Some of you reading this article are new to the responsibilities of chairing a church board; others are scarred, but blessed veterans of many seasons of service. Regardless of our place in this ministry journey, developing and sustaining personal commitment to good board practice and excellence in governance is a challenge.
Pursuing excellence in church board practices seems to be an uphill battle for many reasons. Some board members and pastoral leaders get impatient with good process. They want to press ahead and just “get it done,” disregarding the principle that ministry leadership brings significant responsibility to care well for the congregation. Others consider the development of policy “busywork” and something that smacks of the business world. They believe we should just trust one another and move forward. The Spirit will protect the board from imprudent actions. Sometimes leaders bridle at disciplined board operations because they have a political agenda and the process hampers their ability to promote that agenda. Good practices become an obstacle to overcome. I am sure other reasons might be proposed. A conscientious chairperson, however, will feel this resistance from time to time and have to learn how to cope with it graciously, but firmly. Humour can be an important asset in such circumstances.
What should a chairperson be committed to when it comes to board operations? Or, to put it more bluntly, what kind of board action (apart from a theological issue) would cause you to resign as chair because you believed the board had become too dysfunctional? Or, perhaps the question might be posed, how tolerant should you be of ineffective, improper and harmful board practices?
“Zero-tolerance” is a popular term today used in various fields to describe a passion and need to pursue excellence. However, I am not sure this attitude would be helpful for a church board chairperson to adopt, at least in the short term. At some point the chair needs to have an honest conversation with the board members to discern whether they are satisfied with their performance as a board. I would guess that some board members quietly yearn for better practices because they are frustrated with long, unproductive meetings that rarely seem to reach good decisions or discuss the most significant issues facing the congregation. As you invite this conversation encourage those members to give voice to their concerns and this probably will be sufficient catalyst to prompt the board to give you a mandate to facilitate better practices.
Then the question arises as to which changes you will implement first? I would suggest you start with some small innovations, processes that will demonstrate immediate benefit. For example, consider ways to shape the agenda so that the flow of the board meeting works more efficiently (e.g. consent agendas, reduce the number and length of verbal reports, place the most significant decisions first, note in the minutes who is responsible to implement decisions and the time frame for reporting back to the board, provide at least half an hour for Bible study and prayer together, end the meeting with an opportunity for the board members to evaluate the meeting, etc.). Then propose a number of principles that define the role and responsibilities of a board member. Have the board discuss these and by consensus approve their implementation. Begin to chair meetings based on those principles.These might include principles of respectful listening, responsibility to read reports prior to the meeting, disciplined circulation of minutes and agendas, and ensuring that board committees are functioning properly. Once you have helped the board to operate more effectively and board members are open to innovation, then begin to suggest and discuss more substantive change, as that may be helpful.
You might be thinking that the chairperson can only do so much. After all the board collectively is responsible for its practices and they have asked you to facilitate their operations. So if the board is complacent, or ignorant, or disdainful of good practices, what can you do as the chairperson to change attitudes and instil a heart for change?
I think part of the answer is your own example. Do you demonstrate excellence in your work as chairperson and a desire to bring glory to God through your work? Leading by example can be very effective. You will have opportunity from time to time to lead the board’s worship time. Be intentional and share your perspective from Scripture that the health of the congregation is directly related to wise, effective leadership. If the board does not exemplify such leadership, how can it expect the congregation to be healthy? Be in prayer about this, asking God to change attitudes and give you the wisdom you need to encourage and facilitate beneficial change.
I think the most important element in this, however, is gaining the support of the lead pastor for such change. If the lead pastor is not supportive, then your ability to motivate change within the board will be very limited. This may be one of the factors that causes you to finish your term and not continue. The conversation can be challenging because often the changes required to improve board effectiveness will also require him to change the way he relates to the board. For example, the kind of reports he provides will probably need to alter and the amount of time he has to share at the board meeting will diminish. When he desires the board to consider a proposal, this will have to come in written form and not just dropped on the board as a verbal suggestion. Greater accountability will probably be required. Conversely, you can promise that the proposed innovations will shorten board meetings and improve decision-making — something with which he probably would be delighted.
After you have prompted, pushed, cajoled, and promoted change, take a breather. Let things settle a bit. Allow the board to live for a while at that plateau. Do some internal board evaluation and seek to discern whether they are pleased with the changes and whether they are perceiving other areas in which innovation would be beneficial. If the signs are positive, then you might propose that the board appoint an adhoc committee, of which you should be a part, to consider improving board effectiveness. This would allow a new conversation to begin.
It is true that sometimes a few board members will need to move off the board for true change to take hold. Some people are just too wedded to old, unproductive ways because they are familiar or perhaps because it gives them some control and power. So part of your strategy for change as chairperson will be to discern in the congregation who might be potential board members and begin to talk with them about that possibility. Insist that a new board orientation process be developed and implemented so that you as chair have an opportunity to communicate the new standards the board has adopted.
Finally, if the annual budget has no account for board education, then seek to have the congregation approve at least $500 to $1,000 annually to equip the board to be effective ministry leaders. You can then work with the board to use those funds strategically to enable the board to consider innovative changes and different models of church governance.
Remember that the church is in a struggle with evil and Satan does not want the church to succeed. At times he roams the board room too, sowing seeds of malice, anger, complacence, and confusion. Church board work is spiritual work and we should not be surprised to experience resistance.