Betty Stirling was director of institutional research for the General Conference Board of Higher Education when she wrote this article.

Churches are run by committees. This seems to have been the order of things, ecclesiastically speaking, for many years, and appears to be the order for the future. Thus if the church is to be run efficiently and effectively, the minister and his associates need to search for efficient and effective committee methods.

Committees come under the behavioral science classification of "small groups." Much research has been directed toward small groups, and the results can be used to improve the effectiveness of church committees. For instance:


Once upon a time much attention was paid to identifying the personality of leaders. This research wasn't too successful, and wouldn't be too useful in making up church committees. Fortunately, many different kinds of people can learn to be leaders, and if the church is to carry out the gospel commission, more of the membership must learn how to lead. Working on and with a committee is a good place for them to begin to learn.

Most church committees are groups of "experts." The best leader for this kind of committee, where all are equally skilled or unskilled, or equally knowledgeable or "in the dark," is a democratic leader. The democratic leader arranges for the quiet to get a chance to talk and the perpetually vocal to get a chance to be quiet and think. He is a facilitator who tries to get all to participate in useful ways.

Committee leaders should try to keep the group together and on track. They need to remember also that the judicious use of humor "oils" the proceedings. (Members might remember this too and help out the leader, if necessary.)

The leader should be aware that some visiting and small talk is necessary at the beginning of a session, especially when the committee is new and members are trying to size each other up, but part of his function as leader is to get the group busy on the business at hand.

The minister can help by carefully observing the new committee and its leader. Unobtrusively outside the committee he might remind the leader that being a democratic leader does not mean not leading. It means moving the group by consensus. The minister should encourage the leader to politely stop someone who talks too much, in order to allow the timid and quiet to speak. He should sympathize with the leader who has tried to keep the group on track and point out if necessary that at first this may mean finding the track to get on.

The minister also needs to bring to the leader's attention the fact that problem solving groups, which is what most church committees are, should follow the problem solving process: find and define the problem, get the facts, consider the range of possible solutions, and then pick out the best solution.

For the harried leader who has found a committee occasionally fragmenting into irrepressible subcommittees, the minister might suggest that they deliberately break into smaller groups occasionally for brainstorming.

Leadership has been defined as the process by which a group brings together the efforts of the members. The position of leader includes legitimate authority to use the process of leadership. But the leader must also gain the necessary power to do so through proper exercise of this role. Three types of leaders gain power in these ways:

1. The ascribed leader inherits power and authority, but there are no ascribed leaders in church committees only in kingdoms and such. (If you have that situation in your church maybe you should take another look at it!).

2. The appointed leader gets authority from appointment, but must earn power.

3. Elected leaders are already in the process of earning or consolidating power (that is why they were elected), and this power then gives authority when they are elected to the position.

The leaders in church committees are either appointed or elected, though probably most are appointed by nominating committees or other committees on committees. Appointed or elected leaders can earn the power they need in several ways. The leader may choose one or a combination of the following ways as they fit each situation best:

1. He or she can risk everything by making clear cut and important decisions. In doing so they may succeed totally or miserably fail. The democratic committee leader will probably avoid this way.

2. The leader may choose a slow process of building up success in decisions. Some of these decisions may be outside the knowledge of the particular committee where one is trying to earn power. If they are, the leader can let the group hear (in some appropriate and modest fashion) of past successes, but not say too much about failures. Another way of building up power, especially in committee action, is to find out well ahead by study and investigation how a certain course of action is likely to turn out. If it seems appropriate to the committee's problem the leader can suggest that route to the group. The group will have greater faith in him or her when it succeeds, because they knew what they were doing, and the result is an increase of their power as leaders.

3. Church members who want to become leaders and must be elected before gaining authority, or who hope to receive a particular appointment, can announce their intention. This is typical of the democratic method, though not usually of the church. These kinds of leader must be able to take some failure in stride assuming a casual attitude toward it since everyone will see it anyway and they can blame only themselves. This method is a successful way to get power to do a good job, and may be combined with the second method, too.


Much study has been given to leadership.Very little has been given to followership. Yet the majority of members of committees at any given time are obviously followers. It is also true that individuals who are leaders in one group may be followers in another. What can the minister do to improve the quality of "following"?

First, some questions about followers: How does a person become a member of a church committee? Usually by being chosen or appointed. Occasionally a church member may ask to be on a committee. Why do church members become members of committees? They may be interested in the purpose of the group. They may only be interested in associating with the particular people who will be on the committee. They may feel a need to belong to something, to have some usefulness or importance in the church.

