Why Church Boards Need to Die

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By Bill Habicht

visionI’m sure I just spoke devil words up in here.

Have the church board disappear?

Ghastly!

My own church board members are probably scratching their heads by now.  “Does he really mean that?”  Well, yes and no.

Look.  The reality is that the iteration of church we know and love today is slowly fading away into oblivion.  We read the data.  We can see the churches closing left and right.

This past week from the PC(USA) regarding membership numbers

Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination… But the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year.

 Everybody put your hands in the air, say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!???  Fewer losses.  Awesome.

Now, I don’t want to spend all my time re-hashing what’s been discussed ad nauseam regarding the state of the church.  So, I’ll just use a picture to sum it up.

There.  Now that that’s out of the way, we don’t have to dwell on dismal numbers anymore.

I also don’t want to spend my time positing more theology or theories about where the church is or should be going.  I’ll leave that for the theologians out there.

I’m more of a pragmatist.  I’m interested in the actual steps, experimental steps if need be, that might help us move toward a new expression of Christianity as Jesus followers.

So over the next little while I want to explore actionable ideas (and I hope you chime in and add your own!) that might help us move in paradigmatically different ways.  It may be uncomfortable for some who are steeped in tradition, but discomfort isn’t always a bad thing, right?.  So here we go.

In my mind, it all begins with church boards.

Church Boards Need to Disappear!

And by disappear, I mean step to the side for a while and allow another group to take the lead (at least that’s what it will feel like).

What I’d like to propose is that the church adopt a bicameral system; not of Deacons and Elders, but of Present Church (the traditional board) and Future Church (a future-oriented board).  Both on equal footing, both equally valued, both receiving funding they oversee, but each with very different foci.  It isn’t earth shattering, but it might just provide enough space for something paradigmatically different to arise from the established church.

Whether we want to admit it or not, established church boards operate within a certain predefined framework; a framework that is structured to serve the needs and spiritual yearnings of those present.  Here’s what I know about church boards:

1.  Church boards generally serve in a management capacity.

Though visioning is also a part of their duties, church boards primarily manage and troubleshoot.  There’s simply too much on their plates to allow for creative, long-term, outside-the-box visioning.  They are often consumed with putting out the fires, hearing reports from committees, ensuring quality care of the congregation and deepening their relationship with God and one another.  It is largely a ministry of management and dealing with the issues of the hear and now.

2.  Church boards are largely comprised of Shepherds not Entrepreneurs.

Because church boards are largely consumed with management tasks and caring for the congregation, they’re often comprised of leaders who can resource and support the tasks at hand.  Makes sense to me.

They generally want their leaders, including pastors, to be Shepherds.  Let’s be honest here… they want leaders who can deepen the group, not innovate.  They want to be cared for and loved and nurtured, and they want to share that love and nurturing with the congregation.

All good things, mind you, but it doesn’t exactly create a space that invites bold ideas and challenges to the status quo.  (If you’re an entrepreneurial leader, this might explain why you often feel like the oddball at board meetings).

Pastor and blogger Carey Nieuwhof drove this home for me in Why We Need More Entrepreneurial Church Leaders, Not More Shepherds (a MUST READ post btw),

The church today is flooded with leaders who fit the Shepherd model, caring for people who are already assembled, managing what’s been built and helping to meet people’s needs. Conventional seminaries are mostly addicted to producing Shepherds.  But we have far too few leaders who have the spiritual gift of apostleship (entrepreneurship). I believe this helps explain the malaise in much of the Western church in which the vast majority of churches are plateaued or declining.

Church boards are really built for Shepherds, not Entrepreneurs. Yet Entrepreneurs are the key, missing component for the Future Church.  That might be taking things a little far, cause God will no doubt work in amazing ways.  But you get my point.

3.  Church boards are largely comprised of folks who like church as it is.

Which makes logical sense sense….if board members didn’t like the church as it is, then why in world would they be there in the first place?

This, of course, puts the church board in a difficult position when it comes to dreaming up new expressions of what it could be.  It’s difficult, even when you know it might be necessary, to let go of what you love and what’s familiar to risk for future generations.  That’s not a blame thing.  It’s just human nature.

Churches across the country run up against this every day.  “Yes, we know we need to change, but…”  More often than not, the “but” is the deal breaker.

4.  Church boards are homogeneous.

Every person on the board is officially a “church member,” at least in the PC(USA)… which kinda sours things for those who’ve been attending a church for 20 years but never officially joined for whatever reason.

