Lecture 14: Pastoral Leadership and Church Structure (Part 3)
II. Pastoral Leadership and Structure (cont.)
We have spent a good portion of this section so far, talking about structure, the importance of structure, recognizing that there is no one structure, though it seems like God has given us a certain amount of freedom in how we structure the church. Recognize that nonetheless, we need to look at Scripture to look for some guidance and we see some forms of structure in the New Testament. So we paid attention to the teachings, we looked at some of the core passages. Then we just finished with looking at the necessity that nonetheless, there has to be structure, there has to be order if a church is going to be effective, just like in any other thing of life.
I may have already alluded to this in another lecture, but I remember a man who was a German scientist, who you would think would be all about structure and order. Actually, when he confronted me one day, his main problem with me was, I was too structured; which was interesting because I don’t necessarily see administrative order so much as my gift. But I realized in leading this church, particularly in The Netherlands with all of its moving pieces with expats, there had to be really clear order and effectiveness, with which he struggled. Then I asked this question one day. We had a lot of expats who were in the oil industry, like Shell Oil and others that were doing amazing things, industries that have amazing order. I think a fair question is, If they have a certain order to be highly effective, why should it be any different for the church, that actually has a far greater mission than Shell Oil. The point is, there needs to be order.
We need to recognize again the danger, and that is we can let order become so preeminent. I think that is where God has raised prophetic voices like Eugene Peterson to say, “If we are not careful, we just become a lot of shopkeepers, we will become CEOs.” In my last church we had a lot of engineers and people who worked at Intel and Nike. They assumed, expected me to be the CEO of the church. I would sometimes have to say that there are pieces of that I do, but I am a pastor, so don’t change my identity here. If I allowed myself to go the direction they wanted me to go, then the organism, I think, would be taken captive by the organization.
Frankly, if you look at the flow of churches, typically a lot of churches look like a lot of organizations. They start strong, there is vision and dreaming. Then there comes the point of atrophy. Atrophy always happens at the highest point. At the highest point then a lot of organizations and churches tend to begin to decline. When they decline, oftentimes how they got here is when this living organism begins to structure. Talking about ministry for today, you know we need to have a policy for who works with our kids. There are pedophiles out there. We need to have some protections here.
So this journey of all of these policies and procedures can lead to organization, which is good, which we are talking about here. But the organization should always be underserving the organism. I think where churches start to atrophy is when it reverses and the organisms start to serve the organization. In my 80-year-old church that was clearly the case. Every time I spoke up about something, someone would say, “Hold it, it is not in the bylaws” or “Our bylaws say…” It is not that they weren’t important, but it felt like the church was held hostage to the rules and regulations. The church began to become sort of squeezed and confined and molded to the policies and procedures. We lost sight of a lot of things. I am arguing for structure, but also warning against some of the dangers.
E. Maintain healthy working rules
The fourth guideline here as you find your way in my notes to this first section is to maintain healthy working rules in the structure. What does that mean exactly? Let me lay out some pieces.
1. Create a leadership ethos. It is really important in a leadership structure that we are creating a leadership ethos. The healthiest churches are where you come in and it is clear that this is a church that is devoted to training and preparing leaders. This is where leaders feel welcome, not out of place. Leadership training that is moving farm teams to the major leagues. Leaders who maybe are leading small groups that will one day be elders in the church. That is one of the working rules.
2. Here is the second. Establishing clear qualifications of those who will lead, which we’ve talked about a bit already. It means that we pay really strict attention to 1 Timothy 3 and Romans 12. Whoever is going to lead needs to fulfill the qualifications.
3. Here is the third piece. Have a really healthy selection process. Whether one is pastor or on a staff of some sort, or on a board, or on a nominating committee, that there is a healthy selection process, which the church has thought through who is going to be engaged in that selection process.
4. One governing board. I have already said this, but I’ll say it again, it is really important in maintaining these healthy working rules, to have one board as opposed to multiple boards that can lead to infighting and jockeying for position and competition for power.
5. Exercising certain good board rules. It is really important that boards have a certain set of rules by which they are guided, a clear set of officers, a clear set of policies, a clear set of procedures.
6. Work hard at something we hate, work at creating really good meetings, healthy meetings. I have been in a lot of bad meetings and I am guessing most of you have had your share of bad meetings. Here are at least some rules I have learned over the years.
