BoardSource, an agency that seeks to assist nonprofit governing boards, indicates that according to its research on average nonprofit boards have 19 members and the median is 17. Generally speaking, larger (using financial measurements) nonprofits have larger boards; smaller nonprofits have smaller boards. From what I have read the trend is towards smaller boards, but some resist this direction. Some pundits, for example, argue that smaller boards are more effective at making decisions. Additionally, more attention is being given to placing the right directors or trustees in the boardroom and requiring every director to be contributing energetically to the board’s work. The board room is no place for ‘deadwood.’ Diversity in the boardroom seems to be a growing issue, fed by the belief that this will generate better questions, bring better wisdom, and ultimately then lead to better governance.
For many nonprofits the size of the boardroom is related directly to fund-raising and so the pressure is to add to the board people who can attract financial support for the charity. Fund-raising emphasis tends to increase board size — the more board members, the greater the opportunity, it is assumed, for funding. However, this perspective can result in boards populated with members who are not really interested in governance and whose only contribution is the annual cheque!
Church boards need to give some attention to the question of board diversity and board size — two related issues. There is probably a correlation between church size and board size to some degree. Smaller congregations ( 50 – 150 members) probably can function very well with boards of 5 – 7 people, including the lead pastor. This does not exclude the formation of other types of teams to lead ministries under the general oversight of the church board. The board needs to be large enough to provide good strategic ministry leadership, to prevent board members from feeling overwhelmed with board business, and to exercise appropriate oversight both spiritual (e.g. member restoration) and otherwise (e.g. leading appropriate performance evaluation for a lead pastor).
As a local congregation grows to approximately 300 members, then the board as well might increase in number from 9 to 11 members. Here the issue focuses upon the board’s ability to discern the mind of the congregation, engage its spiritual responsibilities within the congregation effectively, and be able to balance the growing size of the employed staff. What I mean is that the board needs to have sufficient “weight” to command the respect of the staff. Perhaps a general rule of thumb for churches beyond 200 members would be to increase the size of the board by one member for every 50 additional members. However, it is probably not wise to let the board grow much beyond 12 or 13 members. Once the congregation reaches 400 members, it is time to implement a different kind of structure to manage the spiritual side of the church board’s work in the congregation.
It is ultimately a question of board management. The larger the board, the greater the chairperson’s skill has to be to ensure that the board members are engaged, board meetings are effective, good decisions are being made, etc. If the size of the board mitigates against proper and effective board function, then it is probably wise to change the size or else change the board. Or perhaps a different chairperson with a different set of skills might be needed. Remember that the church board needs to act as the strategic ministry leadership team within the congregation. If its size limits its ability to accomplish this fundamental task, then the size needs to be altered.
With respect to board operations it may be possible for some board members to “hide” if the board is too big. In other words the opportunity for board members to contribute to discussions diminishes in relationship to size, some board members may be intimidated in a larger forum, and time required for adequate discussion of each issue increases, tempting the chair to control tightly the discussion time, resulting in some members remaining silent.
As well larger boards may tend to become more passive in their work, hearing and responding to reports, rather than being generative in their own leadership of the agency. Larger boards may find it more awkward and challenging to manage reviews of organizational and personnel performance.
If there is a tradition of a larger board in your congregational context, it might be easier to devise better ways to engage the whole board, rather then working through bylaw changes to form a more nimble structure. This particularly will be the case if you are starting your role as chairperson. Reducing the size of a church board requires some board members to retire and this may generate some strong push back.
Some strategies you might consider for working with a larger board would include using more adhoc board committees to process information about key issues. However, the work of such committees must result in better information to all the board members so that they can discern the salient issues and make informed decisions. The committees can not and should not replace the decision-making work of the board, but enhance its ability to process information. Spreading such adhoc committee work among all the board members serves to keep them engaged. Also, when the board does engage critical decisions, dividing the board into smaller groups for discussion purposes encourages all to participate and prevents some board members from “hiding.”
Church board size may also be a function of the governance model that is chosen. In the case of the small church the board probably is a working board, doing both governance work and management work. More board members can spread the workload more manageably. Conversely, the Carver model which promotes governance by policy works well with smaller boards.
Within the context of the church factors other than efficiency affect decisions about the size of the board. As mentioned earlier the specifically spiritual aspects of church board work may require a larger board. For example, if board members as elders are expected to exercise pastoral care within the congregation, then the size of the congregation will influence the size of the board, particularly if all elders are board members.