Common Church Elder Board Mistakes

I’m working on a board training that’s coming up for a group of churches. I just built the slide the other day titled “Common Governance Bloopers” containing some nuggets I thought I should share, so here’s some of those bloopers. 

I titled this post something a little bit more direct because having bloopers might make you think it’s humorous, but these things really aren’t humorous. These are common governance mistakes or they could even more harshly be called screw-ups. These are things that cause a lot of trouble. 

One of them is where the board is focusing on means versus ends. Ends are the goals and the high level mission, vision, and purpose, which is really what the leadership team needs to have clarity on. The means is HOW that stuff happens. 

When a board of elders drifts into the how, into the means, they can drift towards micromanaging. I’ve seem some cases where the treasurer needs to approve every single expenditure for every ministry independently, which is absolutely nuts and very, very inefficient. That’s a governance error. 

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Another common error is when individual elders, individual members of the board run amok. That is where they exercise individual authority, thinking they somehow have authority because they are on the board, which is not the case. The board has authority as a unit when they’re meeting together. Once the meeting breaks, in the proper governance, those individual elders don’t carry authority because they’re elders, and are like anybody else in the congregation. There’s no “elder card” and no special authority. 

Several common mistakes are in relation to the board and the lead pastor- like no job description for the lead pastor. This leads to no accountability or evaluation of the lead pastor and is unfortunately very common. The board as a whole, in most structures, is the boss of the lead pastor. 

In some independent kind of situations, sometimes the lead pastor is the boss boss, but that’s typically not a healthy situation. But in general and good governance, I believe the board as a whole, as a unit is the boss of the lead pastor and typically the lead pastor is a part of that board. 

Now as lead pastors, we like to flip it around and get them to think we’re the boss of the board, which is a very, very unhealthy situation. Having the individual pastor running amok with no accountable is not a good thing. 

Another common governance mistake is thinking that being on a board of elders or directors or trustees is all about that one meeting a month. In a lot of cases, unless you’ve got a really firm and well-developed policy governance system, having one meeting a month will keep you in maintenance level. And a lot of times you’ll just be cycling through problems again and again and again. 

If you use that meeting every month to develop policy, clarify ends and high level mission vision goals, then eventually you gain some ground. But eldership is about more than just the one meeting a month. Ideally there should be some some extra meetings from time to time, an occasional retreat, and training what’s all expected as part of that eldership. Eldership should be really a significant role. So a significant commitment. 

Another common governance mistake is when the board tries to direct the staff, who are really supposed to be directed by the lead pastor. When the board, typically individuals on the board, try to direct the staff individually, it leads to confusion for the staff. Everyone deserves one boss. 

The board is the boss of the lead pastor and the lead pastor is the boss of the staff. If you start getting into both the board and the lead pastor directing the staff, that’s just an untenable situation. It leads to a lot of frustration, confusion and hurt. 

One final common governance blooper, mistake, error is where the board sees the lead pastor not fulfilling part of the role very effectively, and they take up the slack and step in. A very common area where they step in is managing the staff. 

I went into a situation one time where the lead pastor was not managing the staff and the board stepped in and decided they would manage the staff, which led to all kinds of things. In fact, what happened in that situation was that three of the four pastors resigned in a period of about four or five weeks and the church was all of a sudden in transition and I became transitional pastor. 

There are times when the lead pastor cannot or will not manage the staff. If they cannot, then you can provide some training as a board. If they will not, then probably they need to be replaced. In larger churches, often an executive pastor can be hired who works with the lead pastor to manage the staff, but do not let that role drift to the board. Otherwise it becomes a total disaster. 

These are some common governance mistakes and I hope you don’t see any in your world. If you do and you want to know how to address them, you’re welcome to send me an email or something. I’d like to speak to that because these are the things I bump into again and again in transitional ministry and they’re very, very common. 

Good governance is a spiritual issue. Good governance is a spiritual discipline. Governance in the church has eternal implications and so we’ve got to take it really seriously. 

Have an outstanding day. God bless you. Press on. 

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1 thought on “Common Church Elder Board Mistakes”

  1. Well said, Daren. Each point you make is VERY important. Elders Board members need to know that they are part of a spiritual leadership team in the church. They are the church leaders. When meeting together, they should function as a team with the pastor as their respected coach, not their boss. They should be given a certain kind of profile in the life of the church, often being visible as representatives of the Board. Your points here are vital and excellent.

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