Skeptics abound as to the value of good governance within congregational life. People would rather muddle on, retain dysfunctional process, protect treasured opinions, hide from evaluation, and struggle to sustain outdated programs. Or, as some would insist, we must not allow culture to influence the life of the church!
Churches must retain their Kingdom nature or lose their communal witness to the Gospel! However, this concern should not prevent church boards, chairs and lead pastors from developing and providing the very best navigational leadership for congregations, even if this means borrowing from the world of general truth and knowledge.
Why is good governance so important in developing healthy, dynamic congregations? Recent studies in the corporate world have shown a correlation between good governance and effective corporate development. Anand (“Firm Value and Corporate Governance,” Canadian Coalition of Good Governance, Feb. 1, 2013)) concludes that “the academic literature demonstrates a statistically significant and positive correlation between corporate governance measures and firm value.”She notes, however, that the literature does not yet demonstrate a causal connection. So there is no doubt about the value of “good governance” in the corporate world.
Within congregational life we observe that dynamic, healthy faith communities normally are a function of quality, spiritual leadership. Conversely, when leadership becomes dysfunctional congregational life suffers.
But how should we define “good” governance within a congregational context?
1. “Good” governance acknowledges the rightful place of God in his Trinitarian nature as the “head of the church” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). This is not just pious language, but reflects a church board’s continuous submission to the plans, values, and authority of God. Because God values rightness and justness, a church board will strive to make decisions that express these values. The presentation of the Good News will also be central to a church board’s vision and goals, because this represents the heart of God. Enhancing the reputation of God will guide board decisions. “Good” governance “discerns the body” of Christ and acts respectfully towards it, recognizing that that board members function as his agents.
2. “Good” governance simply seeks to produce good, i.e. blessing. Church boards should consider how they can shape their work to provide blessing within the congregation and to the external community. Sometimes this will occur by helping the congregation keep on track with their mission of sharing the Good News. In other contexts it might happen by board leadership recommending to the congregation that some its resources be used to assist a church plant. Or it could be as simple as ensuring that employment policies are clear and applied fairly, demonstrating care and concern for each staff member.
3. “Good” governance incorporates practices that respect the giftedness and wisdom of the board members who function as part of the “holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5). I think “good” arises when all board members contribute passionately to board work, from the rich resources of their experience, professional competence and spiritual gifts. When some board members feel shut out or frustrated or unable for external reasons to give their best efforts, the board suffers and “good” governance gets challenged. The chair has to monitor this carefully and find solutions that will incorporate each person’s capacities.
4. “Good” governance will acknowledge that church boards steward the trust of the congregation to advance the mission. When boards get the “bit in their teeth” and operate without consideration of bylaws or congregational authority, “good” governance fails. Such boards do not respect the role of the congregation in the “shared” governance of a congregational system. Abuse will occur and people will get hurt. “Good” governance thrives on collaboration, recognizing that leaders in the church serve to equip the body to do the work of ministry. “Good” governance recognizes that it serves the congregation by serving the mission.
5. “Good” governance recognizes the need for church boards to respect the authority of government and other bodies (1 Peter 2:13; Romans 13). Church boards are not islands to themselves but serve various constituencies, some of which belong to various government bodies. This requires boards to be attentive to taxation regulations, good accounting practice, labour code regulations, building safety standards, and other necessary regulations. These serve to mitigate risk, conserve resources, and protect staff and clients.
6. “Good” governance occurs when church boards pay attention to their own operating processes. Such boards know how to process decisions so that conflicts of interest are managed properly. They realize that competent records help a board to track its decisions and express its voice well. Chairs keep the main issues at the top of the agendas. Board members require pertinent information so that they make the best possible decisions. While they trust, they also question. They evaluate themselves to discern areas for improvement. Board education is a priority. Specific roles are defined and people who fill those roles have access to training.
Church boards will never be perfect instruments of governance, but when they operate with excellence, the good they do is measurable. Perpetuating poor practice represents poor stewardship.