While different reasons for joining a committee will affect the behavior of each member, the fact that they have agreed to serve means that they have some interest in the success of the committee. Possibly the best way to instruct committee members on good followership would be to discuss the subject with them as a group, or perhaps to prepare a list of "rules" in an attractive form and give it to each person joining a committee. Here are some suggestions for a start:

1. Members should feel responsible for what the group does.

2. Members should support the leader if it is at all possible. Remember the golden rule and apply liberal amounts of empathy before criticizing. (One who is follower today may be leader tomorrow!)

3. When a member feels strong disagreement with the leader one way to handle the disagreement is to ask a question rather than express disagreement in a dogmatic way.

4. While "complete oneness" is a beautiful ideal, and it is good if the group can express fears and disagreements openly in the meeting and still accept one another, there are times when it would be better to go directly to the leader (or another member) in private.

5. Part of members' energy in any meeting is taken up in satisfying their own needs. The members should be able to do this if the group is functioning properly, but committee goals should come first.

6. At times a request for clarification of the committee's activities or decisions in writing will enable the member to get better direction from the leader for the group's work, yet not obviously detract from the leader's role.

7. A group member who feels a strong desire to be a leader may contribute to the committee in a positive way by paying extra attention to the membership roles, by volunteering to do extra projects to help the group, or by serving as a chairman of subcommittees. And as a last resort, the minister could indirectly remind the member (outside of the committee) that he or she is a "follower" in this situation, but might be considered for leadership in another committee.

8. If a member finds himself totally unable to work with the group or its leader he should withdraw, doing it in a spirit of cooperation "for the good of the group." A member who finds himself in this spot should remember that the conflict between him and the group may be as much his fault as the committee's.

Committee Dynamics

Members of a new committee in a church may be well acquainted, or they may barely know one another's names if the church is large. With the exception of their common faith, they may differ from one another in background, occupation, and life style. In problem solving groups this heterogeneity may be a good thing, but it may be hard to manage until the collection of new committee members really becomes a group.

In the first few meetings there will probably be jockeying for position, especially if some of the members have been leaders before. The leader needs to let the group do this kind of exploration, but relate to it casually, meanwhile keeping the group focused on its tasks.

There may be conflict, both covert and overt, for a while. This is normal in new groups. As members get acquainted there will be affiliations, sometimes subversive, usually not. The group may test the leader for a while. Occasionally people will drop out of the group. Sometimes this is a good thing!

There are times when a committee may proceed fairly well for a while and then come to a place of complete disagreement. What can a leader do if the only thing on which a group agrees is that there is no agreement? Build on this tenuous point of "agreement" and then back up to the last point of general agreement. Try a different direction from there.

What if the group hits a low point where it appears that the problem cannot be solved, or the ills cured, or whatever? The chairman feels frustrated and discouraged, and the members feel like quitting. This too is a normal stage for new groups with tough problems and may repeat itself. Much of this feeling comes from working too long at too high a level of tension. When it happens, the group should take a break, divide into subgroups for some brainstorming, relax, or change the subject for a while. In other words, change the pace. Sometimes a member can be a catalyst by introducing a new idea.

The following yardstick might be provided to groups that wonder whether they are really getting anywhere:

1. Is the group reaching its own objectives?
2. Does it move with nominal friction from problem to solution?
3. Is it free from subversive sub-groups?
4. Is the leadership acceptable to the group?
5. Are all members free to participate to the benefit of the group?

There are certain practical aspects of committee dynamics that new leaders or followers may not be familiar with, and which they need to know. The first is timing. Church members are often very busy people; certainly the ones most needed on committees are busy. The time set for meetings should be as convenient as possible, it should be specific and definite, and then the meeting should begin on time and end at the pre announced time for quitting. Members should be able to depend on the leader to stick to the schedule. If possible, an agenda should be sent to members ahead of time. If an agenda is not possible, or if only one item is to be considered, then a statement of the purpose of the meeting or the problem to be tackled should be sent.

The place of meeting is likewise important. Members should know precisely where it is and how to get there. The room should be unlocked and all physical environment controlled (such as heating, lighting, cooling) so that the meeting can proceed on time. Seating arrangements affect group dynamics. The leader may want to experiment with different arrangements, particularly if problems develop with unauthorized subcommittees. The leader should be in a place to be seen and heard by all members, and can serve as the focus of communication.

And finally, back to our first statement: the church runs by committees. Is it possible at times to challenge this truism? Before setting up more committees, why not take a look at the problems and see whether individual members might not be responsible for solutions, calling on assistance as they need it? Would your church be better off if half the committees were abolished, and the remaining half run more efficiently?

Betty Stirling was director of institutional research for the General Conference Board of Higher Education when she wrote this article.