Church board chairs normally have motivation to help their boards improve their ability to serve their respective congregations. People generally dislike mediocrity or operational dysfunction — it is discouraging and frustrating. But people will be quite comfortable with the status quo, if they believe it is achieving something, even if such achievements are not central to the agency’s success. And so change is deferred, opposed, or never thought of. This state of affairs often is described as “inertia” — the tendency of objects to keep moving in a straight line at constant speed.
Church boards, as with any human entity, get comfortable with certain patterns or habits. People find ways to work together and then consciously or unconsciously work to maintain that steady state. We call it “tradition” or “culture” or “group-think” or “our way of doing things” or even “the right way.” Minor deviations might be tolerated, but generally the board returns to its default mode of operation. The result is that agendas always have the same look, people always sit in the same seats, the same people engage in discussion, issues come to the board with the same degree of unpreparedness, and ineffective procedures keep repeating. The mantra of inertia is this — we have always done it this way. Why change?
Someone has to have the spiritual discernment, courage and vision to take the initiative if a church board has any hope of overcoming such inertia and moving to a new level of governance effectiveness. I think this responsibility lies squarely with the church board chair. I would suggest one of the goals that church board chairs need to have is quite simple — when your term is done the board should be better at governing than when you began.
Leading change is never easy, especially if you are new to your role as chairperson. So take it slow, pace yourself, but do not lose sight of the goal — building the capacity of the board to govern well. In order to stay the course you personally have to be convinced that changes will improve the ability of the board to advance the congregation’s mission. In other words the fundamental proposition is simple — if we do not change, then we cannot advance our mission effectively. You can keep the machinery going, receive reports, and make decisions, but forward-thinking, critical discussions probably will not occur.
I would offer three key principles that might help you as church board chair to challenge governance inertia:
1. Initially, give attention to enhancing current operational details that define the board’s culture. Make small changes in governance processes that the board already owns and has comfort with. Sometimes the best way to overcome inertia is to make small, incremental changes. As board members discern their value and endorse them, they become more amenable to consider other, more significant changes. When people anticipate that they can increase the impact of their service, often they become more enthusiastic for or at least open to change. Work from within the constraints of your current mandate as board chair so that board members who may be suspicious of change cannot challenge your authority to initiate these small adjustments.
You may, for example, want to reorder the board agendas in order to give more time to focus on key decisions. This may require that the amount of board time given to receiving reports may have to decrease. Some individuals accustomed to giving reports at your board meetings may feel a sense of entitlement to this time. If you suddenly say that you are not going to have reports read in the meetings, you will probably get some push back. However, if you request that the report be made available at least five days before the board meeting, then you can circulate it to the board members, ask them to review it before the meeting, and then request the presenter to prepare a 5 minute summary for presentation to the board. You begin then to control the reporting function, rather than allowing the reporting to dominate the board’s time. You then can give less time to compliance issues, and more time to strategic, future-oriented discussions.
2. Develop a vision of what in your view as chairperson a competent, effective church board in your congregational context might be. Without a clear sense of your goals, it is very difficult consistently to work towards achieving lasting and helpful change. Inertia often continues, I think, because we have no clear sense of what we desire to become. The result is a reluctance to consider change, even though we may be dissatisfied with the current mode of operation. So here is where you as chairperson need to do some homework.
You can make progress in this regard by doing some reading and research yourself. You might, for example, meet with the board chair of a neighbouring congregation whose board seems to be working well and inquire as to what they are doing as a board. Or you might have a conversation with someone in your denominational office who has experience in board leadership. Online webinars also can be helpful in defining a provisional future.
I think it is important to try and discern what are the key things inhibiting your current board operations. Perhaps there is lack of clarity about board authority, or maybe it is uncertainty with respect to the board’s relationship to the lead pastor, or maybe there is lack of consensus is the board as to what the role and responsibilities of the board actually are. Defining the questions that need resolution can be a useful tool in discerning what the future could look like.
3. Discern what the key change has to be over the next twelve to eighteen months and begin to work towards its inception. Once you have made a few small changes and the board has responded reasonably well (you should not expect 100% endorsement) and you have discerned the key changes that need to be done, then try to prioritize them. Usually such changes will have some kind of logical progression. This might be related to your current context, or the perhaps it will reflect some operational priorities. For example, you might want to tackle some big-picture issues, such as getting clarity about the board’s role and responsibilities. As well, you probably will want to define carefully the relationship between the board and the lead pastor. With these two key elements defined and understood, then you can consider the more fundamental question of what kind of governance model will work best in your context, remembering that the governance model is just a means to an end.
One strategy that church boards can use to initiate change and sustain development would be the appointment of a governance committee. This kind of committee normally is assigned the responsibility to manage board assessment, recommend changes in board governance processes, orient new board members, nominate board officers, and oversee board education and development.
Sustaining a mindset of innovation and locking in changes once approved also present challenges. However, as other board members begin to discern the value of the changes and see how the ability of the board to advance the congregation is improved, you will probably gain greater support within the board for additional change.