Establishing efficiency and creating clarity around your board is critical. In fact, our research has shown that stuck churches have 40% larger boards and 2x as many people involved in committees. Complexity leads to stuckness.
On the other hand, when the church staff and board are aligned and on mission together, the church can thrive. That’s why we’ve compiled all of our content around the common mistakes we see in church boards, guidance for clarifying the key roles of the board and staff, and best practices for an effective church board.
Common Church Board Mistakes
A dysfunctional or broken governance model can create additional challenges and layers of complexity when trying to establish mission and vision, delegate decision rights, and lead necessary change. In other words, the governance of a church can become a barrier to health—and ultimately one of the key reasons why churches get stuck.
Here are some of the common mistakes we see in church boards from our work with churches across the country:
- Church leaders are elected based on popularity. Leaders should be appointed based on their leadership gifting, biblical qualifications (1 Timothy 3:1-7), and alignment to the mission, vision, and doctrine of the church—not their popularity among the congregation.
- The whole church is given a voice in decision-making. Nonbelievers or spiritually immature believers should not be given an equal voting power or voice when it comes to making decisions about the direction of the church.
- There are multiple boards, committees, and subcommittees overseeing the church. We’ve worked with churches that have as many as 39 committees (no exaggeration!). Instead, there should be a single lay leadership board; anything that might require a subcommittee (finances, facilities, human resources, etc.) for operational oversight should be delegated to paid staff.
- The board oversees multiple staff members. The senior pastor should be the only staff member who is accountable to the board. From there, the senior pastor should be able to select, lead, develop, clarify wins, manage performance and, if needed, terminate someone who doesn’t align with team culture or who underperforms.
- The board spends more time on the day-to-day than the big picture. Once the budget has been established, the church staff should be released to handle the day-to-day decisions of ministry strategy and execution. The goal is for the board to spend more time in ministry than meetings.
- Requiring a simple majority or unanimous vote on every decision. No one person should have control over the decision-making process; the goal should always be to establish consensus and promote unity.
Clarifying the Roles of the Church Board & Staff
Dysfunction most often occurs when there is a lack of clarity and alignment over the roles of the church board and the church staff. That’s why the key to an effective church board is eliminating complexity and clarifying key roles.
If we had to create the job description for a church board member, these would be the primary responsibilities:
- Modeling spiritual leadership to the congregation. Every member of the board must demonstrate full devotion to Christ. Paul expressed, “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:34). Are board members modeling a life worth following?
- Providing encouragement and accountability to the Lead Pastor. Too many times we see boards providing the accountability to keep the pastor in check, but rarely are they as committed to encouragement. A healthy relationship between the pastor and the board will provide both.
- Protecting the established mission and vision of the church. Ministry strategy and the execution of that strategy should not be within the purview of the board—that’s the staff leadership’s role. The reverse is true as well. Any shift in the mission and vision of the church should require the input and approval of the board.
- Making significant financial decisions (annual budget, salary of Lead Pastor, land acquisitions, construction contracts, etc.). As it relates to compensation, it’s wholly appropriate for the board to set the overall staffing budget. But when it comes to setting salaries other than the Lead Pastor’s, that’s best left to the people who are directly managing the staff. Because the board is not (or at least should not) be involved in the execution of the ministry strategy, they likely won’t have the information needed to set compensation.
- Advising the Lead Pastor, as requested, on strategic decisions the staff leadership is processing. As a relationship of trust develops between the board and the Lead Pastor, there should be a healthy give-and-take on both vision and strategy. The board will desire the pastor to have a significant voice in shaping changes in vision. And the pastor will desire the board to have a voice in major strategy shifts.
Here’s a helpful cheat sheet to help you identify the priority roles and span of care for the board vs. the paid staff:
There may be other aspects of the board member role that develop as needed, but the framework outlined is a reflection of the role and the relationship we see most often between boards and paid staff in healthy, thriving churches. Ultimately, the church staff and board must be unified for the church to fulfill its mission.
Best Practices for Effective Church Boards
Although we work with churches of varying sizes, locations, and denominations, there are some common best practices we see consistently in churches with healthy and effective church boards. Now that the key roles of the church board are established, here are some of our practical takeaways for selecting board members and establishing the structure of your board.
Best Practices for Selecting Board Members
- We’ll include this again, since it really can’t be overstated: Leaders should be appointed to the board based on their gifting, biblical qualifications, and alignment with your mission and vision and doctrine at your church.
- Follow through with the rotation of leaders that is established in your bylaws or other governing doctrine. Too often churches don’t follow through and simply have the same leaders continue to serve for years on end.
- When churches rotate leaders, they get more intentional about raising up new leaders.
- Rotating leaders also helps create a board that reflects the diversity of your community (ethnic, gender, and multi-generational) and fosters fresh perspectives.
- If your denomination or church structure requires a vote, seek to make congregational votes as few as possible as they open up the opportunity for congregational division. Rather than having multiple candidates run against each other, think about this as a vote of affirmation.
Best Practices for Church Board Structure
- There should be one lay leadership board that handles all the responsibilities of previous boards and committees. (Most denominations allow for there to be one unified board and do not require multiple committees.)
- Structure the board so that the only person on the staff team who gets a vote is the senior pastor.
- Things get dysfunctional very quickly if the staff team that the senior pastor is leading is also voting.
- There is only one person accountable to the board—the senior pastor. All other roles are the responsibility of the senior pastor.
Reflection Questions for Senior Pastors
Senior pastors often come to us when they feel frustrated by their relationship with their church board. But it’s important to lead with humility in this relationship. As a senior pastor, process these questions with someone close to you (and possibly, with your board):
- Am I doing my part to ensure a healthy relationship with the board?
- Am I promoting good communication flow with the board so they have the information they need to make wise decisions?
- When a conflict arises, do I keep short accounts and work through the conflict until we reach a healthy resolution?
- Am I inviting an honest and healthy dialogue with the board about my leadership and the direction of our ministry?
- Am I modeling a life fully devoted to Christ, and am I encouraging the board to do the same?
More Resources for Effective Church Boards
In this Q&A interview, I addressed specific questions from our subscribers around consolidating boards, the role of the board when it comes to vision, retaining elders after they serve, and more.
Is it time to restructure?
One of the most common lids to growth in a church is staff structure. You’re perfectly structured to get the results you’re getting today. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, it might be time for a change.
We love helping a church position its staff team to best fit both the ministry and the individuals involved. Our Staffing & Structure Review process can help your church staff to its vision.