When Church Governing Boards Are Too Big (This Sounds Really Boring, But I Hope it Sparks Some Conversation)

[Note: I’m Presbyterian and Presbyterians call our governing boards “Sessions” but this post might also apply to your church’s non-Presbyterian council too.]

I can tell a lot from the size of a congregation’s governing board:

  • If a smallish congregation has a huge governing board, I assume there are trust issues.  (They don’t trust a small group of elders to lead them.)
  • A large board could be good (i.e. the congregation is also large and this board works like a creative, well-run machine along with the church staff.)
  • A large board could be not-so-good (i.e. committees and ministry teams are ineffective and this large group serves as a committee of the whole congregational system.)
  • A large board often = long meetings of the elders. (Note: no elder meeting should be longer than an hour and a half – and this includes at least 30 minutes of prayer and theological reflection.)

I’ve been taught that church boards should be sized according to the size of the congregation in this way:

  •  Six elders on the board for a congregation of 50 – 150 members, not counting the pastor.
  • Nine to twelve elders for a congregation of 300 members, not counting the pastor(s).
  • No more than 24 elders for any congregation over 300 members.

Our boards are more than receivers of reports.  In a perfect world, our boards are comprised of spiritual pillars who represent the diversity of the congregation.  They welcome faithful discernment and generate big themes for the ministry of that congregation.

Examples of Big Themes are:

  • addressing the opioid addiction in our community
  • addressing homelessness in our community
  • addressing the digital divide in our community
  • addressing systemic racism in our community . . .

. . . all to the glory of God who calls us to address what loving our neighbor looks like in our particular neighborhoods/towns.  God calls us to be good neighbors and so we act accordingly – in the likeness of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Too many times, the reality of our boards is that:

  • people are bored on the board.
  • people are uncertain what their role is.
  • people are comfortable doing practical tasks (picking curriculum, replacing the boiler) but are uncomfortable being spiritual leaders (praying for each other, sharing their faith stories, disclosing their doubts, discerning together what God is calling the Church to be.)

I love being Presbyterian because we are an elder-led denomination.  There are ruling elders (who serve on the board) and there are teaching elders (who are ministers of the Word and Sacrament.)  Or at least that’s our historic lingo.

Sitting with church people called to lead a church should feel like a room full of light bulbs.  But too often it feels like a life-sucking waste of time.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Teaching our governing boards how to do generative ministry makes all the difference.  Nobody – except the people who seek power – wants to serve a church board that focuses on committee reports and congregational minutiae.  I’d rather sit through a reading of Calvin’s Institutes. Seriously – I totally would.

Elders rule.  They have the power to bring light to the everyday ministry of their congregation.  And those not currently serving on the church board are not exempt from responsibility.  They, too, have a role in participating in the ministry of their congregation.  It’s just that the elders are looking at the Big Picture.

What’s the Big Picture in your church?  Do you see it?  Do you agree on it?  Or are you frazzled over the artificial flower arrangements for next Sunday?

What would it take to change the culture of your church’s governing board to make it more enriching, exciting, and energizing for the sake of your congregation’s ministry?

5 responses to “When Church Governing Boards Are Too Big (This Sounds Really Boring, But I Hope it Sparks Some Conversation)

  1. Is six too many for a congregation of 15? I’m thinking of proposing cutting to four, with two-year terms renewable twice. We have to have an even number, balanced between our Presbyterian and Lutheran members. There are no committees, of course, and the only time we can find to meet this year is following worship, with a strict one-hour limit. The clerk and I are teaming up to curtail the nostalgic chatting the old-timers frequently get into, but it still doesn’t leave time for serious spiritual work–which they don’t know how to do, so it’s really important that we do it.


    • Perhaps the nostalgic chatter is part of the divine. I see this with an older congregation. Meeting and chatting is an important part of the deacon’s ministry. I work very hard to keep the agenda moving, but sometimes, it’s important to let the conversation flow.


    • I serve a congregation of 22. We have two classes of elders, two each class for a total of four. Each class serves two year terms, renewable for a total of six years (as the Book of Order limits). We don’t have standing committees–everyone pitches in on everything. The size works well and feels appropriate. I would be fine with them serving three year terms, but that was implemented before my time and hasn’t seemed worth changing.


  2. I see the need for larger numbers if the work is going to be done. Can you please write an inspiring post about how to keep the entire congregation doing important (and sometimes heavy-lifting) work of the church? I’m seeing people serve their term and then step away from all of the work, leaving only the current elders and deacons to do the heavy lifting. I try to find ways to motivate and encourage those who aren’t currently on a board or committee.


  3. cross24354yahoocom

    Jan, Thank you for your article! I actually got “homesick” for the each session of the two churches I served for the last 16 years before my retirement.These people were discerning when it came to mission and movers and shakers in prayer and action. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have served with this small but effective group of people, each who chaired a committee as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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