Beyond the whole “you need to be a church member” thing, there’s often unwritten rules in place that undermine diversity.

Oh, she can’t be on the board.  She hasn’t served on a committee yet.

OR

I like him.  It’s just that he’s new and doesn’t understand the culture and how things work around here.

OR my favorite

That type of person will be disruptive.

Even churches committed to diversity have unwritten rules like these that preclude new perspectives from entering the inner circle (and I’m not talking about worship times here folks).

These unwritten rules exist in every church and are almost always developed with the best of intentions, but they do have a shadow side.

5.  Church boards are stuck.

Church boards know this, right?  They know that something drastic needs to change, but they just don’t know where to go or how to do it.  Often it’s not for lack of will, but lack of knowledge.  Yup, that probably includes all of us.  No one really knows what the future church will look like.  All we know is that what we’re doing now ain’t gonna cut it.  So, church boards rub up against what they desire and what they’re equipped and have time to do.

Churches also like to operate with a pretty high level of certainty, which can’t be assured when talking about the future church.  So, the default is to hunker down in defense mode and get stuck, wishing for a magic solution that doesn’t involve risk or money.

Here’s the thing…

The problem isn’t that church boards are doing things wrong.

They serve a very important function, which is to care for the present community.  And they have excelled at this for generations (and will continue do so), which is no small feat if you think about it. (Check out this article for some great lessons on longevity that businesses can learn from the church).

The problem is that church boards aren’t really equipped or have time to envision a new expression of church for those not yet here… for all the reasons outlined above.

To move the church forward, we might need a different sort of group

We might need a group, a Future Church Board, comprised (at least in part) of

  1. Visionaries & Matrix Thinkers
  2. Entrepreneurs
  3. Outsiders
  4. Linkers and
  5. Champions

The foci of this board is not on managing and caring for the present church, but on exploring options for the future church and experimenting, experimenting, experimenting.  And, in all honesty, I think that a Future Church board would need to be on equal footing with a Present Church board.  Otherwise, the hunker down position will prevail when “those crazy ideas” start a comin’.

We’ll delve more into a possible composition, as well as foci, for a Future Church board in Part II of this series.  For now, I want to hear your thoughts.

What do you think?  What structural changes could you imagine that would truly break-open the church when it comes to the church board?

Bill Habicht is associate pastor of Davis Community Church in Davis, CA. He is a contributing blogger at Pedestrian People, where this post was first shared.

photo credit: DaveLawler via photopin cc

3 replies
  1. Karen Wright
    Karen Wright says:

    Love your idea of the two different church boards on equal footing with each other….Am on my church’s session which is great at shepparding as you suggest. We have a small group of “young adults” emerging in our church, with a young adult seminarian getting that group mobilized.
    So I can easily see our two groups – as you describe – working well together. I sure am open even as an older member!!!! Send more ideas along….

  2. David Rue
    David Rue says:

    Your suggestion for two sessions in one church reminds me of the experiences of the many churches across the country having embraced one church of Jesus Christ with the diverse, racial/ethnic “boards” attending to the aspirations of each congregation. More specifically, the Korean Central Presbyterican Church of Greater Cleveland envisioned a “two churches under one roof,” to serve both Korean speaking immigrant congregants and English only second generation Asian American worshippers 20 years ago. Both are growing and thriving. The intention was and still is to gradually transfer the governing authority to the “future” generation, in proportion to mission activities of the respective churches within the church. As long as we all are the Christ followers in our hearts, a modus operandi in our outreach and mission is merely a matter of culture/style, not the substance itself. The core purpose of the church as a worshipping community is not to create a community of young and/or old people, but to provide a space/place where their lives are transformed by the grace of God through the work of the Holy spirit, regardless of age, gender, race or culture. Thank you.

  3. Rev Ed Slusser HR
    Rev Ed Slusser HR says:

    Very helpful insights but who would have final say as to expenditures of time, personnel, and money of the Present Church (PC) and Future Church (FC) Also help would be needed in conflict resolution when PC and FC have different agendas. Church I served developed a Partnership with the Catholic Church in town. When a FC vision resulted in a small portion of our 15 acres to be used by the local Catholic-Hispanic fellowship for a community garden we ran into issues between PC and FC about up keep, Tool shed design and placement, and water usage that resulted in end to the project. Great concept that would need great shared faith, hope and love for implementation of FC ideas. 🙂

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