Healthy Board, Healthy Church

Every church needs a strong board, united in purpose.

Many churches are afflicted by “dragons,” well-meaning saints who, one way or another, undermine the ministry and sap the vitality from a congregation. To make a church healthy, the place to start is by building a healthy board. Cohesiveness among the spiritual leaders of the congregation is a healthy core for healing the rest of the body and for fighting the infectious attitudes that spring up from time to time.

Some pastors go too far and “stack” the board with friends who can be trusted never to disagree.

“Every member of my board is someone I’ve personally led to Christ, and I’ve never had trouble with them,” boasted one prominent Southern pastor to a group of seminarians. “I held one man in my arms as he went through delirium tremens. Now he’s on my board, and I can count on his vote. He owes me.”

Such crass political maneuvering is not only repugnant, but in the long run, runs against the pastor’s best interest. The best board is not one where everyone plays follow-the-leader. A board that always votes unanimously the pastor’s way will only be as strong as the pastor’s personality. When the pastor is overwhelmed, run down, and needing guidance, a collection of clones won’t be adequate.

At the same time, healthy boards are united in purpose and plan, respecting one another’s differences. The strongest board is a team of coworkers willing to honor God not only with their decisions but the decision-making process. Their relationships are as important as their righteousness, and the relationship between pastor and board is cemented with trust; without that, the pastor’s ministry will inevitably come unglued.

Cultivating Personal Trust

If pastors and their boards don’t trust each other, the church will be unhealthy, and chances are, the pastor’s tenure will be brief and unpleasant. Some boards don’t allow a pastor to win their trust; they see it as their job to “keep the pastor in line.” Unless the relationship changes, that ministry is doomed. A relationship of trust must be attempted, even when it doesn’t come naturally.

Sometimes this relationship takes time–several years, perhaps, as certain members move off the board and new blood takes their place. Always, however, the initiative for trying to develop trust lies with the pastor.

“The best thing we’ve done,” says a Mennonite pastor in Pennsylvania, “is to set aside four evenings a year where the seven elders and I have dinner together, spend an hour with each person sharing what’s happening in his life, pray for personal needs, and then talk about the ministry–not specific business items, but our vision for the church, our goals. We’ve dreamed what our congregation can become, and that’s helped put things in perspective and built our respect for one another.

“It’s helped build the feeling among us that when disagreements come, we know we can at least trust one another’s intentions.”

Personal relationships, mutual respect, and trust are the foundation of a strong working relationship between pastor and board. But there are other important elements to keep dragons from emerging within the board. Churches that emphasize these elements not only develop strong, ministering boards but find attacks by outside dragons are easier to handle.

Chosen for Character, Not Clout

To paraphrase Peter DeVries, we’re attracted to individuals because of a personality, but after that we have to live with a character. Healthy boards are built with members selected for their spiritual qualifications, not their money, longevity in the congregation, or strong personality.

Thousands of congregations have horror stories about the “good ol’ boy” approach to selecting church leaders: someone is well-liked and willing to serve and thus is considered qualified, but within three years, the church regrets the decision because of the elder’s (choose any of the following) adultery, arrest, divorce, shady business practices, or argumentative style.

1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 list the spiritual qualities to look for in potential church leaders–such things as being temperate, controlled, hospitable, and free from greed–which is certainly a better list than well-liked, willing to serve, and able to tithe $5,000 a year.

Even with this list of spiritual qualities, though, how do you gauge spiritual maturity without becoming judgmental? While no objective criteria are specified in Scripture, several of the qualities do suggest a basis for selecting elders and deacons.

They must have proven their ability to minister, demonstrating an ability to give spiritual encouragement. They must be “apt to teach,” that is, able to explain the faith and help others grow. They must have a reputation in their community and among their coworkers as being consistently Christian. And they must not be new believers—they must be known well enough and long enough to have been observed living out their faith.

“It takes time to see someone demonstrating Christian maturity, wisdom, and compassion,” says an Assembly of God pastor. “So our congregation has a rule that a person has to be a member for at least a year before being considered for office. And because we don’t hurry people into membership, most of our new members have been in the fellowship two or three years. That means candidates for the board have all served in other areas of the church’s life and have demonstrated their gifts, abilities, and commitment.”

Common Learning Experiences

“Each month our deacons read a book on church renewal, church government, or some other aspect of church life,” says a suburban Minneapolis pastor. At each month’s board meeting, at least half an hour is spent discussing the concepts in the book. The ideas also become the basis of informal conversations over coffee or lunch.

Periodically, a major portion of the board meeting is spent discussing a case study or a written assignment one of the deacons has completed. At least once a year, each deacon attends a seminar with two or three other deacons and reports back to the board.

“For the first time, those who had been the biggest pains in the church understood where we’re going. We’re using the same vocabulary, and we have a common base of understanding,” says the pastor.

Regular Performance Reviews

Evaluations, preferably written, not only help pastors synchronize their ministries with the priorities of the board, but they become an excellent defense when the pastor is criticized. Critics can be told, “I’m doing what I’ve been commissioned to do,” and complaints can be referred to the board.

Reviews also help prevent surprise attacks by individual board members, and even if they occur, the evaluation provides a forum for those criticisms to be fully discussed and defused.

Accepting the Defense Contract

Members of healthy boards understand that sometimes their job includes defense. They may debate issues, but when decisions are made, they become ambassadors to defend those decisions even if they didn’t vote for them. Many pastors let their board members know from the beginning that though they may differ sharply in their meetings, in public they do not dissent but represent the will of the board.

Defending the ministry also means defending the church from attack. Some pastors brief new board members that part of their task is to help shepherd the flock, and sometimes that means protection. If ministry calls for a private confrontation, and the pastor feels he shouldn’t go alone, elders should be willing to go along. If there are emergencies, elders should know they may be called in the middle of the night.

The clear guidance and support of elders keeps a pastor effective, and pastors minister most effectively when they are not defensive. At times, the board can deflect criticism aimed at the pastor and confront the church dragons. Occasionally this means taking a gossiping member aside and saying, “We don’t belittle our pastor in this church; if he’s doing something wrong, please come to us before spreading this kind of talk.” Other times it means facing critics openly.

Meetings a Ministry, Not a Misery

The atmosphere of the board meeting itself is an excellent gauge of the church’s health. Do board members pray for one another? Do they take time to find out one another’s worries and joys? Time spent in personal ministry at the beginning of a board meeting is time well spent. An unwritten agenda item at every healthy board meeting is “Encouraging each other.”

One Baptist pastor, however, discovered this didn’t happen in his deacon board meetings until he changed the time and place. Meeting on Sunday afternoons in a church classroom seemed to produce sparks. He always found himself pressured, feeling backed into a corner.

Now the deacons meet in the pastor’s family room on Monday night, and while it wouldn’t be accurate to say that arguments have disappeared and the pastor’s stomach never churns, it is true that the climate is improved. As the pastor says, “It’s harder to be angry with someone after you’ve prayed for him, when you’re sitting on the same couch, and you have a glass of tea in your hand.”

Developing a healthy board doesn’t guarantee a healthy church, nor does a healthy church guarantee a dragon-free existence, but certainly the healthier the church the less damage dragons can inflict.

Adapted from Well-Intentioned Dragons (Christianity Today International, 1985). This adaptation appears in “Elders/Deacons,” an electronic orientation guide from our sister site

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