Pastorful: Don’t Just Fill Seats

I once served a church that was very interesting – they had somehow partitioned themselves, unconsciously, so that some of the lowest-functioning people were serving on the governing board (for the PCUSA, the Session). I came to see it as a kind of quarantine, and the church functioned in such a way that the Session was called upon to do as little as possible so that the rest of the congregation could get on with things.

This led to a couple of disasters, as one might expect.

One vivid one involved a member of the board climbing onto the table to scream threats at another board member, saying they would strangle them. In the wake of that disastrous meeting, four of the twelve board members resigned. They had seen how the sausage was made, and wanted no part of it. I couldn’t blame them, and realized we had a lot of work to do.

What fueled this recipe for disaster, in part, was the idea that they had to find people to fill the seats on the board. There were twelve seats and so they had to find twelve people, and what resulted in this particular church was that there were a number of people who were serving on the board not because they felt called to do so, but because they were pursued and even guilt-tripped until they capitulated and served their time.

So you had a room full of leaders who didn’t want to lead, who didn’t want to make difficult decisions, who didn’t want to learn how to lead, and who wanted to find the easiest way to relieve any problems that came up.

The principle that I drew from this experience was to always remind churches that their job is not to fill seats on the board. Let’s say we have twelve seats on the church board – I would rather have seven or eight people who want to be there and feel called to be there. I tell nominating committees again and again, until they tell it back to me, that their job is not to fill seats. Their job is to discern who is called to leadership at this time, period. If zero people are called, then we add zero people to the board. If one or two, then one or two are added, even if each year we are ‘supposed’ to find four.

I really can’t stress this enough. Never just fill seats. You never want more people there than have been called to be there.

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