In “Serving as a Board Member” John Pellowe, executive director of the Canadian Council of Christian Charities offers “practical guidance for directors of Christian ministries” with a particular concern for the Canadian reality. His presentation is divided into three segments: Board Candidates (3 chapters); Board Members (4 chapters); and Leaving the Board (1 chapter). This material had its birth in a seminar he developed (“Serving as a Board Member”) “designed to help current and prospective directors of Christian ministries understand their responsibilities and improve their governance skills” (Preface). He assists directors of faith-based non-profit charities to evaluate their “calling” to serve in such a capacity, understand the personal commitment it requires, and discern the nature of the responsibilities entailed. He turns his attention to issues of “charity leadership,” board meetings, governance and board deliberations. He concludes with reflections on “coming off the board.” A final section suggests resources that propose and evaluate governance models and provide general education regarding governance.
In this introductory handbook for individuals considering or beginning their work as directors of non-profit charities within a Canadian setting Dr. Pellowe provides a balanced overview of this role and how a person should engage it. Some of the interesting insights he offers concern the differences between boards of charities in general and church boards in particular. As well, the excerpts included from other thinkers and consultants regarding non-profit board governance provide interesting windows into different perspectives.
In this review I am going to evaluate this publication through the eyes of a church board director, and particularly from the standpoint of a church board chair. Overall, Pellowe covers the essential information that any non-profit board member needs to understand in order to contribute effectively in that role. However, I missed any significant emphasis on the primary responsibility of the board collectively and directors in particular to advance the mission of the agency or congregation. In the first chapter he does advise prospective directors to consider their “call to this ministry’s mission,” but he does not follow through in defining the advancement of that mission as the board’s priority in all of its work. In the section on “Good Governance” Pellowe does say that the board “should be talking about vision, mission and strategic issues,…” (128), but he never comes out and says, so far as I can tell, that mission advancement is job one for the board. The excerpt from Max De Pree (71-76) touches on this, as does the material quoted from Hester (98), but Pellowe does not seem to develop this idea.
In many contexts Pellowe addresses the reader, i.e. prospective or current director, and urges certain actions to be taken to improve the work of their board. I commend this proactive stance. However, in my experience with boards (limited as it has been), an individual board member is limited in his or her ability to lift a board’s operational competence and governance understanding. Rather, it is usually the visionary leadership of the chairperson, often supported by the CEO, which is required to advance a non-profit board’s governance capacity. Yet, the stance of the book suggests that the board in some collective sense will have the sense, ability, and motivation to accomplish this.
For example, Pellowe assumes that a non-profit board will have a “board policy manual” (77) which a new director can access. I would suspect that while such a resource is the norm for many faith-based non-profit boards, in the case of church boards it probably does not exist in a coherent form. So if it does not exist, what is a director to do? How does an individual, novice director motivate or ‘lead’ a board to develop such a document?
In another section of his book Pellowe observes that sometimes “a vacuum in organizational leadership” (61) exists in churches. However, no advice is given as what might be done by a church board director to identify this issue and find appropriate solutions. The second person pronoun “you” is used (e.g. “you can spend extra time and effort on board orientation in your local church to make sure that board members are educated about governance and their responsibilities while serving on the board”), but no clarity about who is being addressed — the average board member, the board collectively, the pastor, or the board chair? Legimitate issues are identified by Pellowe but he does not identify who needs to step up in order to address them. In my opinion, again this would be the responsibility of good chairmanship.
I appreciated the section on church boards (56-63, cf. 87) and Pellowe is right to draw attention to the unique dynamics of church boards as a subset of non-profit charity boards in Canada. In particular the identification of the various roles that a church board director fills concurrently (director, donor, volunteer, beneficiary) helps individuals understand some of the role confusion that they may experience. It takes time and careful training to help church board members discern the differences and know what “hat” they should be wearing. As well, careful delineation prevents implicit or explicit conflicts of interest from occurring. I am not sure how quickly people can be trained in these matters — perhaps Pellowe is a little optimistic in this regard. Again, Pellowe does not address who does this training or who is responsible to see that it occurs.
Although some would argue whether it is wise or necessary for congregations to define themselves as non-profit charities, the fact is that many Evangelical congregations in Canada are so constituted. This often is not discerned or respected in the pragmatics of congregational life. As well his comments on conflict of interest, the “dark side of collegiality,” and the relationship between the lead pastor and individual directors deserve careful reflection – both by lead pastors and church board members. I would add into this mix the reality of a high rate of turnover in pastoral and board roles as a significant dynamic. In addition, there is considerable diversity in the minds of pastors as to what their role is, particularly when it comes to matters of governance. Finally, few congregational leaders seem to consider a church board to be one of, if not the most significant ministry leadership team within a congregation. I appreciated his affirmation that the church board, inclusive of the lead pastor, forms the congregation’s leadership team (62). Yet our terminology continues to refer to the staff as the “ministry team,” relegating a church board to the status of some kind of council or committee which is tolerated, but not considered vital to the ministry of the congregation. How we speak of church boards tends to define what we think about them and their place in congregational health.
