What Board Members Want From Their Pastor

Things we don’t talk about often enough

Over the past 30 years, I have worked with many pastors and board members in many different circumstances—some pleasant and some unpleasant. And I’m intrigued by one constant, almost universal desire that board members express: We want to have a good relationship with our pastor.

In conversations with pastors, however, we don’t talk about this much. Too frequently, conversations with pastors about board members involve a feeling that board members are obstructionist, hard to work with and, in general, that they don’t “get it”—whatever “it” is.

I was taught by ethicist Michael Josephson many years ago that we judge ourselves by our intentions but we judge others by their behaviors. This holds true in church boardrooms, too, especially in times of conflict. In almost every significant pastor/board conflict I’ve faced, there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides.

I believe the best interpersonal relationships in the church should be among its leaders. So let me share five things I have found that board members want from their pastor:

Love your board.

Many board members lament that their pastor knows virtually nothing about them. Their pastor does not understand their work, their family concerns, or other complexities and issues in their lives. Sometimes they feel appreciated only for their specific leadership or managerial skills or gifts. Or, worse, they feel as if they are viewed as an obstacle to be overcome or persuaded.

When I mention to board members the potential of training, they almost always light up.

The only way to build good relationships is through the investment of time. Get to know your board members by visiting them at their job, having dinner with their family, simply asking how they are doing and how you can pray for them. These relational investments are as important as everything else you put on your calendar.

Train them.

Most elders know that there are significant differences between leading a business and leading a church, and they want to be trained to lead their church well. When I mention to board members the potential of training, they almost always light up.

Consider inviting your elders to attend a church leadership-training event with you. And provide some training yourself:

  • Choose a good book on leadership and discuss it together.
  • Make training the “big thing” for your regular meeting, not simply an add-on that is preventing everyone from getting to the more important time of “deciding things.”
  • Or schedule training times entirely separate from business meetings.
  • Invite a denominational or association trainer to provide a training session for the whole board.
  • Share and discuss with the board the things you are learning as you are learning them.

Lead them.

Pastors don’t know everything, especially if they are young or inexperienced. Yet board members want their pastor to have a pretty good idea of where he is leading and how he plans to get there. They want him to lead in those areas in which he is skilled, gifted and/or knowledgeable, and defer leadership to others in areas where he is not skilled, gifted or knowledgeable.

Listen to your board members when they provide well-meaning criticism about how you lead or how you relate to or work with them.

How might pastors lead their board members well?

  • Don’t surprise them. Never spring on the board a decision to be made that you have thought about for a time but not mentioned. Conscientious board members need sufficient time to make decisions; in fact, making good decisions is their responsibility. (See “Do You Suffer From the Bobble-Head Phenomenon?”)
  • Think about your board members’ individual skills, knowledge and gifting and intentionally defer to them for input in those areas, inviting them to lead with you.
  • Be guided by your compass, not by the clock or calendar. Frequently remind yourself and the board of the church’s mission—perhaps at the start of each meeting—and act accordingly. Never let the leadership team forget why they are there in the first place.

Follow them.

I encourage board members to adopt a default position of following their pastor’s lead. I encourage pastors to do the same with their boards. If a board’s thoughtful decision would not be catastrophic and there is a Plan B or way of escape, give it a try.

Pick board members carefully.

Pastors: Please listen to your board members when they provide well-meaning criticism about how you lead or how you relate to or work with them. People who see themselves as leaders often believe their emotional and relational health (frequently referred to as EQ) is higher than others think it is. People with low EQ seldom think they have low EQ because, well, they have low EQ. If you’ve been told that you have issues working with your board or others, listen. You probably do. (Read “Your Relational Abilities Matter More Than Your Preaching.”)

Choose them carefully.

Pastors don’t want to be saddled with a board member who shouldn’t be a board member. Board members, too, dislike working with a person who should not be there. Pick board members carefully.

A good rule of thumb for bringing on board members is to evaluate for character, competency and chemistry:

  • Most churches use Scripture (I Timothy 3, Titus 1) to establish qualifications for board members, yet these should be only minimum character qualifications.
  • Competency as a church board member requires being part of a team and being willing to not always win or get to decide. This is not a position for most type-A leaders who expect everyone else to follow.
  • Chemistry is often not addressed. How will the new board member relate to existing board members?

It is, of course, possible for a church to have one or more board members who are truly ill-intentioned or in pursuit of personal power. In that case, the church has more than just a relationship problem to deal with, and some or all of these things may not apply. But almost all board members I have worked with are good and decent people who love God, love their church, want to serve well and want to have a great relationship with their pastor.

Keeping these five things in mind and acting upon them will help you navigate difficulties and build the strong relationships that pastors and board members both want.

If you have additional suggestions for pastors, please comment below.

Read “What Pastors Want From Their Elder Board” for an accompanying perspective.

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