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When Tim entered the ministry, he honestly looked forward to working with his board members. Even though he'd heard his share of war stories, he figured his case would be different. If good people were elected and he discipled them carefully, he saw no reason why he and the board couldn't work as close partners in ministry.
Now, five years later, Tim isn't so sure. Instead of partners, they seem like adversaries. He's come to expect resistance as a normal part of the process. Many of his best ideas have been rejected. Sometimes he wonders if these people understand church ministry at all.
Odds are, they don't. Not that they can't. They just don't.
If Tim's board is typical, no one has ever taught them how to be leaders in the church, how to think strategically, or how to make certain key decisions that affect everyone else. That's been left for Tim and his fellow professionals to study and learn. As a result, he and his board suffer from "educational separation." With every book he reads and every seminar he attends, Tim is slowly widening the gap between the way he views the church and the way his board members do.
Early in my ministry, I faced a similar situation. The more I learned about local church ministry, the more I found myself frustrated with board members who, I felt, lacked an understanding of even the most basic ministry principles.
Not sure what to do about it, I decided to try to close the gap. I started sharing with the board some of the insights and principles I had learned in my pastoral ministry classes. We didn't neglect the standard Bible study and prayer. We simply added a new dimension, "practical theology."
Over the years, our training has covered a variety of topics: church growth, educational theory, group dynamics, management styles, counseling. We've read articles and books on the church by people such as Lyle Schaller, Gordon MacDonald, C. Peter Wagner, and Frank Tillapaugh. We've reviewed the insights of secular books like In Search of Excellence, and Megatrends. Seminars and conferences have also been a good source of training. Anyone returning from one summarizes for the others the major points he or she learned.
The results have been gratifying. Within the first year, the gap in our perceptions of ministry began to close. Because they were being trained like pastors, the board members began to think like pastors. We began to understand one another. We made better decisions, and we felt more like partners.
Such a training program can be a key step in the process of building a partnership between pastor and board. But for it to be most effective, I have to keep some points in mind.
I had to learn the difference between lobbying and training. The two are easily confused.
A few years ago we were considering hiring a new staff member. I had someone in mind, and I knew we needed to hire before the pressure was there, for growth rather than need. All the experts agreed with me.
I figured it was an ideal time to teach the board about hiring staff. I put together a reading packet of everything I could find on hiring pastoral staff, sent it out, and asked everyone to be prepared to discuss it at our next meeting.
When we began our discussion, Jim spoke first. "Thanks for the helpful articles, Larry," he said. "But I know there's another side to every issue. All these articles agree with you. I'd like to see some from the other side as well."
When I told him there weren't any, he looked at me with disbelief. He actually thought I was lying. I had a hard time convincing him that no one recommended holding off on staff as the best way for a church to grow.
From that experience, I learned a valuable lesson: When information is presented in the middle of a decision-making process, it will usually be viewed as lobbying rather than training.
Yet this is precisely the setting in which most of us share the bulk of our insights. As a result, board members often view our ideas with the appropriate skepticism a lobbyist's proposal deserves.
Another difference between lobbying and training is that training allows people the freedom and time to change their mind.
Most of us have had the experience of initially rejecting an idea we later championed. But it's a change that seldom occurs overnight. By removing our training from the pressured arena of decision making, we've granted our board members the luxury of time.
When John, a board member, first heard the principles of church growth, he rejected them a priori. But with the passage of time and further exposure, we were able to refine the concepts and work through some of his initial misconceptions. Now he has become a strong supporter.
If John's first exposure to these principles had been part of a lobbying effort, he probably still would be an opponent today. It would have forced him to digest the information and make an immediate decision based upon it. Then, as part of the debating and decision-making process, he would have had to publicly defend his position. And unfortunately, once a person takes a public stand on an issue, he seldom changes his mind. It is too threatening to the ego.
By avoiding the lobbying trap, I insure that the merits of good ideas have a chance to sway the skeptical.
Training works best when it's highlighted; the more "neon signs" I can put around our training program, the better.
One way we highlight it is by setting aside a special time and place for our ministry training. I never tack on any teaching at the beginning of a business or board meeting. It is too likely to be viewed as either lobbying or a preliminary to the real meeting.
A couple of years ago, this principle was confirmed for me in an unusual way. I was conducting a survey of pastors to find out how many were training their board members and what the results were.
I had no problem finding pastors who claimed to have a training program. But to ensure that training was really going on, I asked for a detailed description of what they were doing. When a pastor's description convinced me he really was training his board, I listed him as a "training pastor."
