By law, board members are supposed to put the best interest of the church above all personal considerations — but how is that even possible? Board members in most churches play many other roles throughout the church, and many board decisions affect them and those they love. Potential conflicts of interest arise whenever a board member plays multiple roles. In churches, multiple roles and relationships are the rule, not the exception.
Look around the board table: John and Frieda work for the same company; Frieda’s daughter babysits for Susan’s grandson; Susan has belonged for years to Peter’s study group; Peter, who has been assistant treasurer for 30 years, is married to the choir director. Then there’s the pastor, who stands in multiple relationships to everybody. Even in a relatively healthy church, an “organization chart” that tried to capture all such formal and informal links would resemble an unusually messy cobweb.
No wonder that on many boards it’s awkward to begin talking about conflicts of interest. Relationships around the table already bristle with potential conflicts, so anyone who tries to raise the subject risks a defensive response. That’s one reason boards put off this important conversation. Another is the belief (often against official doctrine) that church people are naturally well-meaning, moral people, making it offensive to suggest they might need rules to keep them on the straight and narrow. Nonetheless, a church governing board, like any nonprofit board, is mandated by law to keep its stewardship unsullied by conflicts of interest. In legal language board members are fiduciaries (from the Latin fides, faith).