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Does Your Board Know Its Business?

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

As the controversy continues surrounding Willow Creek Community Church’s pastor Bill Hybels, its Board of Elders has offered a public apology for how they initially responded.

Their response, as they outline it, was typical of embattled corporations: rallying ‘round the CEO (= senior pastor), denial of the validity of all accusations, denunciation of accusers, and insistence that their own lawyers entirely supported their position.

The Willow Creek elders now, to their credit, admit that they ought to have responded more pastorally, and are aiming to do better.

Having studied the governance structures of a number of Christian organizations, and having worked under, and consulted with, the leaders of a number of Christian organizations, my curiosity was piqued. I took a quick glance at Willow Creek’s website as it describes its elders.

From what I could read therein, the website indicates that the Board of Elders of this large, globally influential church features eight impressive people who are long-time members of Willow Creek and who bring a range of gifts and experiences to the Elder Board. All well and good.

Collectively, however, they list not a single year of theological education. Nor do any of them have experience in pastoral ministry.

One finds instead that most of them are executives and/or lawyers. And one begins to suspect that a certain mentality predominates on the board—a corporate one, rather than, say, a pastoral or theological or ecclesiastical one.

Then when one sees how they have behaved heretofore—toward Bill Hybels, toward the complainants, toward the media, and toward the process—it all might strike one as very corporate indeed, even as there is also commendable evidence now of well-meaning laypeople finding their way in a vexed situation.

I do not intend to “pick on” Willow Creek in a moment of distress. (I doubt that my flyspeck of influence would bother them anyhow.) I focus on this situation because Willow Creek has been teaching leadership to thousands of pastors and elders and churches and other organizations over the years. And a church of this size, complexity, visibility, and ambition thinking that it can do very well, thank-you, without anyone on the board having significant training in the disciplines most central to the work of the organization might strike the interested observer as…dangerous.

Would a car company be content with a board bereft of engineering and industrial manufacture expertise? Would a Silicon Valley firm be led by a board featuring no one with professional training in computer design and production?

Each individual on Willow Creek’s Board of Elders looks like he or she would bring important talents to the table. Boards like this certainly can, and should, draw on the wisdom of commerce, administration, entrepreneurship, and law.

The elders also are listed as having considerable experience in lay ministry in the church and beyond. This lay perspective is crucial for churches to avoid too clerical/professional an outlook on church life, and Willow Creek properly includes it.

But if the board is made up primarily or even exclusively of executives and lawyers who lack significant theological training and professional ministry experience, then one can predict certain kinds of results.

I have seen this pattern, alas, over and over again. The board of a university or seminary features not a single professor or higher education administrator. The board of an international relief agency that faces constant ethical challenges includes not a single ethicist. The board of a ministry to university students includes a professor or two, but in fields largely devoid of ideological contest—geography, engineering, and the like—where the most difficult work of Christian witness takes place on campus.

When trouble strikes, then, these boards act…as they cannot help but act: without genuine understanding of the type of institution they are leading and without the full range of expertise necessary to guide it. Their response? Not one consistent with the nature of the institution, and literally…amateurish. What else could it be?

Board-building is a crucial part of leadership: in churches, as in every other kind of organization. Willow Creek has served as a positive example to many, many churches around the world. May its shortcomings now also, by the grace of God, serve as a profitable example, and warning, as well.

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