Really good meetings are carefully prepared. It means that you as the leader need to have an expectation that is clear - people pick up on this – that everyone who is coming tonight to the meeting, whatever it is, comes prepared. That there are minutes and bylaws and structures and reports that people need to be aware of. They sound rather mundane and not very exciting, but if you don’t have a clear preparation and people are speaking just off the cuff, then you are going to have problems.
I can’t stress this enough, there has to be a clear agenda. Here is what I have learned about agendas. The best boards, the best meetings have a clear agenda that has already been worked through earlier. It is not established that night. It is not added to that night. That is where you run into a lot of problems. We had what was called an executive committee. Its primary responsibility was to accept the agenda for the next board meeting. I can’t tell you how much healthier that made meetings, by knowing that the agenda was set; and if people were tempted to hijack the meeting with their agenda, it was clearly said that if you have something, you can let the executive committee know for the next meeting. What that did is that people who came prepared were not blindsided by things that suddenly came up in the meeting that you were not prepared for. This can be a very dangerous thing.
I was on a board – I will leave the church name out to protect its reputation – where after we had worked through the agenda, the chairman often said, “Now, are there any other items you would wish to discuss?” Which typically led to emotional issues and it is 10:00 at night. It was a perfect storm that led to some of the very worst meetings I ever was involved in, meetings that sometimes went to midnight or later, things that never should have been discussed in the first place.
An agenda therefore that reflects a certain discernment, that also discerns what items should this board be discussing and what items should the board say, “We don’t need to be discussing this. They can discuss it in this committee over here. This can be worked out by the staff over here.” An agenda that answers the question, Do we have enough information to discuss this, in the first place?
That leads to a third piece and that is, time boundaries. I stress again, healthy meetings have agendas which clearly, it is set, this is how much time we have for this agenda item, and this is how much time we have for this agenda item. That protects from what typically happens in meetings where people find themselves repeating one another. A good board chair will say, “I think we have heard the points and we have three minutes left on this issue. Is there anyone who wants to bring out something we have not already discussed?” You keep things moving and you have a board chairman who hopefully will say something like this – I dream about these kind of leaders – “This meeting will go no later than 9 o’clock because after 9 o’clock it will get emotional. We typically lose a lot of our thinking after 9 o’clock, I know I do. So at 9 o’clock, no matter where we are, we are ending. If we have to take up matters, we may have to have another meeting, but we will end this meeting at 9:00.” It is really important n
ot to go beyond what is the agreed time because tired meetings make the worst decisions.
That leads to making sure there are proper procedures. Whether it is Roberts Rules of Order or whatever you use, there is a protocol that people understand and there are procedures and there are boundaries. There is an encouragement for civility, something we have lost in this culture today. By civility, I think a good board in terms of board rules says let’s establish a set of core values. If a board doesn’t have a set of core values, they should, in which the board together says, “This may take three months, but we are going to establish these.” This may have words like loving one another or patient with one another or whatever those “one anothers” are. They are something a board can go back to when it starts to get off the rails and say, “We are getting away from our values.”
Some indicators of bad meetings, I have listed a few: Inbred tension; the pastor and the board chairman in a rivalry for power; boards are so fiduciary-minded, they are oblivious to the mission; or pastors who are so missional, they are oblivious to the fiduciary responsibilities. Those are some indicators.
Now I’m going to give you 10 things to avoid.
1. The first thing to avoid is intimidation, manipulation. I had a board chairman. Once I was sitting in a meeting and obviously we had a very difficult relationship. I remember, he was sitting there and he said, “Pastor, I don’t like the way you are sitting.” His mission was intimidation. Intimidation and manipulation should never be part of meetings.
2. Here is the second thing to avoid, that is the avoidance of tough issues. We can’t live in denial. If we are leaders, we have to be fearless.
3. Thirdly, disagreement that disintegrates into personal attack. It’s really healthy on boards to disagree. Patrick Lencioni in one of this first books on leadership, talks about the fact that the very best meetings have conflict. I think we as Christians, it has been so ingrained in us to avoid conflict, to agree with everyone, that we are afraid to disagree. Actually, what makes for a good meeting is when you have a lot of real disagreement,; but it does not descend into personal attack. First of all, they are not boring, they are engaging. Actually sometimes, often, the very best decisions come out of those. We tend to be echo chambers, or another phrase is narrow framing. We just listen to those who agree with us and we think everyone should agree with us. I like a board chairman that says, “Not only am I giving you permission to disagree, I am encouraging you to disagree. We need to look at this matter from multiple angles. But here is the rule in disagreement: If this starts to move into personal a
ttack, then you have lost your credibility to speak.”