In the body of his book Pellowe first mentions the board chair on page 107 (as best I can determine). On page 62 he mentions anecdotally how one non-profit board chair sought to stimulate board development, but there is nothing said about whether this is a normal responsibility for a board chair. He provides a succinct description of a board chair’s role on pages 115-16. Essentially the chair “provides leadership to the board and facilitates the board’s work.” The chair “assembles the agenda, ensures that the meetings follow the agenda, and intervenes if a discussion gets out of hand.” At various points in the book some additional explanation is provided. The chair ensures “that everybody has a chance to speak”(107), sets the agenda (111), “must be a board member” (117), ensures “that there is proper decorum in the boardroom” (154), and is “responsible for maintaining board discipline and ensuring that the board gets its work done (167-68, 171). Based on these comments the role of board chair primarily is facilitator and referee. And yet Pellowe insists that the chair “provides leadership to the board” and that the board together with the lead pastor forms the primary leadership team within a congregation. Who then leads this team? Is it the lead pastor, the board chair, or both together? What does team leadership constitute in the context of a church board?
Without further definition of a board chair’s role in working with the CEO or lead pastor, developing board member relationships, encouraging the spiritual ethos and perspective of the board, stimulating the education and governance capacity of the board, ensuring that board operational principles are developed and followed, and being a catalyst for board assessment, large elements of necessary board work seem to lie in a leadership vacuum. In the case of church boards there are hints that the lead pastor has some responsibility for these matters (61), but I would suggest that this is not a satisfactory or complete solution. Church board chairs could use Pellowe’s book beneficially to orient new board members to the roles and responsibilities of a director and fill out their understanding of board work and operations. However, little help is given in this publication to assist church board chairs understand and fulfill their roles.
I would suggest this is a significant omission because the relationships between the CEO and board chair, and the board chair and board members, form very critical elements in the success of any non-profit agency. The chair, in my view, is the most important volunteer that charities have – and this includes congregations. By important I do not mean status, but the functional significance of the role in the advancement of the congregation’s mission. When boards become dysfunctional, usually a root cause will be dysfunctional chairing. Careful recruiting, intentional training, and periodic evaluation of board chairs are oft-neglected functions within non-profit boards – to their detriment. Board chairs serve to build the capacity of boards to govern with a view to the future, provide strategic leadership, advance the mission, and manage risk. If board chairs do not take responsibility for this with the authority of the board, then chances are that these boards will not improve their governance capacity.
One other general observation might be pertinent. I appreciated the encouraging tone that Pellowe takes when discussing how a person might discern their ability to serve as a director. We need more, committed, willing individuals with serving hearts in these roles without doubt. The turnover of directors in non-profit charity boards requires constant recruiting. However, I think he understates the issue when he suggests that ignorance about governance “can be easily overcome with some training” (3) and that the responsibilities of a director “are not actually all that onerous” (35). The fact that he writes 182 pages about “serving as a board member” indicates that training is required and continuous and that the responsibilities, while manageable, are significant. Further I noted De Pree’s encouragement to board members to be “frantic learners” (75), which suggests that director education requires significant and constant attention.
Pellowe is right to draw attention to the unique dynamics of church boards as a subset of non-profit charity boards in Canada (56-63). While some might argue whether it is wise or necessary for congregations to define themselves this way, the fact is that many Evangelical congregations in Canada are so constituted. This often is not discerned or respected in the pragmatics of congregational life. As well his comments on conflict of interest, the “dark side of collegiality,” and the relationship between the lead pastor and individual directors deserve careful reflection – both by lead pastors and church board members. I would add into this mix the reality of a high rate of turnover in pastoral and board roles as a significant dynamic. As well, there is considerable variation in the minds of pastors as to what their role is, particularly when it comes to matters of governance. Finally, few congregational leaders seem to consider a church board to be one of, if not the most significant ministry leadership team within a congregation. I appreciated his affirmation that the church board, inclusive of the lead pastor, forms the congregation’s leadership team (62). Yet our terminology continues to refer to the staff as the “ministry team,” relegating a church board to the status of some kind of council or committee which is tolerated, but not considered vital to the ministry of the congregation. How we speak of church boards tends to define what we think about them and their place in congregational health.
Finally, I would suggest that an index would be a useful addition if a second edition is produced. This would help board members find those sections that address issues with which they may be struggling.
All in all Pellowe provides a good resource to those considering or beginning the role as a director in a faith-based non-profit charity.