Apart from the Annual General Meeting (AGM) when was the last time your church board had a significant conversation with the congregation about a serious issue that the board was discussing? My suspicion is that most church boards keep discussions under wraps until they have things sorted and can announce their decision to the congregation. And often there are good reasons for this approach. However, this mode of operation frequently means that congregations are the last to hear about a major shift in policy or ministry strategy or financial management. All they can do at that point is react — and they will and they do. Can we find a better way? What can board chairs do to guide boards in discerning when and how to integrate congregational input into the decision-making process?
Let me give you an example. Our church board is working to define more carefully the “ends” it believes the congregation must achieve in order to accomplish its vision and advance the mission. Regardless of what the resulting “ends” will be, one question that is exercising me as the chair is when and in what ways do we enable the congregation to have voice in the development of these “ends”? Or is the resultant “ends policy” something that the board hands to the congregation as fait d’accompli?
From the other side of things perhaps your board has received pressure from within the congregation to adopt a new ministry or to change a certain policy or alter the emphasis in the vision statement. We might compare this to shareholder activism in the corporate world. What should the board do in response to such ground-swells? Frequently the board will become entrenched and refuse to consider such matters until the pressure becomes so intense that they must. At this point the board has lost the opportunity to lead and is itself reacting to the leadership of the congregation — whether good or bad.
And where does the board chair fit into this ebb and flow of board-congregation interplay? I would suggest that the chair’s role is critical in several ways.
1. The board chair is a board member and as such has responsibility to listen to the concerns and visionary ideas expressed by the congregants. The board needs to be “ahead of the curve” in regards to emerging issues. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will use a congregant to communicate a significant idea or perspective. As well, when a board member hears misinformation being spread, he/she needs to step up and correct this before damage can be done.
2. Congregants may view you, the board chair, as having a particularly influential role in board matters and so may single you out for their concerns. This is fine, so far as it goes. You should always communicate carefully that you are only one of the board members and your responsibility is not to direct the board, but to serve the board. These conversations can be educational moments for congregants. However, in addition, you want to assure the congregants either that board already is on this issue or that you will share the concern with the board in some fashion, but as a board member, not as chairperson.
3. Within the board’s operations you will want to ensure that the board fulfills its mandate as defined in the bylaws, but also in terms of the board’s internal governance policies. You are the voice of the board and so you have a responsibility to take opportunity to share board decisions. Sometimes this will be through formal occasions such as the Annual General Meeting where the board reports to the congregants, but also through informal means such as communications on the church website or letters to the members. Good communications will help the board to nurture the confidence and trust of the congregation in its leadership. Attitude of the board is important here.
4. In addition as the board either is in process of making key decisions or actually makes them, part of the board discussion should include the question of appropriate congregational input or communication of such decisions. The board not only has responsibility to make decisions, but to make them in the best way possible. Often a wise board, when the decision concerns key aspects of congregational life and ministry, will seek congregational input prior to making the decision. This can be done, for example, by introducing an issue for discussion at one church business meeting, but delaying the decision until the following church business meeting. This gives the board opportunity to share various options it is considering, gain feedback, and then in the light of this come to decision. Using this process does not diminish the board’s responsibility to make the best decision, but it does enable the congregation to have some voice in the matter.
5. Sharing the governance of the congregation applies also to receiving input from staff. Church employees often have the ear of key congregants. As they have conversations and share their hopes, dreams and concerns with people in the church family, they exercise influence for good or ill. So again it is important the board members have ways and means of listening to the concerns of the staff. Usually these concerns should be shared through the lead pastor in the reports he/she presents to the board at each meeting. However, it might also be wise for the board at least once in the year to host a forum whereby the employees, at least those responsible for key ministries, can share directly with the board members their perspectives on their ministry areas. Again, listening is an important gift that the board can offer. When people are heard, they feel respected and supported.
Communication between the board and the congregation is a board responsibility which it must manage well. A board chair needs to assist the board in doing this well and improving its ability in this critical area of building trust and demonstrating strategic ministry leadership.