4. Here is the fourth, which I have touched on already in things to avoid, that is digression from the agenda. Good meetings are highly disciplined.
5. Fifth, hot button issues that have not had proper preparation and anticipation. We are going to deal with hot button issues, things that have come up, feelings people have about a decision to abandon the choir. I don’t know, that just comes to mind. But, hot button issues that a board will have to think through. A board that is going to have a good, good meeting, is going to come with a lot of preparation. So, what are we discovering out there? What are the pros and cons? Why should we continue to have a choir, or why shouldn’t we? What is the makeup of our church? These kinds of things.
6. Here is the sixth. That is on preparedness, which I have already touched on.
7. Too much time on money and people issues. There has to be a certain balance at board meetings. It can’t be all about money and it can’t be all about people issues. I’ve been on boards that can talk about a family and their needs for an hour. I’ve been on boards that speak about money for most of the evening. So, too much time on these issues.
8. This is kind of hitchhiking on this: Leaving the vision and the mission out of the discussion. We need somewhere in all of our meetings I think, to remind us, Why are we here? Let’s remind ourselves what this church is about. What is our mission? What is our vision, by the way? Let’s review some of the strategy. Let’s make sure we keep that in front all of the time; and then it suddenly puts things contextually in their place. But if we are not careful, we let what I have just talked about get hijacked by immediate issues, fiduciary issues; and then we get off the rails.
9. People allowed to monopolize, dominate meetings. It is going to happen. There is going to be some who are too quiet and some who are too loud. A good board chair will know how to moderate that, to say politely but carefully, “Jim, I know you feel strongly and we have heard your position, but Jim, we haven’t heard from Tim. Tim, we haven’t heard from you tonight, and I know you are thinking about this, tell us what you are thinking.” Sometimes we have to pull out and you have to slow down.
10. The last one in terms of bad meetings is an insistence on unanimity every time. It is great to have unanimity. All of us want unanimity. But the reality is, if we always strive and we always insist upon unanimity, there will be a lot of decisions that are never made. You have to be willing to say something like this: “It would be great to have unanimity, but most likely we won’t on this issue. But let’s aim for consensus and if we can gain consensus, then what we must all be bound to and agree on is, we walk out as one board tonight. If we have any problems with this, it is kept internal.” Because one of the worst things obviously that can happen is the board person who says, “Yeh, but I was not one of the people who voted for that” in the congregation. That is a recipe for division.
Another major rule with boards and structures is to have a clear succession plan in place, a plan that locates people on and off the board. It might sound really simple, but you have to think it through carefully so that it is not losing a whole lot of people all at once, so that there is a certain rhythm to this, keeping the board size healthy.
In terms of thinking about succession, part of it is, do we replace with the same number? Boards can be part of that ministry creep that pretty soon can get too big and unwieldy. Large boards I have been part of have a certain representation that is nice, but a terrible ability to make decisions. Ideally, I think anyway, a board of five to seven is ideal. I have been on boards of 15, 17, you can kiss decision making goodbye. There might be a recognition that someone who is an elder is an elder for life, but there need to be breaks. This is really difficult, but there also needs to be boldness sometimes to step up and say, “You really need to get off the board.” We are afraid to do that. Boards should not leave it to pastors if it comes to that point. Boards need to do that.
I had a very difficult board in my second church and two men in particular who had no business being on the board. Unfortunately, the board did not step up as they should have. It took four pastors for at least one board member to finally stand up and say, and this was to the elder chair, “You need to leave, and you need to leave this church.” So healthy succession and sometimes healthy elimination is good.
Something else here is clarifying the roles of elders and staff, which we have touched on already, but let me talk a little bit more about this. In our desire to bring down the silos and not have the elders over here and the staff over here, and almost a certain alienation and disrespect sometimes, there needs to be willingness to really bridge and bring together. But it has to be done in a way where you don’t so flatten the roles, there is no distinction.
