People who serve on church boards normally do not consider their work as an “aspect of public life.” However, congregations form significant communities of people who influence public life in many diverse ways, particularly at the local level. Church board members oversee these agencies and shape the way their collective activities affect the congregation’s societal context — hopefully for good!
From the Canadian government’s perspective churches are non-profit charities whose operations are open to public scrutiny and need to conform to specific public standards. Board members need to realize this public dimension to their work. While they meet usually behind closed doors, their decisions will have public visibility and must be taken with a view to this larger sphere of accountability. If a serious moral failure occurs within a congregation, be it fraud or sexual exploitation, it does not take the media very long to get wind of it and publicize it.
Both Paul and Peter urged Christians to focus on “doing good” no matter how people treated them. The reputation of the church in the larger community was a concern to them. The behaviour of local churches brought God’s reputation to the bar of human judgment every day. It was important that non-Christians not be able to find fault.
Lord Nolan was the first chair of British Parliament’s Committee on Standards in Public Life. In 1995 they published a report in which they defined “the seven principles of public life.” These principles included selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. From the Committee’s perspective these principles “apply to all aspects of public life.” The “Nolan Principles” although created in a British context provide a recognized matrix of standards and values that people serving in community-based organizations, such as churches should embrace. These principles fit well within recognized definitions of Christian behaviour and ethics.
If your church board or ministry staff have a code of conduct, it probably already incorporates these seven principles. And if the board you chair does not have a code of conduct, make its development one of the board’s priorities in this year. Once these documents are developed, however, you need to keep them fresh in the minds of the board members. Do board members have to affirm their adherence by signing such a code of conduct annually? You might think this heavy-handed, but it does serve to remind board members of the high standards that should characterize their work.
I would like to comment briefly on two of these principles because I think they tend to be over-looked in church board work. The first is “selflessness.” Sometimes this principle of board work is also described by the term “disinterested.” Board members serve to advance the mission of the congregation in its entirety — not one particular piece of that mission or one particular group in the congregation or community who may benefit. Naturally church board members will have personal interest in particular aspects of the congregation’s activities, but they have to make decisions in the best interests of the mission. If they conclude they cannot do that in regards to a certain issue, then they should declare a conflict of interest and recuse themselves from the discussion and decision.
The other is the principle of “objectivity,” which includes the willingness to ask tough, but necessary questions. Friendships form a significant part of church board experience. In addition the role of the lead pastor as spiritual guide brings in another “power” dynamic that is difficult to manage. How can you speak against a proposal from your lead pastor who has just helped you work through the death of your father? What permissions need to be given and grasped to enable board members to trust, but probe when the lead pastor is presenting ideas or speaking to issues of his leadership? But this is part of a church board member’s responsibility — helping the congregation to sustain an appreciated reputation in the community.
One of the exercises as chair that you can employ for your own discernment is to form these principles into a checklist that you use to evaluate your response to particular decisions. For example, one question might be “Am I selfless in coming to this position?” Other questions might be “Am I acting with integrity in this decision?”, “Am I being objective, asking the right questions?”, “Is there an appropriate level of accountability in this issue?”, “Is this decision being made in an open and transparent manner or has it been ‘politicized’?” and “In taking this position on this matter am I demonstrating leadership?” You could also share these with board members to help them develop their personal capacity to govern well.