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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

02 Jan '15

Staff and board relationships in the local church: What is healthy and what is unhealthy?

Posted by T.J. Addington
In the local church, staff board relationships are a critical factor in either health or dishealth. I am not speaking of the senior pastor (or in a large church the Executive pastor) here who is normally both a member of the board and the leader of staff. I am speaking of other staff and how they relate or do not relate to board members. Let me run through some scenarios that fit in the healthy and dishealthy columns as they are often played out in the church.

Unhealthy: There is to be no conversation between board members and staff except through the senior pastor or Executive Pastor. This effectively says that staff are not allowed to speak to board members or board to staff. This is often mandated in the name of policy governance. While it is true that in policy governance the board manages staff through one employee - the senior leader- and the board cannot manage staff other than the senior leader, eliminating conversation between boards and staff is not healthy. 

Consider this fact. By eliminating conversation between board members and staff, a dysfunctional or controlling leader can hide the fact that there is toxicity on staff. I have seen it many times and the board who is actually responsible for the health of the church is the last to know. The rule in the name of policy governance can be used as a foil to keep staff issues from reaching elected leaders. Yet the health of staff must be one of the highest priorities of leaders. 

Healthy: Board and staff are allowed to interact but it is understood that the board does not manage staff other than its senior leader. Healthy senior leaders don't mind board staff interaction as long as the board does not overstep its authority. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the board has a responsibility to monitor the health of the staff ethos and not simply to rely on what they are told by the senior leader. As Reagan famously said, "trust but verify." 

Unhealthy: Staff go around their supervisor to the board to achieve their ends. This violates the chain of authority which is through the senior leader and boards that allow it to happen are foolish and have moved into the area of management as well as disempowering the senior leader. Any form of triangulation that goes around our supervisor to achieve our ends is unhealthy. 

Healthy: There must be a place where staff can go in the event that there is dishealth either in their relationship with their supervisor on staff in general. Senior leaders can bully their staff and dysfunctional ones often do to "keep quiet" about dishealth and significant problems on staff. In one church conflict I worked with there was a string of at least ten staff who had been unfairly treated and the board had never talked to any of them (they had a gag order). Essentially we are talking about a grievance policy where staff can go when they face serious issues. Not to have such a policy and procedure is to hurt staff and open the church up to legal liabilities.

Unhealthy: Preventing staff from communicating outside of the staff  structure if needed to resolve an issue - per a grievance policy. While it should happen seldom, there are leaders who make it impossible for a staff member to speak about serious issues outside of their presence. They do so because of their own insecurity and control issues.

Healthy: Regular board interaction with staff. I do not believe that staff should be on the board apart from perhaps the senior leader and the Executive Pastor. At the same time there should be regular touch points that boards have with the staff (in a large church, senior staff) where candid questions can be asked, relationships developed and ministry discussed. When this does not happen, boards only know what their senior leader tells them which is not always the full picture. 

To put all of this in perspective, whenever I see rules that keep conversation between board members and staff in the local church I become wary. Why does the senior leader feel he needs to prevent such communication? In healthy organizations with healthy leaders, there is not fear of such conversation because there is nothing to hide. Usually when excessive control is exerted, there is something to hide or unhealthy control being exerted by the senior leader. At the same time boards and staff must understand what a healthy relationship is and what it is not and abide by those principles.

I often hear from staff members who work in an environment where health does not exist and they have no real recourse. I am sad for them because the very transformative ministry that the church proclaims it is about is not what they live internally. It is a problem in too many churches.

All of T.J. Addington's books are available from the author for the lowest prices and a $2.00 discount on orders of ten or more.