So the elders govern, but they don’t manage, they don’t get into the day-to-day operations. They can’t. For the most part they work. They sustain the mission and vision and core values and they make committee assignments. They take the fiduciary role of setting and managing the budget. They do these kind of board things. They make sure that the resources are managed effectively and they establish the bylaws and the duties. They assist in shepherding, as we talked about. They review and evaluate the performance of pastors. They are called to do this.
Let me just say a word about reviewing pastors because a lot of boards don’t know how to do this very well. I don’t think it is a bad thing for a board to say, “We are going to review you annually. What would you like us to ask?” I think that can be very healthy because a pastor might say, “I would like you to ask me how may family is doing. I would like you to ask me about my health. I would like you to ask me if the wages I’m earning are sustaining us. I would like you to ask about my spirituality. I would like you to ask me, are you just preparing sermons and reading the Bible for sermons, or are you reading it for your soul? I would like for you to ask me how often I pray.” I think a wise board would say, “We would love to ask you those things and you have given us permission to do that.” Things that move beyond just looking at the job description. That should be a really healthy time. It should not be a time a board gangs up on a pastor at all. It hopefully should be a time where there has been some
really careful listening and there has been both encouragement and also recognition of areas to grow. I don’t think it is a healthy performance review if it is just, “Hey, you’re doing so great, we are so privileged to have you as our pastor. Keep at it.” That is not going to really help the pastor. On the other hand, it is not going to help the pastor if it is all critical. “We don’t think you are really connecting with the people. You are really disorganized. We wishing you were doing more of this.” It has to be encouragement as well as some correction. There should be, again, mutual accountability. They know that in a sense they are under the pastor and he shepherds their souls, but he is looking to them in an accountable way as well.
So the elders have their role, the staff has their role of this day-to-day functioning and managing and shepherding, and they are responsible to the board. They keep the board accountable as I have mentioned.
One more thing I will talk about in terms of these relationships. I think I have learned over the years that perhaps the most important relationship in the church, of many relationships, is the relationship of the board chair and the pastor. How that relationship goes will say a lot about how the church goes. If the church sees that the board chair and the pastor are joined at the hip, that they mutually love and embrace one another, it is going to do a lot to bring healing and I should say unity to the church. If they see two men who are each maneuvering for power or intimidation or just don’t like each other, it is going to be hard to see a church that is very unified. This is not automatic, it does not just happen. There has to be great intentionality on the part of both.
A pastor looks to his board, I always have, as my first line of defense. I look to my board as the men who have my back, who are going to be there for me, who are going to stand up for me. I’m not saying this to say that a board should be composed of “yes men.” It is healthy to have a board and a board chairman that will challenge and push back at times. But at the end of the day, a pastor is going to sleep well knowing that the board is there for him. Just as the board knows the pastor will always defend the board and stand up for them. So, the board chairman and the pastor have to be on the right page; which means that in the selection process of who should chair the board, a pastor’s voice in that decision should always be respected. He might have to say, and maybe even a bit confidentially, “This would not be a good working relationship, we don’t agree on a lot of things.” This board chairman must be skilled in again, leading meetings and love the church as much as anyone else in the church; and also
value a close working relationship; and I can’t stress this enough, refuse, absolutely refuse to ever be a lightning rod. Lightning rods are the most dangerous people in the church. Lightning rods are those that just attract criticism like lightning rods attract lightning. People who I often hear say, “I don’t know, it just seems that I’m safe. People like to come and talk to me.” No, actually they realize that because you agree with them and you become divisive in the process, you create these triangular relationships” instead of saying, “If you have a criticism, go to the pastor, I know he’d like to hear from you.” He may not like to hear from you, but he needs to hear from you. If this person says,”I have tried, I have gone, he won’t listen to me,” that is another issue. The board chair must not, must not be a divisive person. They both must intentionally establish regular meetings, monthly breakfasts, anything to establish a good relationship so they can work as a team and must be willing to step down if the relationship is not working.
Privacy of board discussions
Question: I have a question about privacy. How do you feel about conversations in an elder meeting being private and specifically, is it okay for an elder to share the discussions with a spouse, or should it be no, this is absolutely private?
