Last week, we shared responses from colleagues around the country to the question: What makes it hardest to go deeper (spiritually) with your church board?
Now, we turn to responses to the second question we asked: What are you doing, right now, to become a better and more theologically attuned board—and how is that going?
Pastors who serve all types of churches – small and large, urban and rural, racially diverse, from different traditions – responded with insight and notable humility and honesty. The following excerpts (and hence this post) are longer than last week’s, but we hope you will hear your own board’s story and possibilities in what they shared.
- We’ve changed our training away from deep dives into [our denominational rules and historical documents], and toward reading books like “Agile Church” together and talking about the changing realities of institutional religion in our country and our world … and how we can get better at “away games.”
- We are trying to streamline the practical responsibilities of our board and the traditional committee structure. Hopefully, we’re trusting each other to do that work, we’re spending less time on nuts and bolts, and we have more time to discuss deeper questions. However, it’s a balance. Sometimes the deeper conversations don’t seem to have much forward momentum, leaving people feeling anxious to move on. The best thing we’ve found is to do more frequent, brief opportunities for in-depth conversation – picking up on one question, one idea, one short reading – and then finding ways for that to show up and influence later conversations.
- It has been our board’s practice to find a devotion they like, written by someone else, and read that devotion aloud. The devotion ends when the manuscript ends, without reflection or personalization. Instead, we are asking the last question of the Examen – how have you seen God at work in your life (today, this week, recently, in your area of ministry/leadership)? I’ve explained to them that giving voice to their own experience with God will help others see with fresh eyes how God is at work in their own lives. The more able we are as a board to first discover the active presence of God in our midst, naming our encounters with God and sharing those, the better equipped we are for discerning the difference between Providence and happenstance. In so doing, we are able to bear witness to the congregation of what it *really* looks like for God to lead this part of our journey and trust in the future God is building for us.
- Eating together every time we meet, with at least some of our spiritual formation time dedicated to honest check-ins about life. When people know that they will receive care during the spiritual formation part of our life together, they’re more willing to invest in it – and each other. That’s going well. People look forward to it, and their relationships with one another are deepening. Their love for each other is lending energy for their leadership. Not working as well and looking for a next shift: How to translate this love for each other into a love-for-congregation-and-neighbor oriented leadership style? It’s like people take off the love-one-another hat and put on a hat of obligation/shoulds/performance/fear when it comes to the task of church leadership. If anything’s helping shift this, it’s inviting board members to participate on a rotating basis in monthly ‘Starting Point’ gatherings and ‘Joining Meetings,’ where they get to listen deeply to the stories of visitors and celebrate/welcome new members. I am hearing elders bringing new perspectives/making different decisions when they can point back to these encounters, or the newer members sitting with them at the table.
- Spending up to 45 minutes on spiritual formation at the start of every meeting and only allowing 1-2 Discussion Items per meeting. This forces us to trust committees rather than micromanage them, as well as giving ample time for diving into Scripture and Prayer. When I arrived, the “devotion” took 5-10 minutes, and the meeting agenda would be long and cumbersome. Now almost all our meetings are under 90 minutes.
- We begin each board meeting with, at minimum, a 30-minute devotion. I love reading scriptures in groups, so most of the time we begin reading scripture. We read it a couple of times, and in between the readings I pause for 1-2 minutes to create silence. This is helping us become more comfortable with the silence in the room and pause before answering. We just added new board members. I could see the difficulty the new board members had with the silence compared to those that have been there for 12+months. As far as learning to sit with questions and not answer them, this is a work in progress. Beginning with me.
- Best thing we’ve done this year has been to put them in small group book conversations. Three different books, three different groups (they chose from a list of books), and we spent 30 minutes for three months in a row with the final one sharing back with the group. We will do again next year. Each month we have every staff member share one prayer request and give them to the board. Praying for the church gets more specific then.
- We are spending about a third of every meeting “going deeper,” often using material from the “Digging a Deeper Well” blog, but last week I created my own content and we listened to two clips of the “Smartless” interview with Bono and had small group discussion about them. I do think that although there might be some resistance to doing this work, when we do, the board finds it interesting and relevant. Where we have more work to do is to make the connection between the theological/going deeper work and the other business we are called to do. For example, we all heard Bono say in the interview that Jesus was only judgmental about how we treat the poor, and yet a half hour later we approved a budget with a surplus. Still work to do!
