The Board in the Rural Church Context
By Glenn Daman
When we are first chosen to be on the board of a rural church, we do not come without any preconceived ideas. Depending upon our background and involvement in the church, we arrive with expectations and ideas of what the church board is to be and do and what our role is within the board. However, if we come from another church or from a larger church, we may soon find that our expectations are vastly different from how the board actually functions. When we become involved in the leadership, we soon become confused about what our role is. The result is frustration and discouragement and, at times, discontentment as we question the way things are run.
Often the problem is that we have failed to properly understand the culture of the rural church and the way it selects and trains its leaders and the expectations that people have of those called to serve on the board. Within every church there are both biblical principles and cultural expectations that serve to govern the people’s expectations of its leaders. A necessary part of leadership is not only understanding the biblical principles that govern our task, but the culture in which we lead.
The Distinctives of the Rural Church
The rural church has a limited pool of qualified individuals.
When it comes to the selection of the church board, the rural church often approaches the processes differently than the large church counterpart. Within the large church, the process begins by serving on various leadership positions within the church. As the person demonstrates leadership qualities, they are recruited to a training process before the person is then selected to serve on the board. For the large church there is then the luxury of having a pool of individuals qualified and willing to serve on the board. However, in the rural church, there is no such luxury. Often the rural church is faced with the challenge of finding individuals who are both qualified and desire to serve on the board. The result of this limited pool is that those who are recruited to serve on the board often have no previous experience within the leadership of the church. Consequently, the rural church needs to focus on training leaders while they are serving. We will say more about this in a minute.
The rural church requires people who are willing rather than people who are trained.
When we are asked to serve on the board, we often feel ill equipped and unqualified for the task. Because we lack previous experience, we have no idea what is expected of us and what the requirements are. When we show reluctance to serve or question the pastor or other board members about what the requirements are, we are given a vague response that does little to alleviate our apprehension. However, we feel pressured to agree to serve because of the need but apprehensive about serving because of a lack of training. We need do recognize that the rural church is much more reliant upon individuals who are willing to serve rather than individuals who are qualified to serve. Because there is always a shortage of people within the congregation who are willing to serve, the rural church needs people who are willing to learn by doing rather than being equipped through a pre-training program. This is not to say that we compromise in the areas of character and biblical qualifications solely to have people fill positions within the church, that would be both spiritually and organizationally irresponsible. Rather it means that our knowledge of church leadership and our experience as organizational leaders comes through involvement rather than any pre-training programs. What this does mean is that we must be willing to serve even though we may not feel we are fully equipped to serve. This then should give us a sense of humility rather than timidity in serving. Rather than our lack of confidence being a hindrance it can be a source of strength as it teaches us to rely upon the empowerment of the Holy Spirit rather than any innate qualities and abilities we possess.
The rural church provides on the job training.
Because the rural church always struggles to find individual willing to serve, the focus is more upon filling the position than it is upon training people for the position. Consequently, it operates with the assumption that people will learn by doing rather than learn through a pre-training program. Growing up on the farm training consisted of doing rather than learning information. The first time I drove a large 4-wheel drive tractor for our neighbor, he drove me to the field, pointed to the tractor and said he would be back at noon with my lunch. The only instruction I received was him pointing to the key, telling me how to start it, how to put it in gear and which levers controlled the hydraulics, and then he drove off leaving me wondering how I was suppose to drive. While I had never learned before, I know there was only one option and that was to get into the tractor and learn as I went. The same is true in the training methods of a rural church. They do not have elaborate programs to train potential leaders, whether that leader be on the board, a Sunday school teacher or a committee member. The assumption that they have is that one best learns by doing rather than reading a book. Like the first time I sat in the seat of large tractor, it can be intimidating. I may know a few of the basics of driving a tractor, but the array of knobs and levers and the responsibility of driving a machine worth hundreds of thousands of dollars can be paralyzing. Yet I have no other option. I can bail out, in which case the field will never get plowed, or I can get started and learn as I go. So it is in ministry. The complexity of the church ministry and the responsibility of the spiritual well-being of people can be daunting, but if we do not get involved then who will? So we discover that the best way to learn is by putting our hand to the plow and learn through trial and error. In the process we not only learn more about ministry, but we learn that through God’s empowerment we can “do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” But this method of learning is not new, for it was the very method that the early church had to use. There were no books on church planting and church administration. They had no video series that they could watch and learn from. There was no previous pattern to follow, they had to learn as they ministered and in the process they were able to build the church.
The rural church sees the board position as a heritage.
The rural church views the position of the board as a sacred heritage. Doran McCarty summarizes this when he writes, “It is not an administrative or ministry position but a sacred trust. The church will not determine the deacon’s ability according to a job description but according to how the deacon measures up to Uncle Harold” (Doran McCarty, Leading the Rural Church, p. 84). In other words, it is no longer an organizational position, but a trust that is bestowed upon someone. They place a person in the position of leadership because he has earned their confidence and respect and he will always have their respect and trust unless he violates that trust or is no longer capable of serving. When the position is vacated because the person can no longer serve, the congregation will seek someone who is similar in character and values as that person in order to maintain that trust that they had. This is why they often give the position to another family member for it is assumed that this person will have the same values as the original board member. This goes beyond just biblical values, but shared cultural and personal values that a person has. Every congregation operates not only under the values outlined in scripture, but also a set of underling values that are part of the community. For example, in a rural community those values may included such values as the willingness to work hard, political ideologies and a strong sense of community. The church will not only evaluate people by their theology, but also by their agreement to these values as well.
The rural church selects its boards through congregational appointment.
In many urban and larger churches, the congregation has entrusted the selection of a new board member to the board itself. Under the Elder led polity, the Elders are responsible to determine the individuals qualified to serve and then from the pool of available individuals, the Elders appoint a person to serve. Within the rural church, the congregation reserves the right to select, evaluate and appoint individuals to the board. Many larger churches today function as “Elder Led” churches where the Elders govern and make the decisions of the church. However, in the rural church, even those who call themselves “Elder Led” function more as “Elder Guided”. That is, they evaluate the issues and options and bring recommendations to the congregation who make the final decision. In the “Elder Led” church, the Elders appoint the new board members. In the “Elder Guided” church, the Elders bring recommendations to the church, but the congregation is still responsible for the appointment of tee member. In the rural church the congregation always reserves the right to have the final say in decisions, especially in the appointment of leaders. While they may place a high priority upon the recommendations of the board (because of their trust in them), they still reserve the final authority for the appointment of them.