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The Plight of Elder Board Selection

How groupthink in selecting elder board members has effectively stifled growth in many congregations.

Jerold was a wonderful and ineffective board member. As with many churches, he was voted into a position of leadership by the congregation. He didn’t necessarily ask to be in this role, but he loved his church immensely and sought to serve where he could. But Jerold succumbed to groupthink, a psychological phenomenon that arises when a group of people desire harmony over disagreement and results in unproductive and sometimes irrational decision-making. 

I was in the midst of consulting for Jerold’s church during a time the congregation was selecting and voting on several new elder board members. He was up for a second term and was ultimately one of the chosen few. I asked several people why they thought Jerold was a good choice to serve in this leadership capacity. All of them gave answers such as, “He’s a great Christian man.” “He is a wonderful person.” “I’ve known Jerold for a long time…since we were in high school together!” “Jerold is a wonderful father and Christian.” “He has been in this church for decades; he should serve on the board.”  

Did you notice something? None of them gave answers that suggested he had any sort of real leadership abilities. Indeed, Jerold was a wonderful man, had a strong Christian heritage, and was a loving husband and father. He had grown up in this same church and had a genuine love for people and wanted to see his church grow and succeed in its mission of leading people to Christ. 

But Jerold was also a horrible decision-maker. He had two failed businesses and filed for bankruptcy a few years prior. His current business was struggling. He had little understanding of church accounting practices and often fell silent during important discussions of theological accountability of the teaching pastor. He didn’t understand legal matters as they pertained to churches and routinely requested to increase the church budget that hadn’t once been fully funded in the last seven years. Jerold focused more on the past and the “good ol’ days” than he did solving the challenges of today or planning for tomorrow. I liked Jerold, but he had no place serving in a leadership capacity that affected hundreds of people in the church. He wasn’t helpful as a member of the elder board and this role used nothing of his own spiritual gifts. But the church voted him in a second time. 

Unfortunately, Jerold was not alone. This particular church (and maybe yours also) had many “Jerolds.” They loved the Lord and loved their church and were generally great people. But collectively, they were highly ineffective. Groupthink was the chairman of the board and nearly everyone followed his command. A year later, when I checked in, nothing had changed. The church was still just as stuck with stagnant ministry as it was when they voted in Jerold for his second term. The reason for the flat ministry was that the board was unwilling to address several difficult issues. No one on the board was willing to tackle the elephants in the room. 

Compare this with another church whose board was faced with a complex legal matter. As the legal problem loomed, the board knew they needed to alter their own team during the next cycle and get someone who could hold their hand through the coming challenges. They asked David to join the board and eventually the church approved of his selection.  

David was very quiet and reserved, he sat in the back during worship services and few people knew who he was. He never would have been voted onto the board when put up against the traditional popularity contest that many churches use. But his legal knowledge and advice to the board became invaluable. His quiet but confident demeanor led the board through a multi-year legal battle. After the dust had settled, most people in the church still had no idea who David was! Yet, none of the board members would ever say they could have been successful without him. 

Unfortunately, Jerold is indicative of how many board members are chosen and David is not. The Jerolds may be well-liked and wonderful people, but that doesn’t mean they can or should be leading in this capacity. We certainly need people who are likable and willing to give grace and be peaceful in the midst of confrontation. But the role of the elder board is to move the church forward, be protective of the church’s purpose and values, and be willing to make wise but difficult decisions that involve staffing, ministry, and finances.  

Consider choosing differently. Choose Davids. Choose a board that is made of different people who think differently and bring different strengths to the group. Choose a seminarian who is able to think deeply about what the pastor is teaching and willing to challenge those teachings, should it be necessary. Choose a businessman who understands the reality of budgets and difficult business choices. Choose an accountant who can manage and explain the finances to the rest of the group. Choose an attorney who can help with legal matters and risk management. Choose someone who is an excellent communicator and can influence a crowd when difficult decisions need to be clarified. Choose a leader who can gain consensus after the hard discussions and propel the decisions forward. Choose members who range from young twenties to much older generations.  

If each member brings the same amount of passion and dedication to the mission and success of the church, their differences will only enhance and expedite decision-making. If each person recognizes why they were chosen and understands why the others were chosen, there is a likelihood they will allow more grace and choose to consider the others’ viewpoints. This creates learning and understanding and removes the possibilities of groupthink.  

Last I checked, Jerold was still on the board of his church. Everything was peaceful and wonderful and full of love. But the church was declining and becoming irrelevant to the community. 



Nathan Freeland is author of CHURCH BUSINESS: Making the Business of Church Easier, Simpler, and Much Less Painful. President of Reach Consulting, a firm dedicated to helping pastors and church leaders with their church business, Nathan lives in Central California with his wife and six children. CHURCH BUSINESS can be purchased here: https://amazon.com/dp/0692198296 


TAGS: Leadership
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