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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Building the Perfect Church: Selection, Terms, and Decision Making of Board Members

Building_1Editor’s Note
[If you are new to this column, please read Ken’s foundational article from January 27, 2005, “The Four Issues All Churches Deal With.”  This will help you understand  the foundation upon which this and other subsequent articles are written].

Responding to Last Week’s Discussion
Before we advance to new ground, I want to respond to some of the comments made in response to last week’s article.  Some of the previous posts (all of which I appreciated) focus on the mindset and attitude of the church (culture) and relegate structure to a secondary position.  I agree that the best structure cannot compensate for a church culture that is unloving (I Cor. 13:1-3).

On the other hand, I have met with the leaders of a loving church that was on the verge of suing their former pastor for wrongfully “allocating” hundreds of thousands of dollars.  How did that church arrive at such a place?  This pastor succeeded a retiring senior pastor of 40 years.  As you can imagine, when this venerable man of God stepped down, his style of ministry was well established, understood, and accepted.  Trust levels couldn’t be higher.  However, the new man came and did things the way he thought they should be done.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that.  On the other hand, there were insufficient accountability policies (structures) in place.  The retiring pastor was accorded so much trust based on decades of performance, that the new pastor had more than enough rope to hang himself, which figuratively speaking, he did, causing havoc and hurting many others in the process.  Pre-existing love and trust (culture) were not sufficient to prevent this chapter of this church’s history to end badly.

Phil’s comments [Category: The Newberger Project.  Article: “Tackling the Issues of Church Structure and Leadership,” Time: February 3, 2005 03:10 PM] are on point.  “Many a church system looks good, assuming that good people occupy the positions of authority….  Some might say that we have nothing to worry about if the person with that authority is godly and called of God. But there is no guarantee that that person(s) will be godly and called of God. What if they turn out not to be? Then what? There must be a system and structure in place to check that position of authority if there's ever a problem. And the time to do that is BEFORE a problem arises.”

Not only does such advice make good sense, I believe such an approach is Biblical.  Consider the following three passages.

I Corinthians 13:33 (NKJV)
For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

I Corinthians 14:40 (NKJV)
Let all things be done decently and in order.
[The New Treasury of Scripture Knowledge adds this interpretative note: “Keep the lines straight: follow organizational protocol, the ‘line of command.’”]

Titus 1:5 (NKJV)
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you.

My perspective therefore is, while absolutely recognizing the importance of the other three components of congregational life (culture, interpersonal relationships, the individual), every “perfect” church will have a firm, yet adaptive church structure that will effectively support its mission and fellowship. 

Let’s get even more specific by addressing three areas relating to the church’s highest governing board: (1) selection, (2) decision making, and (3) length of service.

Board Selection
Paul Flannery [Category: The Newberger Project.  Article: “Building the Perfect Church: The Four Issues All Churches Deal With,” Date/Time: February 3, 2005 03:10 PM] shared that a former church he pastored had open nominations from the floor.  He states, “in one particular instance a young man was nominated to the main governing board yet many of us knew of his contrary spirit as well as the troublesome nature of his wife. Yet no matter how much I opposed his nomination one other board person, who happened to be in the wife's gossip circle, pushed for his selection which came to pass.”  Paul additionally writes, “as Larry Osborne (Free Church near San Diego) wrote long ago the main source of conflict in local churches is the naivete that we could nominate and select leaders to serve on decision-making boards knowing that certain ones hold to radically differing opinions as to the general vision and direction of the church. Instead he suggested that each congregation should pre-screen candidates to determine if they at least agree generally with the vision of the pastor whom they called and pay to ‘lead’ and with the majority of other leaders already serving who have already come to a general consensus as to direction….  Otherwise we will continue pulling from both ends of the sleigh/wagon/ train (you pick the metaphor) and the local church will continue to busy itself with boxing matches while the world keeps flushing itself into hell.”  Paul’s perspective makes a lot of sense.

Decision-Making by the Board
Now let’s turn to the basis on which decisions by the church’s governing board(s) take effect.  I, for one, do not subscribe to the idea that all decisions should be unanimous.  Though a lofty ideal, it is also one that can suppress dissent because there is an inherent pressure to conform to the will of the majority.  If a board member chooses to dissent even on an occasional basis, that person may become viewed as an impediment and liability since unanimity is required to take any action.  And should a different board member choose to dissent on different issues, things could routinely come to a standstill.  The catch-22 question then becomes, “do we truly want everyone’s true opinion and risk no forward progress, or do we really want conformity in order to get things done?”  The unhappy observation by one pastor about his board, “that was the first of many 11-1 votes,” if combined with the policy of unanimity, can bring a church to its governing knees.  Hence, my perspective does not prohibit the majority from waiting to see if unanimity might develop.  It simply means that it is not absolutely required in order to advance the work of the church.

