The Group of 30 recently published a major report entitled “Toward Effective Governance of Financial Institutions.” The Group of 30 is “a private, nonprofit, international body composed of very senior representatives of the private and public sectors and academia.” Their report explores why major financial institutions failed in 2008 and what role governance played in this disaster. One of their major findings is the fundamental linkage between board values and behaviour and how these elements influence the way boards understand and fulfill their responsibilities. Effective change in corporate governance will only occur when values and consequent behaviours change, i.e. changing the way board members “think about their responsibilities.”
I recognize that church boards are rather different than corporate boards. However, I would suggest that the findings of the Group of 30 with respect to the relationship between board culture and effective governance applies to the world of church boards. A board’s culture is the sum total of “the way it does things.” Such patterns arise from stories retold, formal rules and policies, oral traditions, unspoken expectations, and the way certain behaviours may be praised or punished. Some board cultures are compliant and some assertive, some accept excuses and others demand results, some accept the status quo and others challenge leadership, some trust and never ask the hard questions while others never trust and operate with constant suspicion, some treasure collegiality to such an extent that confrontation becomes a dirty word. The chairperson needs to understand board culture and discern ways to shape it so that the board functions well. Changing a church board culture requires that board members change the way they think about their roles and responsibilities individually and collectively.
Barry Bader in an article entitled “Enron’s Real Lesson: Strengthen Board Culture” (http,//www.GreatBoards. org) claims that “what Enron lacked was not structure, process or talent, but a culture of accountability, independence, diligence and candor in which directors raised hard questions and didn’t rest until they got good answers.”
So what is the culture of the church board which you chair? Is it one of compliance and acquiescence? Is it characterized by timidity or courage? Is it so averse to risk that it never ventures to support new directions? Is it so absorbed with dotting the spiritual ‘i’s’ and crossing the theological ‘t’s’ that its decision-making makes snails look like speed demons? Are the board members present in the meetings, but not really committed to the mission? Is the board so dependent upon the lead pastor as its primary educator that it fails to consider other independent sources of good information? Does it ignore blatant conflicts of interest? Board culture affects the ability of the board to govern effectively.
What strategy can a chairperson pursue in order to change the way board members think about their work and nurture and develop the church board culture towards healthy governance patterns and contribute to better governance within the congregation?
1. The board appoints the chair to help it govern well and facilitate its effectiveness. If as chair you observe board behaviour that prevents or hinders good operations, then take some time in that board meeting or the next to name it, indicate its harmfulness, and suggest alternatives that are conducive to good governance. This is one of the reasons they have appointed you to be chair. Seizing the teachable moment can influence change within a church board’s culture. As well you begin to introduce into your board’s culture the value and benefit of continual improvement through constant learning, a commitment to board excellence, and attention to detail.
2. Take a few minutes and review the minutes from the last four board meetings. Review in your mind the kinds of discussions that the board members engaged as they considered various kinds of decisions. Was the annual budget recommendation passed without serious discussion? When the lead pastor asked to take two days to attend a significant ministry seminar, did the discussion take up an hour of board time? If a new ministry proposal was part of the decision-making, did the board ask the right questions about its relationship to mission and vision? Was there a financial plan provided in support of the proposal? Did the proposal indicate what success would look like? How rigorous was the board’s evaluation of the idea? As you reflect on these discussions, you will begin to discern the shape of your board’s culture and see where it may need to be challenged and refurbished.
3. In the case of Enron its board culture was not practicing and demonstrating appropriate “accountability, independence, diligence and candor.” Does the spiritual maturity and commitment to the mission of Jesus encourage church board members to speak the truth to one another in love? Or does the pursuit of spirituality become an excuse to “trust” but not ask the hard questions? If these four values are important to the effective operation of a church board, then as chairperson you might encourage the board to exercise accountability by means of an annual evaluation by the board of its collective work. If there is no “tradition” of such evaluation, then perhaps this is another culture change that will make the board more aware and self-conscious of developing its capacity for good governance.
4. As chairperson take a few minutes and define for yourself what you discern your current board culture might be. What do you appreciate about it and where is it less then stellar? Consider some of the primary duties that a church board should be expressing (e.g. prudence, honesty, loyalty, risk management, etc.) and seek to rate your own board’s effectiveness in these key ares of board operation. Share the results of your review with the board and ask them whether or not they would agree. If there are differing perceptions, seek to understand carefully what these might be. This is one way to encourage the board members to be reflective about the board’s culture and their need to be passionate about their own excellence.
5. Probably the primary responsibility of church board members is to ensure the advancement of the congregation’s mission and vision. Sometimes it is tough to help the board members keep this goal in focus because of the many diverse issues and problems that come to them. Helping the board to be disciplined in this regard again concerns board culture.