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Common Misconceptions of Board Members

Understanding board member myths can lead to improved governing effectiveness.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

Many misconceptions of board members can be eliminated
through healthy dialogue and education.

 

Some individuals join church boards thinking their responsibilities will be an easy task. What a misconception! And in many cases, the larger the church, the more challenging is the board service. This work is only for committed, serious-minded followers of Christ.

Identifying and overcoming misconceptions through board education is an important and ongoing process. Here are five governance misconceptions that should be addressed:

  • Misconception #1. Board members know exactly what to do once they are elected to the board.

Many new church board members take their seat with little or no church board experience. In fact, they may have little board experience of any kind. If their board experience was on the board of a small for-profit corporation, the board may have only met once a year compared to the nearly every month meetings of the typical church.

Board members often express frustration over pastoral expectations. As Michael Anthony says, “It was as if the day they were elected to the board, the senior pastor assumed that a mantle of wisdom and discernment came magically on them from on high.”[1]

Little or no board experience heightens the importance of board training. Unfortunately, training rarely occurs for church board members. They are expected to be “trained on the job.”

Pastor Larry Osborne writes, “Frustrated with our inability to find time to deal with these vital issues, I hit on an idea. Why not schedule an extra monthly meeting to deal exclusively with (1) team building, (2) training, and (3) prayer.”[2]

  • Misconception #2. Board members have a great deal of free time.

The best board members are almost always the busiest. If pastors fail to recognize the often frenzied lives of board members, they do so at their own peril.

Especially if both spouses work and there are children living at home, it is challenging to find time for the usual monthly board meeting, let alone the additional board meetings called perhaps with little notice.

One possible solution to avoiding burnout of board members is to adopt a policy that board members do not serve in any other capacity in the church. While there is the temptation to also teach a Sunday school class, direct a youth group, or take on any number of other jobs, it is usually best for board members to focus their energies on their highest calling at the church—the board. Since board members are often recruited while serving in another ministry role, this may mean that they will need to transition out of those roles before beginning board service.

  • Misconception #3. Most board members have a funda­mental understanding of church finances, including fundamental clergy tax issues (minister’s housing exclusion, social security under the Self Employment Contributions Act, and more).[3]

Even church board members who have served on a church board for years may find it challenging to comprehend church financial and tax issues. There are several reasons for this:

  • Church financial data is rarely presented to the board in comprehensible form. This is often not the fault of the staff or volunteers who have financial reporting respon­si­bilities. Computer software available for churches often limits meaningful communication of the data.
  • Savvy church financial statement readers must master the concepts of accounting methods (accrual, modified cash, and cash), expensing or capitalizing property and equipment, depreciating or non-depreciation of property and equipment, reporting restricted (designated) gifts, and much more.
  • Ministerial income and social security tax issues are complex. For example, ministers are employees for income tax purposes and self-employed for social security tax purposes.
  • Misconception #4. Churches are simple entities and they are easily understood by board members.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Even smaller churches find themselves slogging along in a swamp of regulations, tax filings, legal issues, and more.

Churches face a landscape filled with payroll tax filings even if they have just one employee. Then, there are filings for independent contractors. Some churches must also file unrelated business income tax returns.

Many churches in America are not incorporated. Incorporated or not, there are a host of legal issues that a church must navigate including: the Fair Labor Standards Act, registered sex offenders attending the church, child abuse reporting, negligent selection of youth workers, copyright violations, personal injury, sexual misconduct involving minors, gender identity and bathroom access, public accommodation laws, and church security—plus whether to allow guns in the church.

No, churches are not simple entities. Serving on a governing board at a church is not for the weak at heart. Since churches are complex entities, boards and administrators need help to address complicated legal and financial issues. To help you navigate these matters, join the ChurchEXCEL community at ECFA.Church and leverage the free resources.

  • Misconception #5. It is easy for church boards to avoid micromanaging.

Pastor Steve Stroope says, “One of the key dangers for boards is the temptation to micromanage, which does not allow staff leaders to do their jobs or execute the responsibilities for which they were hired. Micromanaging boards come about partially due to the fact that elders have not been properly trained in regards to their roles.”[4] At Lake Pointe Church in Houston, where Steve pastors, elders are given a detailed policy about the board and its relationship to the pastor. This has proven helpful in clarifying pastor and board member roles.

Church boards must say no to most issues that could create agenda clutter. Simply because the pastor or a board member proposes an agenda item does not mean the board should discuss it. While saying no to agenda items is not easy, the health of the board, and perhaps the church, is at stake.[5]

Identifying and understanding boardroom misconceptions will enable your board to improve its effectiveness. It’s worth the effort!

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Understand the key misconceptions about
church board members and board service.
How effectively the church deals with these misconceptions
will greatly determine the impact of the church board.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Identify: Identify what misconceptions might exist concerning your church board members and their board service.

  2. Confirm: Confirm which misconceptions really exist by discussing common misconceptions with the board or by taking an informal poll of board members regarding their perceptions of board service.

  3. Go to Work: Take appropriate steps to address each misconception. Educate the board until all misconceptions are eliminated.

 

Prayer

Lord, thank You for every board member
and the time each person invests in this holy calling.
Give us courage—and grace—to address these
misconceptions that can diminish our effectiveness. Amen.

 

 


[1] Michael J. Anthony, The Effective Church Board (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 35.

[2] Ibid., 36 (quoting Larry Osborne).

[3] See ECFA, 10 Essentials of Understanding Church Financial Statements, www.ECFA.Church/Books.aspx.

[4] Steve Stroope with Kurt Bruner, Tribal Church: Lead Small, Impact BIG (Nashville: B & H, 2012), 108.

[5] Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 200–1.

 

From Lessons From the Church Boardroom: 40 Insights for Exceptional Governance, ECFAPress, 2018, www.ECFA.Church/KnowledgeCenter.

 


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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