When the Church begins to Sink

January 1, 2020 / by philiphuan

When I was watching the movie X-Men: First-Class, there was a riveting scene when the battle ships of 2 countries surrounded a place of battle.

Missiles flying toward ship at 4.04 min of X-Men First Class

As a fleet of missiles launched toward them, spelling their doom, the 2 captains realized their bridge was about to be broken.

US Captain:
Gentlemen, it’s been an honour serving with you!

Russian Captain:
Comrades, thank you for your service.

They had given up and were waiting for their doom and their fate!

I realized that the bridge / command centre of a ship is the critical place where decisions are made. Choices born for success or defeat are made within that command centre! Decisions there cause the vessel to sink or swim.

What is the command centre of a church?

“This is his idea, I’m not in-synch philosophically” vs “We accept this as a leadership mandate and trust God is guiding the leaders.”
“The elders oversee this, we should decide” vs “We designated this person to be in-charge and should trust him.”
“It’s no use, we cannot carry on doing this” vs “God has called us, we MUST press on no matter…”

I submit to you that the bridge / command centre of a church is the board or leadership team of the church.

“I feel this elder is too strong and commanding and side-lining the rest of us…”
“Our leader is simply not making good decisions despite our input and feedback…”
“I can’t accept that there are raised voices and loss of temper in the Board, how can such a church grow?”

The above are some genuine comments I have noted in churches. When the command deck is attacked, the entire church gets affected. In my consulting for churches, I have seen this happen to differing degrees, sometimes slightly, sometimes moderately… and sometimes to the extreme.

The key role of the bridge / command centre is to process good and sound decisions that can cascade through the church for achieving her mission.

I would like to share some elements that lead to good decision-making and processing at the board / leadership team level.

Climatic Landscape

Choices born for success or defeat are made within that command centre! Decisions there cause the vessel to sink or swim.

For good decisions to be processed, it requires a culture or landscape conducive for good decision-making. This climate or landscape is important in building a culture that supports and sustains decision-making.

While there are a good number of factors involved for decision-making, I’m only going to share 3 that pertain largely to aspect of plurality of roles.

1. An Encouraging Community

When I entered as a pastor into one church, and prepared for a board meeting, one of the first things I did was to put into the first item of the agenda: “dinner sharing”. One of the elders, his curiosity piqued, asked, “why is that an agenda item”? I explained that the bonding and sharing over dinner was crucial to decision-making as a community. Over time, we had those dinners before our meetings, where we shared hearts, we understood one another’s perspectives. We “got one another’s heart inclination”. When it came to decision-making time we felt we could better accommodate each other and developed decisions that represented the sum concerns of the board. The encouraging relationships was like the gel that smoothed and oiled the different personalities working together!

2. The Ability to “Swap-Hats”

An elder served as a worship-leader in the church’s worship team. Whenever he spoke strongly on an issue, the other worship team members would give in. Sometimes those decisions pertained to worship styles and preferences, perhaps over issues that had no clear “right or wrong”. On another occasion, the elder was tasked by the Leadership Team to communicate a mandate to the entire worship team, so he served as the LT’s representative in communication.

Two things were happening here:

  • There was a confusion of roles – the elder was wearing the “elder’s hat” while serving as a “worship leader” in a team where, by right, there were higher roles of authority present, e.g. the “worship OIC” who supersedes the “worship leader”.
  • The elder had quashed healthy discussion amongst the worship team members and “dis-empowered” the worship OIC from exercising leadership over the team members, including worship leaders.

What the elder should have done was to “swap-hats”: when communicating for the Board he wears an “elder’s hat” to speak with authority, but when discussing a worship issue, he needed to take off the “elder’s hat” and put on a “worship-leader’s hat”. The latter meant he was an equal in sharing opinions and could be superseded by the decision of the worship OIC. It meant that even if he had a different preference, he should “go with the flow” and support the worship OIC’s decisions.

For good decisions to flow, people in authority need to fluidly “swap-hats”: in this type of decision I play the elder, in this other decision I play the team-leader, yet in this last decision I am a team member. How can I be clear of my “hat”, and assure others in the team of that role so they feel at ease, supported, and empowered to play their roles well?

So pertaining to different types of decisions and roles, I share the 3rd factor of a good climatic landscape,

3. An agreed set of Rules of Engagement

Without clear rules of engagement, personality will rule the day.

Rules of engagement guides us to a default set of posture and behaviour depending on the situation. This enables authority to be exercised and submission to be offered.1 Without clear rules of engagement, personality will rule the day. Strong personalities will need to be reined in in case they intimidate others or hog the conversation. Soft personalities will need to be cajoled to speak up more and voice their preference.

Clear rules of engagement enables us to remember our roles and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), befitting the situation or scenario.

What are some possible rules of engagement for the decision-making process of a church board / leadership team? Here is one possibility2:

This model describes various kinds of decisions that require the final arbiter to reside in different groups, thereby requiring the senior / lead pastor or elder to play a slightly different role in processing them.

Decision TypeDescriptionSenior / Lead Pastor or Lead Elder RoleRole of BoardFinal Decision ArbiterExamples
DirectionalAffects big-picture, missional direction of church. May establish as principle / philosophy or policyLeader tables for discussion and submits to approvalMakes decision together with prayerful discussionBoard / Leadership TeamShould ministry target youths? Should church move into church planting?
StrategicAffects the means & mode of achieving the mission. Sometimes called “tactical / strategic-directionLeader seeks advice and information before decisionEmpowers Leader to decision after ascertaining consultation & discussionLead Pastor / Elder with ConsultationShould we emphasize service or cells in outreach? Should we use a seeker approach or community penetration approach in this event?
OperationalThe implementation details of running programs to implement a strategyLeader gives direction oversees teamEmpowers Leader to decide with his/herteamLead Pastor / Lead ElderShould the outreach revolve around Easter or Anniversary? Should we have a theme for gifts or families for the program?

There needs to be a mutual agreement to abide by a set of rules, or that the denomination inherently mandates a certain process for this to work. For churches that have not clearly defined their rules, they may experiment with a set of rules for a season before evaluating and confirming it.

Professor Kenneth Gangel, in his book on team leadership wrote, “relationships of the professional staff [or top-most leadership] stand as a model for any Christian ministry. Confusion and bickering at the top will not only destroy the working effectiveness of the management team but will filter down the ranks to distort interpersonal relationships between other workers all the way up and down the line.” (Team Leadership in Christian Ministry. Chicago: Moody, 1997.)

This “command centre” or “the bridge” of the church is where precious decisions are processed to lead the direction of God’s work. Based upon it, the church will “sink or swim”.

Put the effort, build ” the bridge” well!

It is well-worth the effort and will impact God’s kingdom work in your church in a significant way!

Rev. Dr. Philip Huan is the Principal Consultant at ChurchLife Resources, and is passionate about helping churches and leaders become strong and healthy!

Churchlife Resources provides consultation and coaching for church boards in grow a positive decision-making culture. Write to [email protected] for a complimentary consultation.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

[1] In my book Enduring Church Growth, (Armour: GenesisBooks, 2011), I described some helpful dynamics to build a culture of mutual submission in the chapters “The flipside of Good Leadership—Good Followership”, and “Respecting God’s Line of Authority”. This book is available on our website online store.

[2] This model is intended for governance where theBoard holds leadership authority and lead-pastors/elders are within that board. It may not apply directly to governance where the Pastor holds authority over the Board, nor where the Board holds authority over the pastor/elder. However, even in these othergovernance systems, some of the dynamics described in this model may be useful for consideration to develop a more balanced decision-making process.

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