The new pastor of a small church was concerned that the music director was also the church treasurer and that two married couples sat on the church council. He worried that there might be a conflict of interest, but not all conflicts are equally serious. Your board needs to create a written policy defining conflicts of interest and the process it will use to handle them when they arise, as they inevitably do, especially in small congregations.

The congregation’s mission deserves each leader’s loyalty. When what is best for the mission conflicts with a leader’s personal interests or preferences, the leader’s duty is to act for the mission. A conflict of interest arises when a leader has a personal interest or conflicting duty that may make this difficult. Members of a governing board, like your church council, need to be especially vigilant about conflicts of interest.

The clearest conflicts are financial—such as when the congregation buys something from a company owned by a governing board member—but there are subtler conflicts. For example, a board member who might belong to the board of a preschool that rents space from a church, an art museum that bids on paintings at a synagogue fund-raising auction, or a community center that competes for gifts from members of the congregation.

Because intertwined relationships are typical of congregations, it is not realistic to avoid all conflicts of interest. But the board can protect its members from criticism and embarrassment by having a clear policy for responding to conflicts when they arise.

There are three levels of response to conflicts of interest: disclosure, recusal, and resignation. Mild conflicts of interest (for instance, when a board member’s cousin holds stock in an office-supply chain) can be managed simply by disclosing them. If the remaining board members agree that the conflict is minor, the affected member can continue to participate in the decision. More serious conflicts—for instance, where a member’s daughter is a candidate for a scholarship—require recusal: the member leaves the room and does not discuss or vote on that item. More serious conflicts of interest—for instance, if a board member is a contractor who wants to bid on a new building—involve such a pervasive division of loyalty that resignation is required. The choice of the level of response that fits a specific case is best made by board members who are not affected by the conflict.

A treasurer who signs his or her own paycheck has a clear conflict of interest. When the treasurer also signs checks to his or her work supervisor, the conflict becomes more serious. Most congregations choose to prohibit paid staff members from serving as officers or board members. The case of two spouses sitting on the board together is less clear. Their duty to act for the church’s mission may potentially conflict with their duty to support each other, or their interest in domestic peace. But in this, the difference between spouses and close friends is a matter of degree. Many congregations avoid putting spouses on the board simultaneously in order to distribute opportunities for leadership. In the process they put to rest potential concerns about conflicts of interest.

It is much easier to address conflicts before they arise than afterward. A written policy helps leaders avoid conflicts of interest and handle them appropriately. The policy should define conflicts of interest and make disclosure of them an annual routine. Such a practice makes it easier for members to disclose conflicts that arise later, when the board takes up an issue that affects them. The policy needs to make it clear that every board member has a duty to raise conflict-of-interest concerns, and that the board itself (excluding those affected by the potential) will decide whether disclosure, recusal, or resignation is the right response.

Comment on this article on the
Alban Roundtable blog


Adapted from “Ask Alban” by Dan Hotchkiss in Congregations, Summer 2009  (vol. 35, no. 3), copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL370_SM Governance and Ministry:
Rethinking Board Leadership

by Dan Hotchkiss

In Governance and Ministry, Alban Institute senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss offers congregational leaders a roadmap and tools for changing the way boards and clergy work together to lead congregations. Hotchkiss demonstrates that the right governance model is the one that best enables a congregation to fulfill its mission—to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called.

AL382_SM Promise and Peril:
Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations

< strong>by David R. Brubaker

In Promise and Peril: Understanding and Managing Change and ConflictinCongregations, David Brubaker brings the tools of organizational theory and research to the task of understanding the deeper dynamics of congregational conflict. With a doctorate in sociology and more than twenty years working with congregational conflicts, Brubaker helps to explore the causes and effects of conflicts on a wide range of congregations. This book will help congregations avoid the pitfalls of conflict and instead head toward a healthy relationship between and among church staff and members.

AL375_SM Cross-Shaped Leadership:
On the Rough and Tumble of Parish Practice

by John A. Berntsen

For Lutheran pastor John Berntsen, those who lead are subject to the cross no less than others. Cross-shaped leaders are not primarily the providers of master plans, nor are they master builders. Cross-shaped leadership is provisional, contextual, and fallible—an open-ended ministry that is always under construction and revision. Our moment-by-moment functioning in ministry is subject to countless deaths and resurrections, few of which are heroic or glorious. But Berntsen offers good news within this potentially dismal perspective. With optimism, humor, and deep empathy, Berntsen’s Cross-Shaped Leadership offers hope and challenge in the midst of the rough and tumble of parish practice.

AL336_SM Healthy Disclosure: Solving Communication Quandaries in Congregations
by Kibbie Simmons Ruth and Karen A. McClintock

Knowledge is power, and the way knowledge is shared in a congregation can build up or break down community. When congregational leaders are sensitive to the ways that information should be shared, the congregation can become safe and strong. Healthy Disclosure is filled with step-by-step ideas for handling different types of sensitive material.


Copyright © 2009, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share articles from the Alban Weekly with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at and let us know how the Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of the Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

Subscribe to the Alban Weekly.

Archive of past issues of the Alban Weekly.