- Our new 2023 church board of six lay members (four returning) and the pastor held its annual afternoon retreat at the beginning of January in the home of one of our board members. After a casual lunch, we first spent time listening to each other respond to an invitation to think about a favorite place–whether a whole continent, or a small corner of a room somewhere, or anything in between. We wound up, one at a time, sharing some of the most special, vulnerable, and strengthening aspects of ourselves. One elder stopped us at one point to say how good that time was. The next item was to look at and reflect, through the lens of congregational ministry, on a scripture passage together (Ezra 3; later, Mark 4 in the boat). Then we got into some of the nuts-and-bolts business of church structure and some of the issues we are facing. Then we repeated the Self-Bible-Logistics pattern a couple more times and emerged united and feeling organized. That sense of being mutually engaged, sympathetic and reasonably familiarized is carrying over into the wider community through the ups and downs of congregational life.
- We are working always to remember our ‘whys.’ How is it going? There are bright spots and setbacks. Never time to gloat.
- At the last board meeting, I shared with the session the names of those who had died in recent days, reminded them of the church’s work around death, and then invited all of them to say the (funeral) words of commendation together, thinking of someone in their life who has died. We used a commendation that I encountered at a funeral in 2021, which has since been the one we use here at church: “We now commend ________to the love and mercy of God, our Maker and Redeemer; _______, our companion in faith and sister/brother in Christ, we entrust you to God. Go forth from this world in the love of God, who created you; in the mercy of Jesus Christ, whose grace is abundant for you; in the power of the Holy Spirit, who strengthens you. At one with all the faithful, living and departed, may you rest in peace and rise in glory, where grief and misery are banished and light and joy abide forever. Amen.” Within seconds the session was in a deep thoughtful place.
We hope you will be impressed, as we were, by the spirit of experimentation in these responses. There is no one way to dig a deeper well, and this calls leaders to attend carefully to their own context and to experiment boldly to figure out what works for that context.
At the same time, some common themes did emerge:
It’s nearly unanimous – the ubiquitous “brief devotion” that begins many board meetings, assigned by a passed-around sign-up sheet at the beginning of the year, is not helping much at all. If nothing else, it’s time to punt that.
The personal lives of board members need to be linked to their work on the board. And their own life of faith needs to be linked to the life of faith in the congregation.
Vulnerability, expressing needs, praying for one another – and for the church, community, and world – is an essential part of board work.
Progress in transforming board meetings and rebalancing the time is possible, but takes a plan, a leader, excellent communication, and ideas that do not seem like a waste of time to the board.
Resources can be drawn from Bible study and prayer, but also podcasts, articles, and other not-necessarily-specifically-religious sources.
Finally, some general thoughts that we have drawn from talking with boards and their leaders while writing this blog for almost four years now:
There is an urgency to faith and to Jesus’ call for us to be disciples. This urgency is different from the angst about survival that is inherent in many church discussions. God, in Jesus Christ, seeks to draw the whole world into the beloved community. Nothing less than that is at stake when your board meets – and the board meetings need to reflect that urgency.
Most messes can get cleaned up among people of trust and good will. If your board tries transitioning to deeper, more discipleship-focused meetings, and some of “the work” falls through the cracks, identify it, apologize, and address it. The cost of not trying to go deeper is much more hazardous.
Increasingly, church cannot feel like (or act like) the rest of our board members’ lives. They have enough roles where they are “responsible.” They have filled out more than their fair share of sign-up sheets. There may have been a time when there were social, cultural, or business motivations for being involved in a church. None of those are true anymore (if they ever were). People come to church … for help with their faith. Church board members – whether they say it out loud or not – come to board meetings to understand more deeply how to follow Jesus. This truth, coupled with the urgency referred to above, should be enough to motivate every board to change and grow deeper.
Finally, please try to trust this conviction – and help your board trust it too: if your board focuses on filling people spiritually, every other need the church has, from budgets to mission projects, will get taken care of. Let the implications of that sink in. Pray about that possibility and promise. God will provide. If we don’t begin there, nothing else matters!