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10 Jul '08

Should church staff serve on the elder/leadership board?

Posted by T.J. Addington in church leadership

I am often asked in church consults, "Who other than the senior pastor should serve as a member of the elder board (or senior leadership board of the church)?

Some suggest that all pastors meet the qualifications of elders so they should be on the board. Others believe that only the senior pastor should serve on the board. And then there are those who have several but not all staff members on the board.

From a governance perspective I would argue that the senior pastor is the only member of the staff that should be a standing member of the board even though other staff members may attend board meetings on a regular or periodic basis. When other staff members are members of the board the church runs several risks.

First, the only "employee" of the board is the senior pastor. When other staff members are members of the board, there is often confusion as to who is responsible to whom. Do other staff members report to the board or to the senior pastor? It should be the senior pastor but when other staff sit on boards it is often the case the boards start to manage them as well. In good governance all staff report to the senior leader and the senior leader both sits as a board member and is accountable to the board.

I have seen a number of situations where staff were always at board meetings and the senior pastor was unable to deal with problematic issues of performance of these staff members because they were "members" of the board. This tied the hands of the senior leader to lead and caused significant pain. There are cases where staff will use their "proximity" to board members to do end runs around the senior leader and if they are board members this becomes very easy if they are so inclined.

Second, remember that the job of boards is to govern, set policy, direction and provide oversight. The job of staff is to deal with the day to day ministry issues and to ensure that the policies, direction and ministry initiatives of the board are carried out. These are two very different responsibilities. One does not want board members doing management and one does not want staff members doing the job of the board. When staff members are regularly at board meetings it often confuses the responsibilities of board and staff or policy and management.

Now in larger churches where there are positions like executive pastors, it makes sense for these individuals to be regular "attenders" of the board since they must carry out the directional decisions of the board with staff. However, they should not be members of the board and the board should reserve the right to meet without them. They are there by practice and invitation but not as members of the board.

I have encountered situations where because of an incompetent senior pastor a board has brought other members of the staff on the board so that its directives are actually carried out. This is a "work around" to good governance and the board should deal with the competency issue of its leader rather than to confuse roles and violate good governance.

You may say, your staff are an exception and they should be members of the board. Remember that the next senior leader may not agree with you and you may have saddled him with a situation where he cannot lead because of a structure you set up. Exceptions to good governance practice have a way of coming back to bite the organization in the future. It is a bad idea.