Length of Service
I was a part of one church’s discussion when it was seriously considering making appointments to its elder board “for life.”  The question arose, “what if, in the course of time, an elder begins to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease?”  This condition was not specifically listed among the very short list of circumstances that allowed the removal of an elder from office.  In the end, the decision to add this condition to the list was declined because of the difficulty attempting to prove the diagnosis.  And this is just one scenario out of many.  The larger point is that all sorts of unanticipated circumstances can arise that would divide a board of elders who are not only chosen to serve for life, but intend to live out their term.  Why appoint an elder for life when the same end can be accomplished through successive appointments?  My recommendation is that the first term be for one year, and all subsequent terms be up to three years.  To do otherwise needlessly puts the church at risk.  It provides no safety valve should unanticipated relational or other problems develop.  Just imagine the prognosis of a church that chooses to combine a lifetime term of office with the requirement of unanimous decision-making?  It is a structural recipe for a “dour dish of disaster.”

May God bless you as you serve Him.


For Discussion:
What are your thoughts or experiences about selection to the board, about what is required for board decisions to be made, and about length of service?  What do you recommend?  What have you seen work and what would you advise others against doing?  Please share your viewpoint and experience with the rest of us.  Thanks.


© 2005 Kenneth C. Newberger
Ken Newberger, an experienced church conflict resolution specialist, earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, has ten years senior pastoral experience, and is in the dissertation phase for his Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, one of only two accredited doctoral programs of its kind in the United States. If your church needs help resolving conflict, if you need individual coaching, or if you would like to introduce a proactive conflict management system into your church, please visit Ken's website at www.ResolveChurchConflict.com  or call 301-253-8877.


You are invited to attend Ken's free conflict resolution seminar entitled, “How to Convert Church Problems and Tensions into Energy Leading to Deeper Relations and a Positive Outcome.”  This event is sponsored by Regent University at its Alexandria, VA campus (just outside of DC).  The date and time is March 7th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm.  For more information, contact Lolita Cobbs.  Email: lolicob@regent.edu. Phone: 1-866-REGENT-U or 703-740-1409.  Come join us for an interactive and edifying time together.

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February 10, 2005 in The Newberger Project | Permalink

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My first thoughts tend to move toward the "function" or "purpose" of the church board. Odd, I agree, but I think the other items we'll be discussing will hinge on this. Is the church board in place to "come along side" to help fulfill the vision of the pastor or are they there to "hold him accountable" to the people? There are two different mindsets here.

If they intend join in the vision provided then they should probably be "appointed" then ratified by the congregation. If the board is more of an accountability structure, they will more than likely be elected. Of course, scriptural qualifications should apply in both.

My point? It's a matter of perspective and clear definition of purpose. Having a pastor in place that is wanting to lead along with a board in place that's holding the reigns can, and will, bring frustration for both. (or visa versa)

I'm not really a proponent of elected positions, though that seems to be the norm. It can become a "good 'ol boy" popularity contest thing after a while that goes nowhere. Individuals elected seem to have the mentality of "I'm here to represent the congregation and keep the pastor in place." No.....you're there to assist the pastor in fulfilling God's vision for the church. Without that vision, the people perish. More than one vision is divisive. THERE lies the problem. Board members who serve with a strong "accountability" purpose often have their own agenda.

Accountability? It's something that's given, not demanded, thus the rub.

The key, find qualified individuals with the heart to come along side and serve. Yes, if the pastor is a smart leader, the willing accountability that is necessary from all involved will be there.

UNANIMITY: Not always necessary as long all are on the same page when leaving the board room. Supportive....in public. No reserves. If there are, then maybe more time in prayer and waiting would be a good idea. Team players.....

LENGTH of term: Variable terms of office allowing time of rest / change / examination of purpose.

Congregationally ratified board appointments allows the existing leadership to ask individuals to come along side based on their servants heart and/or their giftings. (Elder board = spiritual qualifications. Deacon board = skills in finances / buildings) Not often do you find all that within the context of one man.

Just some thoughts from the sidelines.


Posted by: W.J.M. | Feb 10, 2005 11:09:37 AM

Good thoughts and interesting discusssion starter as usuual, Ken. I'll just comment on length of service.

In the church that I presently serve, we have a model that seems to be aligned with a Biblical model of eldership, (at least through my lens), and has been effective for us. Our elders, which are the governing board of the church, are chosen through a multi-filtered process. They are evaluated through the I Timothy 3 qualifcations for being an elder. A trained nominating team suggests possible candidates to the leadership and any pastor or member of the elder council can question the submission on the basis of the personal qualifications of I Tim. 3. When that happens, the person's name is not brought to nomination. If their name passes through the leadership filter they are sent a questionaire to for self-evaluation for the position. Many have declined at this point. The person has not yet been officially nominated so their name never comes up for consideration. If they pass through the leadership filter and the self-evaluation, their name is submitted for congregational approval. Usually, at the point, the person is selected as an elder.

Because of the effective filters and our conviction that elder qualifications speak primarily to the character of the person, our elders serve for life, or until they move or are unable to serve because of health. Currently, we have a "pool" of elders (elders-at-large) of about 20 men. However, only six serve in an active roll, governing the church on the council. Terms on the council are typically three years. Elders rotate on and off the council.