Yet when I surveyed the board members from these churches, I got some surprising answers. The most surprising was in answer to the question, "Do you receive training for church leadership or board membership?" Many of the board members said no.
I couldn't figure it out. The pastors had described to me in detail how they were training. Now their board members were telling me they had not received any training.
As I studied the information more closely, I discovered a significant point. Most of the pastors who told me they were training were doing it at the beginning of a business meeting. As a result, many of their board members didn't view it as training at all. Perceiving it as an insignificant preliminary before the real meeting began, they were tuning out, much as people have been known to tune out during perfunctory prayers and devotions at the beginning of a meeting.
Another benefit of highlighting our attempts to train the board is it tells people, "This is an important part of what you do, important enough to be worthy of its own forum."
When I first began, I tacked our ministry training onto another meeting. No one seemed to take it very seriously. I found myself frustrated by incomplete assignments and half-hearted attention. But once I set aside a time just for ministry training, people started coming with their books and articles marked up and their assignments done. They were ready to dig into the issue at hand.
And recently we've stopped meeting in the evening and started meeting one Saturday morning a month. Now, rather than starting the meeting exhausted from a hard day at work, we begin fresh. And we've made a symbolic statement by saying that training is important enough to be worth one Saturday morning a month.
Most of us tend to think if we have covered an issue once, everyone understands. We forget our own need to hear an idea several times before it soaks in. As a result, many training programs talk about an item once and then go on to the next subject. Because we don't want to bore people, we are tempted to move on long before a lesson has been learned.
To keep from doing that, I try to keep in mind three stages of learning. The first stage, exposure to an idea, is exciting; we wrestle with new concepts and principles.
At the second stage, familiarity, there are few surprises. There is a great temptation to tune out or move to a new subject because "we know this stuff already."
The final stage is understanding. It goes far beyond familiarity. The difference between the two is simple. When I am familiar with a subject, I recognize where the teacher is going. When I understand a subject, I can teach and apply it myself. A lesson hasn't been learned until this stage.
By keeping these three stages in mind, I've been able to avoid the temptation to move on from an idea too early. It has helped me overcome my fear of boring the board with repetition. My friend Paul's experience has kept me from being satisfied with anything short of understanding.
Paul was exposed to some information about the effects of architecture upon church growth. He became familiar with it and gathered articles on the subject. A little later he shared the ideas with his board.
The board seemed intrigued and readily followed what he was saying. So Paul moved on in his training. Later, however, when the board began discussing plans for a new building, Paul realized they hadn't understood the new concepts at all. The board had seemed to understand his ideas, but they weren't basing their decisions on them.
When Paul told me the board's puzzling inconsistency, I wasn't surprised. They had heard only once about large foyers fostering fellowship, or small parking lots hindering growth. They were just getting exposed to the ideas. They liked the sound of them, but they weren't familiar enough with them to support them. They certainly didn't understand them well enough to explain them to others in the congregation.
Paul didn't realize the members simply needed more time to grasp the concepts. It would take repeating and elaborating on these ideas at future meetings for the board to move from where they were now-exposure-to full understanding.
Another aspect of the principle is that even after a subject has been covered fully, and everyone has had time to accept or reject the idea, it still needs to be covered again next year. This is because new board members also need training. If a subject is not covered again, a turnover of even a few people can dramatically alter the dynamics of a board.
Obviously, going over the same material year after year would be boring and laborious for those who have been on the board. To save them the agony, we've set some basics we expect every new board member to cover, either prior to joining the board or during the first few months in office. The material consists of several articles and a couple of books the rest of the board members have already discussed. In this way, we insure the gains of today are not lost tomorrow.
Early in my ministry, whenever I thought of equipping the saints for ministry, I thought in terms of character development, biblical knowledge, and a specific ministry skill. I left training for leadership to seminaries and Bible schools.
But now that I have begun training our lay leaders to lead-to think long-range, to motivate followers, to solve problems-not only has our church benefited, but so have the members of our board. They have learned principles that have made them better leaders at home and in the marketplace.
A few months ago, one of our elders told me he had received a major promotion at work. His new job would make him responsible for leading a group of engineers through a significant project. When I congratulated him, he said, "This is a new track for me, but I am excited about it. I've already seen a lot of areas where I can apply the things we've been learning about leadership."
Training the board can sometimes go awry. But when we keep it on course, our leaders learn to lead.
-Larry W. Osborne
North Coast Evangelical Free Church
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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