One of the criticisms I hear about Carver’s model of board governance is that it may, if applied inappropriately, distance the board from the operations of the agency and lead some board members to neglect their duty of care and oversight. It may seem to restrict a board’s ability to add value to an institution, because of perceived focus on policy development as the board’s primary role. Carver’s approach may give some board members the idea that once the board members define appropriate policies, their work generally is done. Affirming compliance becomes the board’s primary work.
Conversely, some think the governance approach gives too much power to CEO’s, enabling them to insulate themselves from rightful probing by the board into internal affairs. The CEO controls what happens within the agency, setting vision, developing strategy, overseeing resources, and implementing plans. As long as the CEO does this within the policies of executive limitation devised, the board members keep their nose out.
Based upon my reading regarding his approach to board governance, both of these perspectives are caricatures of Carver’s model. And yet just this past week I read Carver’s approach being criticized for allowing both of these governance distortions to occur.
Many church boards have adopted Carver’s model of board governance or seriously are considering it. Without doubt Carver emphasizes the need for great clarity in defining the role of the board and the role of the CEO, so that the board can focus on the work of governance. As well, Carver considers that his model gives great freedom to the CEO within specific bounds. In most cases church boards find this distinction in roles helpful.
The role of the chairperson in Carver’s model gets adjusted, particularly with respect to helping the board discipline itself. As well the relationship between the board chair and CEO receives significant clarification. However, in terms of the perspective that Carver’s model results in a loss of control for the board, Carver himself argues that “we present a governance system that allows boards to be more in control of the right things” (Reinventing Your Board, 44). The board’s “never-ending task” is to determine “not what the organization does but what it is for” (151). In his earlier publication Carver urges that “just as the board’s work on Ends policies is a perpetual task, so is its pursuit of excellence in the governing process itself” (Boards That Make a Difference, 1997, 210).
Without doubt any model of governance embraced by a church board can go awry, unless the board leadership gives care and attention to ongoing implementation as a standard part of board operations. As well, when board leadership changes, often the ball gets dropped and the good progress made by the board evaporates as old habits resurface and generate dysfunction. This is why careful attention given to board leadership succession is well placed. It is possible for church boards that have adopted Carver’s model to think that once Ends policies are written, their work is done. The idea that these have to be refreshed, refocused, and updated regularly gets lost. Further, board members can define executive limitation policies in ways that require the CEO or lead pastor to involve the board in vision development and strategic planning. And then there is the critical work of assessing whether or not the Ends are being achieved — with excellence. Engaging the board members in this work becomes the significant responsibility of the board chair.
I realize that some boards have had bad experiences with pastoral leaders who have not used their authority responsibly and so those boards determine to take back that authority, becoming more intrusive and less trusting. And such action may be justified for a time, until the board discerns that the church leadership has the capacity to steward greater authority. It is also the case that some church leaders have felt abandoned by their boards once the policy framework is in place. All the board members seem to want is to receive reports by which they can check compliance, but show little or no interest in the hard work of visioning, strategic planning and resource-building. However, neither of these scenarios fits the intent of Carver’s governance model.
Church boards who adopt Carver’s model cannot delegate responsibility for achieving the Ends once defined. Nor can they avoid the responsibility for assessing their accomplishment and taking appropriate action when that fails to occur. Church board chairs, in collaboration with lead pastors, must develop agendas that keep board members engaged in working rigorously on the right things so that the mission of the congregation is advanced.
Similarly lead pastors whose church boards have embraced Carver’s model need to understand and respect the board’s role in establishing the Ends and assessing progress towards their achievement.