Thousands of church boards meet monthly across North America and thousands of church board chairs work valiantly to help these boards provide good governance within their congregations. Yet we all realize the distance between an ideal church board and our current realities. Sometimes the difference seems so great that the prospect of change paralyzes us. At other times chairpersons scarcely recognize the possibilities and quite happily keep the machinery going. Most, I suspect, find themselves wanting to implement changes but not quite knowing how or when to start the process of exploration, assessment and development.
I would suggest the first place to start is discerning whether or not you have a mandate as the board chair to guide the board’s development. The chairperson serves the board and it is the board that determines the parameters of this role. You might review your position description, if you have one, and see whether leading the internal development of the board is one of your delegated responsibilities. If you do not have a position description or such a mandate is not included in yours, then propose a position description that includes this. Another option is to recommend to the board that they appoint an adhoc governance committee, with you as the chair, to review current board operations and bring forward recommendations that will enhance the board’s ability to serve well. One of the arguments that you can use in making such proposals is that no one in the board context is tasked with the responsibility to help the board develop its ability to exercise good governance. When no one is responsible, usually nothing happens because no one is accountable.
Once you have this sorted, then some assessment of the current state of the board is helpful. As the chair you probably have a pretty good idea of some of the chronic issues hindering or challenging your board’s ability to provide strategic leadership for the congregation. However, not all board members may be equally discerning. You can develop a simple survey form that asks, for example, what the board members like about the current meetings and process and things that frustrate them or suggestions for improvement. You will receive some good feedback and as you report the results to the board, you can use their perceptions as evidence that changes in some areas will be helpful. It would also be wise in your monthly meeting with the lead pastor to share your desire to improve the board’s operations and seek his input.
With a fuller sense of the needs in view, you now are in a position to consider priorities. With the feedback from board members, your own perceptions and perhaps the input from your lead pastor, you will amass several suggestions. Now you need to prioritize them according to urgency, importance, difficulty, etc. Here again you might report back to the board the results of the survey and seek their guidance as to what they would regard as the priorities. The more the board members get involved in the process, the greater their ownership. I would advise you at this initial stage not to tackle the most difficult ones, but select two or three simple ideas that the board can work on and whose implementation will be fairly straightforward, but yield immediate, positive results. You need to develop within the board an appetite for change and improvement.
The next step is to develop a plan. Over the next twelve months how will you lead the board in addressing these three issues of board operations? What will it take to achieve these outcomes? Begin in a small, less threatening way and get the board members thinking about their competency and capacity for governance. Once these things are in place, then bring forward the next set of suggestions. Probably you as chair will be able to develop the recommended actions/policies/processes for this first set of issues.
Once you sense some progress, then you might recommend that the board engage an external consultant who can evaluate the board’s current operations, help the board discern its current model of governance, and lead the board to consider more significant changes that will enable them to advance the congregation’s mission with excellence.