In the past several years, the evangelical community watched a rapid succession of scandals and ministry implosions. At Willow Creek Community Church, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, and Harvest Bible Chapel—the pattern has been the same. All had boards who were supposed to hold their top leaders accountable.
But they failed. Miserably.
“When a ministry encounters failure—or even worse, scandal—its difficulties can almost always be traced to a breakdown in governance.” So says the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, an organization very good at creating standards, but not so good at enforcing them.
How can a ministry chart a future marked by fruitfulness, rather than abuse and corruption?
Today, The Roys Report is launching a series featuring ministry leaders who have been in the trenches and have learned some of the keys to success, as well as pitfalls to avoid.
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Our first interview is with Boz Tchividjian, the founder of G.R.A.C.E., Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, and a lawyer specializing in defending sexual abuse victims with law firm Landis Graham French, P.A.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Jackson Elliott: Why do we need ministry boards? Why are ministry staff or congregation members not able to stop bad leaders?
Boz Tchividjian: Most congregation members in a church, if they’re under an abusive or toxic leader, they’re afraid to speak up. Those who do usually end up losing community. They’re on the outside. They’re the ones accused of causing dissension, of gossiping, of sinning, of trying to hurt the ministry of the leader.
A person who has grown up in this church and has loved it, that’s their community. They suddenly, overnight, find themselves on the outside. Do you think you’re going to say anything next time you see something? No. You come up with a reason not to talk. You rationalize using spirituality. “I don’t want to impact the good, godly work the church is doing, so I’ll keep quiet.”
Elliott: What are some characteristics of a healthy ministry board?
Tchividjian: One is being engaged. You have boards that are overly engaged, and they actually prevent the staff from doing what they had been hired to do. But then there’s the other end of the spectrum, where you have a board that’s completely unengaged.
You have to find a healthy balance. And I’ve not encountered too many boards that have that healthy balance.
There’s also some value to outside accountability. Boards can get lost. They get this tunnel vision at times. You might be on a board where there’s a certain board culture that you may not even be aware of, that either gives too much authority to the leadership. Or does the opposite.
Sometimes you have a board chairperson, who is also the director and the leader of the organization. That board chairperson is pretty much the only conduit between the board and the staff. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily bad, but it can be troublesome.
It gives that leader a lot of power, because that person can tell the staff, “This is what the board wants.” And then that person can come to the board and tell them “what the staff is saying.” The only one who really knows the complete truth is that one person. Having healthier conduits between the board and staff is necessary.
Elliott: What makes a board ineffective?
Tchividjian: Sometimes you have an organization that might have 25 board members, just for show. You get well-known, influential, wealthy people to sit on your board. And then you create an executive committee that really does the board work. Oftentimes, that larger group is out of the loop on what’s going on.
I think that’s dangerous. A board is a board. If you’re going to create an executive committee, that executive committee should be very limited in the scope of what it carries out, and it shouldn’t take away from the responsibility of the board. Otherwise, that executive committee is really the board.
You have these really large boards and members who maybe meet once a year. They’re basically given a packet of information and they rubber-stamp it and go home the next day. The executive committee is the one that’s really making the decisions.
That can create problems when bad situations surface. The larger board then claims, “I had no idea that this was going on.” If you’re sitting on a board, you have the responsibility to know what’s going on.
Elliott: Many of the ideas you mentioned seem to involve balance. How do you create that balance effectively?
Tchividjian: That’s a hard thing to do. I think you get some outside assistance and accountability. My father was a clinical psychologist and an incredibly wise man. The counsel he would give to clients and friends always amazed me. But when we would have an internal issue with the family, sometimes he would react in ways where I would say, “Dad, you would never give that type of counsel to a patient.” When it’s so close to home, sometimes you don’t have a clear and objective picture. It requires you to get some outside perspective to give you that clear picture.
Elliott: Many of the ministry implosions The Roys Report has covered trace back to one incredibly charismatic and powerful leader. What can boards do when someone like that has a lot of influence in their ministry?
Tchividjian: In organizations that are driven in notoriety and money by the name of the leader, the board has to figure out, “How do we effectively govern somebody like that?”
Part of that boils down to how you get on the board. If everybody on the board is somebody the well-known figure in the organization put there, you can kiss accountability goodbye.
Maybe the leader should have very limited say on who sits on the board. Maybe that person should not even be present when they are voting on potential new board members.
Elliott: How do ministry boards fail?
Tchividjian: I see the most failure when boards are disengaged and let the leader of the organization dictate the direction of the organization with very little accountability.
In some organizations, board members that try to hold that person accountable or speak up oftentimes find themselves in the outside of that board fairly shortly thereafter. The board should never just be a group of people who are there to support and cheer on the leader of the organization.
Elliott: Do you think people are good at detecting abuse of power? Or is it something that it’s is hard to see?
Tchividjian: I can’t speak for all people. I think some leaders have learned how to cover abuses pretty well. And some don’t.
This is what I tell people. Oftentimes, we gravitate towards the narratives that we prefer, rather than the truth. If you see a leader with some actions and behaviors or conduct that really trouble us, it’s much easier for us to gravitate toward the narrative of, “I don’t really know the whole story,” or, “I’m sure he means well,” than gravitating toward, “Wait a minute, that’s wrong and something needs to be done about it.” Oftentimes that gravitation is based on the fear of losing community.
I’m reading a book where the author went over to the Soviet Union and interviewed a lot of survivors of Stalin’s gulags and the Great Purge. Even people who survived the gulags would be in denial about how horrific a man Stalin was and would weep when he died. They won’t allow their minds to go there. It was much easier to say, “I’m sorry that I have to be the one to suffer here, but he’s got a much bigger job and much greater burden on his shoulders.”
A lot of people convince themselves of lies because the truth is almost impossible to comprehend or accept. On a much lesser basis, the same type of mentality can be seen in churches.
Elliott: Once you find serious problems in your ministry, how do you fix them?
Tchividjian: One of the one of the things about being transparent is to get to the bottom of how the issues happened. Who else was aware of it? Who else on staff? Who else on the board?
A lot of times, we think we can solve the issue solely by getting rid of the bad leader. And oftentimes, leaders like that are allowed to engage in that conduct because of an institutional culture that has enabled it. Getting rid of that person doesn’t solve the problem. It’s a first step in solving the problem, but it doesn’t solve it.
Jackson Elliott is a Christian journalist trained at Northwestern University. He has worked at The Daily Signal, The Inlander, and The Christian Post, covering topics ranging from D.C. politics to prison ministry. His interests include the Bible, philosophy, theology, Russian literature, and Irish music.