Monday, June 22, 2015

Eight reasons why boards do not address known issues caused by a senior pastor

A recurring theme in my consulting with troubled churches is that there were issues known to leaders who chose not to address them until there came a point of crisis, often after a pastor left and after many congregants had left as well. 

The question is - why were those issues not addressed so that a crisis could have be averted and the congregation not wounded as it was - in this blog by the senior leader. After all the cost of unaddressed and known issues that brings conflict to a congregation is high and it can take years to recover. As I have reflected on this question I would suggest that the following reasons are often in play.

One: Often the pastor is relatively new to the church and the prevailing thinking is that we need to give him a chance. While there is truth to this it is never an excuse to allow the congregation to be hurt by poor decisions, lack of process or change that is too fast for the body to deal with. Ironically, the leadership knows the congregation better than a new pastor and therefore has a higher responsibility to ensure that the congregation is protected and unity is guarded.

Two: A new pastor is bringing many new people so the reasoning is that even if there is great unhappiness among many, the new folks are proof that we should let the issues go. What that means is that we effectively give a leader a pass for behavior or decisions that hurt the body simply because new people are coming. That is faulty reasoning at its best. It is like a corporate board overlooking fraud because the CEO is bringing in new business. Really? Behavioral and leadership issues should never be given a pass simply because a church is growing.

Three: The senior leader is a strong leader whose personality is hard to go nose to nose with so leaders don't take the risk to confront issues. This is true of some very charismatic leaders who make it very hard for anyone to disagree with them and they win the day by the force of their personality effectively blunting any efforts for someone to say "wait a minute, we have an issue here." It is very easy to be manipulated by strong personalities and those with them know it very well and use it to their advantage.

Four: Group think is hard to overcome. While it only takes one independent thinker on a board to raise uncomfortable issues, often it takes a long time for anyone to have the courage to speak out clearly when the board is pseudo "united" by saying "we have to be together" and group think prevails. Sure the board must speak publicly with one voice but the conversations within the board room ought to be robust, candid, honest and disagreements must be aired with candor. 

Five: Boards have too few executive sessions where concerns can be discussed without the presence of the senior leader. While people may be willing to speak up in the absence of a senior leader, many will not do so when the leader is in the room, especially when they can use the force of their personality to win the day. Every healthy board has regular executive sessions where they can speak freely.  

Six: Many boards are driven by fear of what might happen if known issues were addressed. That fear keeps people from speaking up, from listening to others and from insisting that issues be addressed and not ignored. What boards ought to be most afraid of is not dealing with the elephants in the room on their watch because they will be held responsible if things come apart for not dealing with them. 

Seven: It is simply easier to ignore issues than to deal with them. I remember sharing candidly with a board when things had come apart in their (large) church with the pastor resigning. They hung their heads (literally) and acknowledged that they knew there were serious issues but chose to ignore them because it was easier to pretend all was well than to deal with them. They ended up being asked to leave the board and new members appointed. 

Eight: Even though board members have suspicions and questions they often choose to trust the word of their senior leader but not verify the facts. Not everything a board is told is always true. In one case there had been a series of people leaving the church staff but the board never interviewed any of those folks even though they suspected there was a pattern of abuse (and there was). In other cases, board members have been told by staff that they work in a culture of fear but no one has bothered to ask candid questions of staff but simply took the word of the leader(s) who fostered that culture of fear - that everything is OK. There is nothing logical or helpful about that behavior but it happens all too often. Trust but verify.

When there is a crisis in the church caused by a senior leader but ignored by a board I place the greatest responsibility on the board for not acting when they should have acted. It is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the congregation. Ultimately they answer for the health of the church. Don't allow one of the eight reasons above to keep your board from addressing known issues if they are there. Leadership is a high trust. If there are things that Jesus would not be happy about we ought not to be happy about either. 

And in case we think it doesn't matter - think "Mars Hill."

Posted from Oakdale, MN

All of T.J. Addington's books including his latest, Deep Influence,  are available from the author for the lowest prices and a $2.00 per book discount on orders of ten or more.

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