Dr. Johnson: It depends. I think there can be issues in which a board agrees that this must not go any further than our spouse. There are going to be times a board I believe must say, this can go to no-one. My wife, Heather, would sometimes get frustrated with me because she would find out things from somebody else because I’m actually pretty private when it comes to church business. There are two reasons for that. One is, by the time I get home, the last thing I want to talk about is church, especially with my spouse. Secondly, I think I can fairly say that in my 33 years as a pastor, no-one could ever accuse Heather of being a gossip because I never gave her any material. It was part of protecting. So I think sometimes it is really healthy to say, “Not only this must not go to our spouses, but we are protecting our spouses from doing something that would be really unhealthy, and it will fall back on you.” Because elders have a lot of information and some of that information in the hands of the wrong spo
use is like gold in terms of being in the know; and people like to be around people in the know. I think there are times absolutely. When we were going through this lawsuit, there were a lot of things I wanted to share, but I could not share and I dared not share.
Should staff concerns go through the lead pastor or directly to the board?
Question: A follow-up question again on privacy. Staff and elders, do you think that staff are free to share with elders, or should the staff concerns go through the leading elder, you. If the members of your staff have concerns, can they go directly to the board, or do they have to go through you?
Dr. Johnson: Things about me, or other things?
Question: I would say about anything, because if they have a problem with you, I know your answer, it is going to be, talk to me.
Dr. Johnson: I think it is really healthy to say to the staff, Let’s work through these issues and if we feel we need to talk to the elders, let’s at least first make sure we have talked it amongst ourselves. If you have something about me, please, please never go an elder behind my back without first coming to me. If you need to go to an elder because I don’t have time, I’m not giving you the time of day, I’m not taking your interests at all into consideration, then I’ve sort of forfeited that right.
I had a staff person who probably not the first time, went to an elder behind my back about a frustration. I remember, that was a really hurtful experience. I think from that point on, it created a certain mistrust that no pastor wants to feel towards the staff. I think that you can’t assume people will know that. I think it is part of setting ground rules early on in ministry with the staff. Here is our role. Here is the elders’ role. Here is how we deal with disagreements, etc. Here are our values. There are a lot of things that need to get set.
Should people with disagreements about the pastor go directly to the board?
Question: Another slight version of that is, sometimes people will have a beef about the pastor or a staff member. Because of intimidation or whatever reason, they are not comfortable going to the person or maybe you don’t even feel safe, so they want to bypass the pastor, the staff, and go to the elders to complain. I know if there are issues of molestation, etc., where someone does not feel safe, that is a separate issue. But would you ever allow having people say, “If I have a problem, I’m just going to go to the elders and talk to them.” Is there ever a point at which they do that?
Dr. Johnson: I know you understand this. In one sense, whether I allow it or not, I don’t know if that is the right terminology. If they are going to do it, they are going to do it. I think again, this is where sharing with your board, use some operational things, procedures, how we do things here. Because we want to be Ephesians 4, we want to preserve the unity of the faith. We want to work hard at unity. This is what I am saying: You elders, if someone comes to you about an issue related to us as pastors, or me as the lead pastor, and it is clear they haven’t talked to us, please, please, don’t let the congregation go any further. Just stop it and say, “You need to go.” “But I feel a little bit intimidated.” Then you have another problem because pastors should not be intimidating by the nature of their task and their role. I think we have to gently say, “Actually, Pastor John would be really happy to talk to you, but I don’t want to talk to you unless you have first talked to him.”
I think what happens then is, once you have said that, if an elder says, “Pastor, we need to talk because Kevin has something he brought up to me about your preaching” or something like that, I think what I have just said is what I need to say: “This conversation ends right now because you need to go back to Kevin and say, ‘Kevin, you need to go talk to John’ because I don’t want to hear it from you.” I hate to hear anything third party because it loses a certain accuracy for one. It could makes it complicated. Pretty soon people know that no, I wouldn’t call the elders because it is pretty clear we have a culture in which we go to the person.
What is the role of staff pastors who have fiduciary responsibilities but aren’t board members?
Question: Along those lines, a lot of churches in their structure have staff pastors who also serve on the elder board, who are responsible for fiduciary responsibilities of the church, but also are under the eldership as well. Would you speak to the special nature of that role in the church?
