Recently I offered a workshop at the Canadian Council of Christian Charities Conference (September 2012, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada). The title of the workshop was “Chairing the Faith-based Nonprofit Board — Cultivating the Art.” In preparing for this workshop I reviewed various reports about governance (corporate, public, and nonprofit) which touched on the role of chairperson. Without exception they all emphasized the critical role that good chairmanship plays in good governance.
For example, the “Financial Reporting Council” in the UK prepared a document entitled “Guidance on Board Effectiveness.” They speak to corporate boards. On page 2 they say without qualification “good boards are created by good chairmen.” The Lodestar Center (Arizona State University) in its publication “The Chair of the Nonprofit Board” begins with this statement: “The Chair of the board of a nonprofit is arguably one of the two most important positions in the organization. That person is the chief volunteer and as such has many roles and responsibilities.” Mindy Wertheimer, The Board Chair Handbook (Second ed., Boardsource, 2008) says in her introduction, “as the chair of a nonprofit board of directors, you play a significant role in ensuring the organization’s health and well-being” (p. vii). Heidrick and Struggles, an international executive and director search firm, in their report entitled European Corporate Governance Report 2011: Challenging Board Performance, has a section on “Rethinking the Role of the Chairman” (section 12, pages 51-52). They claim “chairmanship is a distinctly different ‘brand’ of leadership….tomorrow’s chairmen will need to be exceptional facilitators and communicators in and outside the boardroom…chairmen of the future will need outstanding interpersonal skills to build inclusive, effective boards that both challenge and support their executive teams.”
Unfortunately I do not hear many voices from within the church discerning and advocating a similar perspective. Recognition of the importance of the role of the church board chair continues to be in short supply. And yet when good chairmanship is lacking in church boards, good governance similarly in most cases is also absent. The implications for the health of a congregation are diverse, but significant usually leading to unnecessary and debilitating conflict, waste of resources, lack of accountability, and little mission advancement. Volunteers become frustrated and disenchanted because good people who are asked to oversee ministries fail to be supported by good governance within the congregation.
Let me give a few examples.
1. Eight years ago a congregation received a generous gift from the estate of a deceased member. The will gave no specific direction to the use of the funds. The church board did not bring forward any recommendation to the congregation about the use of these funds so that the congregation might make an informed decision. As a result whenever a new ministry initiative comes forward or a new position needs to be established among the staff, inevitably someone will stand up in the congregational meeting and propose that this new initiative or position be funded in part or in whole from this estate gift. The ensuing discussion gets quite rancorous, extending the congregational meeting substantially, creating ill-feelings, and eroding congregational unity. Good chairmanship would understand the important role the church board has in stewarding such resources. The chair would lead the board to develop a policy regarding the use of these funds and recommended the policy to the church. Once approved everyone would know the ground rules and if questions emerged in subsequent congregational meetings the moderator could refer to the policy for guidance, removing this issue from being a constant irritant within congregational life. Good chairmanship promotes good governance, which results in healthy congregational life.
2. Employee relations often come to a church board’s table for discussion. Sometimes the issue revolves around an employees perceived inability to provide the leadership necessary to enable a ministry program to flourish. Volunteers are frustrated because communication is poor, team leadership does not exist, and the ministry seems to lack direction. These concerns get voiced at the grass-roots level and eventually filter through to the board members. They get voiced rather strongly in a board meeting. However, the board has never established any policy regarding employee performance evaluations. The board possesses anecdotal evidence, but no hard data to use in deciding how to proceed. Lacking effective policy the church board does not have any mechanisms to deal with this situation and so it festers. The lead pastor knows there is mounting pressure to resolve this situation, but feels vulnerable in attempting to tackle it without board backing. Good chairing leads a church board to develop policies related to employee evaluation that reflect good governance. Congregational health flourishes when wise, workable policies are in place.
3. One more example might be helpful in demonstrating the connection between good chairmanship, good governance and congregational health. One of the most common and quite difficult issues that church boards engage relates to congregational member discipline and restoration. The time and energy consumed by church boards in seeking to resolve such matters biblically, ethically, and fairly can be immense. However, I suspect that most board chairs and church boards give little attention to being proactive and developing effective policy that guides the board in dealing with such matters. The result is that the board engages each new situation from a zero-base. They struggle to figure out appropriate protocol in the midst of seeking to provide ministry leadership and care. This is a mixture that is ripe for disaster. Good chairmanship and governance would direct a board to develop policy that the congregation can support and approve. It would require the pastoral leaders to share this policy with new members so that all understand in advance how the church board and pastoral staff will respond when things go wrong. The chair would guide the board in reviewing the policy after each episode to update the policy based upon wisdom gained.
In my opinion good chairmanship and good governance reflect primarily the application of the “fruit of the Spirit” within the collective actions and decisions of the board. Good chairmanship and good governance are not contrary to or inimical to spiritual health, but contribute to it and support it, just as Jethro advised Moses in Exodus 18.