Can a Church Council Meet Without the Pastor?

Our council wants to meet without its pastor. Is that OK?

The first question I would ask in response is, “Why would they want to meet without the pastor?” After all, the pastor is a member of the council, which includes all the office-bearers of a congregation—its minister(s), elders, deacons, and sometimes commissioned pastors, too. So then the question is whether it is appropriate for the council to intentionally meet without one of the members present, and especially when it’s a member in the key role of pastor.

It’s possible that the agenda includes a matter with which the pastor has a conflict of interest, such as his or her salary. But it’s not likely that a whole meeting is called for just that item (during the discussion of which the minister could easily step out).

Maybe the meeting is to discuss a difficult issue, even one that is about the pastor. If that’s the case, it would be even more important to meet with the pastor. Usually it is better to have a direct conversation than one that reinforces whatever tensions exist by avoiding the needed discussion. 

One of the underlying principles of Reformed polity is mutual accountability—that church members and leaders are accountable to each other. Councils should regularly assess their own effectiveness, both individually and as a group. All council members, including the pastor, should be open to discussion of their performance.

This last point brings up a problem I’ve encountered: councils who have sincerely tried to have difficult conversations with their pastor present, but failed because the pastor was domineering and manipulative, using his or her “spiritual authority” to shut down all honest conversation. My advice to always meet with the pastor present cannot be used by such pastors to effectively shut down honest conversation. Councils in this situation should bring in resources like church visitors or an outside facilitator. 

The authors of Crucial Conversations, a book I highly recommend, argue that a critical mark of a healthy organization is its ability to have difficult conversations. If meeting without the pastor is a way to avoid difficult conversations, I would strongly advise against it. 

About the Author

Rev. Kathy Smith is senior associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, adjunct professor of church polity at Calvin Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin University. She is a member of First CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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