Dr. Johnson: I had 10 pastors at one time and at times they chafed a little bit out of the fact that, why shouldn’t they be elders as well? What I tried to say is that it is important that there is a distinction in roles so that there is a certain submission to the elders in leading the church. Part of that chafing was, “But I don’t have a vote” and I would say, “But you have a voice.” Actually a voice is more important than a vote. We had women who served on our board who were not elders, but nonetheless they served on the board, but they did not have a vote. But I always told them, “But you have a voice.” If your voice is the right voice, then the vote won’t matter. I was the only one as pastor, because I was lead pastor, that had a vote because I was technically an elder. I think in my 16 years at Village, I never voted once. I wanted the board to feel like they were not voting against me, or that I was not using my vote to manipulate them in any way. I chose not to take advantage of that. But I did
not hesitate to use my voice.
So it may be in your structure you have some staff who are also elders, so they have a vote. Not that I think there is anything necessarily wrong. In our arrangement the staff and the elders were two distinct roles that had different responsibilities and different authority.
Question: Could you speak to some of those challenges that staff elders would have when they sit on the board and they do have a vote, with the lead pastor?
In the structure of the church of which I am pastor, we have an elder board of nine men and the lead pastor serves on that board and there are two staff pastors who also serve on the board. All three of those paid staffers have votes. Would you speak to some of the challenges those three might have working together because they have a vote and essentially two of the men are under the authority of the lead pastor, who is their boss, but they also serve as elders.
Dr. Johnson: I’m not sure. I guess because I was in a different structure, I’m trying to think through how that would change the dynamics in terms of my relationship. If the board said, “Pastors should also have an elder role and have a vote,” I think a number of my pastors would have said, “That is great.” But I think what is not so great is then I think there could have been a confusion of the fact that the pastors are also under the elders. Pastors have to be accountable to someone and that someone logically are the elders. Who is going to give the performance review? In one sense, I would give performance review of pastors, but someone had to do a performance review of me. In some cases, elders would get involved in the performance review of pastors where they needed to. I think there would be confusion if they are elders, too.
If someone says we are going to give a pay raise to the pastors. Let’s check with the elders, but they are pastors. I’m not saying it is unhealthy or wrong. Again, the whole point of this lecture is to say that every church has a different structure. It is not necessarily right or wrong. There will be pluses and minuses with any structure. Congregationalism can be a great structure if everybody loves and supports and defers to one another. An elder rule church can be wonderful if the elders are embraced and they speak for the church. But they can also be really bad if the congregation has gone to seed and is keeping the church hostage to any decisions, or an elder rule where authoritarianism takes hold and people don’t feel they have a voice for anything.
I probably completely waffled on your question. I think one of the challenges is if you move to staff becoming elders, it is going to be really hard to turn that back, so that is a decision that should be weighed very carefully. I think, even though my pastors sometimes wanted that role, in the main I think they appreciated they did not have that role. They kept everything in a certain tension and balance.
Has your wife’s advice helped you with a board decision?
Question: One other question. You spoke about your wife, Heather, not sharing anything from the board. Can you think of a time when your wife, Heather, has influenced or helped you make a decision in regards to the board. Does she have influence over you? Speak to that a little bit.
Dr. Johnson: That is a good question. I can’t immediately think of a time, outside of the fact, and that is why I became a strong proponent to have women serving at the table, as there is certainly a female contribution. Not to sound sexist, but women do see thinks differently. If people want to flatten that, then I would say you are living in nonreality. Heather, like the women on the board, at times would help me to see that you have to think about how these people are going to feel if you do that. Or, it seems like we are going kind of fast here. I can’t speak to a “Yeh, I remember this one time…” I think because I have protected her from so much of the business of the church. Home is a lot of times more of a retreat.
It depends on the pastor’s wife. Some pastor’s wives, I don’t mean to be demeaning at all, need to be like queen bees. They need to be head of the women, right in the center of the action. I’m sure in those situations, those pastors get an earful of opinions. Heather is a public school teacher. She was overwhelmed just doing that for years. She approached church as, “I have a responsibility to be a Godly woman, to faithfully use my gifts in the church and be faithful to the church” but she did not aspire to leadership roles, even though sometimes people wanted to push her to that. Therefore she was not in the politics, if you will, and the business of the church too much. A lot of this is going to depend upon the involvement of a wife. I am not saying one is right and one is wrong. I can tell you, speaking for myself, I loved Heather having no more role than that.