ELCA Lutheran church councils live mysterious lives in their congregations. Congregations look to their council for leadership, but they don't exactly know what they do. Even members who serve on a church council may not be able to describe exactly what they do. One tangible product is a church budget. The rest of the a council's activity becomes a series of decisions of varying worth, lacking strategic nature. Council votes and decisions tend to reflect the degree of urgency in congregational life. Sometimes there are lots of decisions to be made. Sometimes councils can meet for several consecutive months without taking a vote. I think people who serve on church boards appreciate learning about the grace of God through congregational activity, but the general frustration or ennui is palpable in the leadership meeting room.
I write this post because I believe church councils are misused assets. Even though its members spend hours each month attending meetings and managing particular areas of ministry, the gifts of leaders are buried because the council lacks purpose. Council members lack clarity of purpose for their participation. Congregations and councils often lament that so few people are willing to serve on the council. I'm surprised that anyone will serve on a council, especially when they know the purpose and direction of the council is lacking beyond a budget or a particular project. Even if projects and goals are clear and tangible for the council, individual council members lack understanding of expectations for themselves. Here are some common issues I have seen on the governing board in the 10 congregations I have served as pastor and numerous others with which I consulted. I place these issues in two categories.
1. Issues related to expectations for council members:
- Sometimes council members have no idea what is expected of them.
- Sometimes council members have served on a council for many years, and they end up confusing clear expectations for knowing the repetitive patterns and action of a council as well as their familiarity with congregational life
- Sometimes a council member has a job description, but the job description is too lengthy and detailed to be realistic or even read.
- Often times council members have had little or no training in order to fulfill the basic expectations placed on them.
- Many council members do not know how to lead or participate in a formal meeting.
2. Issues related to basic philosophy and theology of the existence of a council.
- I have never seen a council size appropriate for deliberation and leadership. The smallest governing board I have seen is 9, the largest is 23. If all the congregations I served were playing "The Price Is Right," bidding on the ideal size for a governing board, everyone would have lost the game because they overbid. I believe 5 on a council would be ideal, but no more than 7. I believe in this dynamic for many reasons--beginning with the next point.
- What is the true purpose of a congregational council? Is it to represent the desires of the congregation (often divided in separate ministry areas)? Or is the purpose of a council rooted in leadership? Representation and leadership are not mutually exclusive, but what trait is the higher priority? Leadership ability is almost always sacrificed for the sake of representation. I believe representation is overrated. Even if expectations for a council member are clear, representation can still run amok, leading to divisiveness as council members will sacrifice the good of the congregation for their given ministry area. Representation-heavy systems also seek to appease particular populations in the congregation. Representation should not be completely absent, but in congregations--representation is overrated.
- Which way does the power flow with a council? Does the council see itself as a permission giving body for the pastor and/or staff? Does the council spend its meeting time engaging an approval process for ministries? In order for a council to employ the gifts God has given them, a council cannot be good stewards of God's resources without congregational mission or vision. With a clear mission and vision that is owned by the congregation and propels them into service, a council can then serve as partners and helpers with the staff to fulfill the mission. If the council serves as gatekeepers for ministries, then pastors, staff members, even council members and committee chairs are subject to the whims of the congregation. Every congregational action is subjected to how people "feel" about the "job" that someone is doing. The hidden message to many pastors, staff, council members and committee chairs is "you're not meeting our expectations, but we're not going to bother telling you the expectations."
- Prayer, theological reflection, fellowship and devotional time are individually or as a whole group seen as a "waste of time" and "distracting from the purpose of the meeting." Through my study and practice in congregational systems theory, I can sum up my response to this resistance with a proverb: "The council which prays and plays together, stays together." People have a need for a healthy sense of closeness with God and one another. If a council is not brought together with prayer and play, they will find unhealthy means to get close--often through hostility and divisiveness. Prayer and fellowship are both part of the purpose of leadership, not mere spiritual or recreational diversions.