My pastor has used Isaiah 9:6-7, the prophesy about the “Wonderful Counselor,” as the basis for his advent preaching this year. I had not connected this passage previously with governance matters, but as I was reading the text the phrases “the government will be on his shoulders” and “of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6,7) made me pause and think. One of the blessings that the promised Messiah will bring is good governance that generates peace. He carries that responsibility “on his shoulders.” Isaiah uses a word for “dominion, rule, governance” twice in these two verses and this is the only context in the Old Testament where it occurs. It is linked etymologically with the word meaning “prince.”
My thoughts then went to 1 Peter 5:4 where the apostle describes Jesus as the “chief shepherd” and the leaders in his churches as “shepherds.” Jesus delegates to church leaders responsibility for ensuring that “good government that generates peace (shalom)” occurs within their local assemblies. This is one of the significant ways in which church boards “exercise oversight.” As a board chair I have responsibility to help my church board understand what this kind of “shalom-creating” governance looks like and then guide them in its implementation. I think this is my primary responsibility as board chair in 2014.
As the year ends I try to reflect upon progress made in our church board work. Are we providing wiser, more mission-focused and effective governance for the congregation than we did the previous year? Where are points of progress? Have we regressed in some areas that need to be brought up to par? As chair I should be able to measure this progress as I seek to serve the board in this leadership role. For example, this year we spent considerable time discerning how to structure our management team so that we continue to grow and achieve our vision. As we reached some conclusions about this and implemented them, it revealed that the board itself needs to evaluate the way it works. And so we implemented a small taskforce within the board to lead the board in defining our “ends” more clearly and on that basis working more intentionally to the achievement of our key goals. This will be our primary work for 2014. Church boards can always improve — their agencies need them to improve.
So in your capacity as church board chair where and in what ways does your church board need to improve in 2014? What will be your focus for board development over these next twelve months? If you have no sense of this, then probably little will happen to enhance the capacity of your board to govern effectively. Let me offer a few suggestions.
1. Integrating the board’s responsibility for spiritual oversight with the means it uses to exercise this leadership. Church boards always struggle to keep their responsibility for spiritual leadership in focus. It is hard when dealing with finances, performance evaluation or facility issues to link these important issues properly and essentially with the board’s mandate for spiritual oversight. As chair you can help your board members to keep their focus by structuring agendas that include significant times for worship and prayer, by articulating how you see these matters advancing the spiritual life of the congregation, and by asking at the end of your meetings how the board’s work has advanced the mission. This work of integration is continual and requires persistent intentionality from the board’s leadership.
2. Improving the board’s operating systems. It probably goes without saying, but I will repeat it again. A dysfunctional board cannot effectively steward the trust given to it by the congregation. Paying attention to operational matters pays huge dividends in developing the board’s capacity to be the strategic ministry leadership team. Simple things such as circulating agendas a week in advance of meetings, ensuring good minutes are produced and made available within a week of board meetings, and requiring reports to be in the hands of board members at least week before significant decisions are to be made — these can make an enormous difference in how your board works. By managing these elements well, you communicate certain expectations to the board members. As chair you expect them to come prepared to discuss the decisions fully informed and engaged. You indicate that accountability is important because the minutes will indicate who is responsible to implement decisions taken by the board and you expect those individuals to report back to the board at the appropriate time. In a certain sense this is about developing board culture and board discipline.
3. Improving relations between the board and lead pastor. I find as a church board chair that the dynamics of this relationship require consistent attention if it is to flourish. It is so easy to let it drift or to satisfied with the status quo. Yet, I know that unless I nurture it, I will not be able to serve the board effectively as chair. So one of the key areas for board development that lies in my hands as board chair in 2014 is the enhancement of this relationship. I cannot be passive, but must ensure that I am meeting at least monthly with the lead pastor and ensuring that the board is not going to get surprises. So I need to get this meeting on the lead pastor’s calendar.
4. Discerning and recruiting new board members. In most congregations there are appointments of some new board members every year. So in 2014 there inevitably will be an opportunity to change the board membership. The challenge is to be thinking far enough ahead so that when the time comes to select appropriate candidates the board is ready to make its suggestions through the appropriate channels. Early in 2014 the board members should determine whose terms are completing and whether those members desire to serve for another term. The board should also discuss whether any other individuals in the congregation are emerging as potential board members and what it might do to prepare such people for this kind of ministry service.
5. Enhancing your risk management. Every year non-profit agencies face risks. They are unavoidable.The question is whether the board is prepared to manage the risks as they occur. Perhaps it would be wise early in 2014 to have the board review its risk management processes and policies. For example, what happens if the lead pastor suddenly is incapacitated? What plan does the board have for short-term emergency leadership? Or what is the scenario if the congregational budget is not being met and indebtedness is accruing? Or, if there is major damage to the facility, what options do you have? Are these special and unexpected costs covered? Do you have access to legal counsel? Is your insurance adequate and paid up? Is the facility safe and appropriately inspected? Are your human resource policies up-to-date?
6. Leadership succession planning. No one wants to contemplate leadership change, but as board chair you know it will come some day — perhaps not on your watch. So perhaps in 2014 it is time for the board to review its policy and process regarding succession planning. If you have not conducted a search for a key pastoral leader recently, then your policy will need updating. As well, you might consider whether the board should be developing other employees with a view to filling such vacancies as they may occur.
7. Stewarding and using technology.
With the incredible changes in technology that continue to occur, 2014 might be the right time to review policies that relate to the use of such technology. This might include employee use policies. For example, how often should you seek to upgrade the computer or phone equipment? Does the congregation supply cellphones for employees? If so, under what terms? What happens to this equipment when an employee resigns? Who is responsible for managing the church website? The security of records continues to be a challenge. With so many church records now digitized, the board has to determine how to keep this information safe and secure. Does your insurance cover the costs of recovery or restoration of lost electronic records? What about the board’s material? Is this the year to convert board operations to digitized processes — agendas, minutes, drop-box for reports, etc.?
2014 brings you as board chair opportunity to enhance the capacity of the board and its members to excel. I trust you will take initiative and serve your board by directing their attention to one or more of these aspects of board development.