The elders-at-large meet once a month for a meal and doctrinal study or to deal with a major issue. This is not the decision making venue. However, it keeps all elders working and thinking together.

It is a structure that works well for us. It is effective, efficient, and holds the position of elder as a spiritual leader in the church, even if he is not actively serving on the governing council.

Posted by: Bob | Feb 10, 2005 12:01:18 PM

Interesting that this is the topic today. Just last night our Council considered the following selection process for elders and deacons.
a.The Council asks the congregation to submit names of suitable candidates for offices of elder and deacon.

b.The Council considers the names received from the congregation and also has open nominations from the floor of Council. A list of nominees is made up. All nominees will have the hearty endorsement of the Council. Nominees are contacted and asked to let their name stand for election.

c.A slate of nominees is presented to the congregation for approval as potential officebearers. Generally there will be twice as many nominees as positions. Information on the nominees will be given out.

d.The Congregation will vote on the slate. Each candidate will be voted on and will need 67% approval. The expectation will be that all nominees will be approved by the congregation. Names of those not approved by the congregation will not be disclosed nor be placed in the basket for selection.

e.In a confidential and prayerful manner, the names of the candidates approved by the congregation will be put in a basket and selected by a member of the congregation designated by Council.

f.The names of the ones selected will be announced to the congregation and will be installed using the usual procedure.

We wondered whether this keeps a proper balance between reliance on the Holy Spirit and having the body discern the gifts and character of its leaders. We want to avoid the popularity contest and the power brokering that sometimes appears to happen in selecting leaders.

Posted by: Tom | Feb 10, 2005 12:31:44 PM

I agree with the comments made about needing to clarify the function and purpose of any church governing body. All too often the line is blurred concerning governance and service. And while church governance is technically a form of service, most of us have witnessed or heard about Deacon bodies that oversee all church business, Deacon bodies that that function exclusively as a serving arm of the church, and Deacon bodies that do a little of both. Clarity of function and purpose is critical.

Posted by: Bob | Feb 10, 2005 12:36:29 PM

Your thinking is timely since our Board is currently wrestling with the length of service issue. The problem we're experiencing is that men have to go off the Board after serving a total of four years and stay off for at least a year. We're losing good men and continuity. The idea of renewing terms for as long as the men function is a good idea that we'll look at.

As for the mindset of the pastor leading with the encouragement of the Board, I wish churches could find some way to work with what I think is a true elder form of government. Instead of a "big dog" and little following dogs, the idea of a true team of leaders who share respect and accountability seems to better fit the biblical norm. Even if the lead pastor/elder is the visionary, that vision can be better defined and declared with the wise counsel of a team of leaders.

Posted by: John Strain | Feb 10, 2005 4:10:39 PM

I have appreciated the topics and comments on this blog. I was wondering if others have heard of GovernanceMatters.org? Les Stahlke addresses the issue of board selection and uses four catagories for competenceis required of board members: achieving, thinking, leadership, and personal (all with sub catagoires). It is a well thought out analysis of compentencies required for effective board leadership selection.

Alan Simpson
Conflict Resolution
Consultant, Coach, Trainer

Posted by: Alan Simpson | Feb 10, 2005 5:49:21 PM

So many ideas, so little space...

Each post has presented some fascinating nuance to a complex issue. Yet to be more fully addressed is the question of calling and giftedness. Our Elders are called for life, but we do provide an optional time off the board known in our parlance as a sabbatical. Should Elder's be called to serve a particular ministry in keeping with their giftedness and expertise?

One perspective is that the Pastor should be chair of the Elder Board to provide greater continuity. Other models may provide a stronger or weaker role for the Pastor. Evaluate every Pastor's strengths and giftedness and encourage them accordingly.

Adding by-laws might become legalism cloaked in a desire to be clear and fair. It may be advisable to provide for an affirmation of calling periodically, but to specifically list numerous grounds for removal of an Elder outside of scripture (e.a. Alzheimer's) sets up a potentially cumbersome system.

It may also be necessary to ask a constitutional question (no another one) and that is, what is the role of an Elder, Trustee, Deacon as it relates to ministry? If the Elder's believe that it is their primary role to approve the color of paint behind the communion table or decide who gets to move the sacramental shrubbery, then it may be time to revisit division of labor as outlined in scripture.

This has been a fascinating study, and I look forward to viewing more discussion as our church begins to grapple with refining the leadership model.

Great topic, keep posting...

Posted by: Curt Kephart | Feb 10, 2005 11:24:20 PM

Ken asks:
"What are your thoughts or experiences about selection to the board, about what is required for board decisions to be made, and about length of service? "

I'm in the early stages of ministry, and need to build a board. I am doing this slowly, keeping an eye out for people who I think are appropriate. I'll then be making proposals to them. Lenght of service is flexible, although I see no need "for life" as a term. What's the point? Tenure?


Posted by: bernie dehler | Feb 11, 2005 1:21:32 AM

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