Church board chairs often wrestle with their role as leaders of innovation. Often the perception seems to be that the church board has appointed them as chairpersons to manage board operations as currently configured, but the board has not given them any mandate to initiate change. So board chairs keep the machinery going, even though they may often reflect that there is a better way, a more productive and effective direction the board could take. However, if excellence is a congregational value, then board chairs have to ask how the board’s commitment to this value should be reflected in a responsible embrace of operational effectiveness and innovation.
One strategy that church board chairs can employ to address this challenge would be the implementation of a board “governance committee.” This is not an “executive committee.” Rather a governance committee helps a church board to develop policies and procedures that enable it to function effectively. As Carver notes (Boards That Make a Difference, 1997, pages 145-50) board committees exist “to help get the board’s job done, not to help with the staff’s job.” He also emphasizes that every board committee is doing “preboard” work, not work as the board. Its responsibility is to bring forward policy options from which the board can make an appropriate, informed decision.
A governance committee assists the board in some of the following areas of its work:
1. Ensuring that the board regularly is reviewing and updating its policies. Developing and implementing policies is just the first step in a continual process of policy review and revision to keep the policies relevant. However, who in the board owns this responsibility? Here is where a governance committee can be very productive and helpful for a board. They are assigned the responsibility by the board to ensure that the board’s policies are up-to-date and operational. Where changes may be needed they bring this to the attention of the board with various options that the board might consider for revision. Working closely with the board chair will ensure that space in board agendas is available for this important work.
2. Assisting the chair in the orientation of new board members and the appropriate recognition of retiring board members. Developing and implementing an effective orientation process for new board members is becoming more important for board effectiveness. Your goal as chair is to help every new board member to become a fully contributing member of the board as soon as possible. To enable this to be accomplished requires some kind of orientation process. Again, who in the board will own this task? Sometimes the chair by default and even informally will do something to help new board members, but it is better if this can be led by other board members. It is good for the chair to participate at some point so that the new board members can get to know the chair and his/her vision for board operations and his/her understanding of board culture. I think equally important is a debriefing process whereby retiring board members have the opportunity to share their wisdom and advice as they complete their terms.
3. Assisting the board in the selection and appointment of board officers. I think this is one of the most awkward elements of board life that chairs usually have to manage. If chair- persons seek to approach individuals with a view to recommending them for the role, then the chairpersons can be accused of pre-empting board direction. However, if the board chair leaves it to the board decide on the spur of the moment, then the opportunity for a good decision to be made decreases substantially. A governance can assist the board in its leadership succession process. The governance committee can also assist the board by recommending nominees for the role of vice-chair and secretary, as well as board committee chairs and members.
4. Guiding the board assessment processes. This is one of the more difficult aspects of missional governance for church boards to implement. Yet, without ongoing assessment a church board has little awareness of its deficiencies. Assessment of the board should be occurring in some sense at every meeting, but the primary assessment needs to be done annually and in a thorough way.
5. Working with the board to discern the board’s educational development. Through the assessment process as well as through conversations with board members the governance committee can generate recommendations to the board for its educational development. For example, the governance committee may observe that the board has difficulty in reaching good decisions. So it may then suggest that the board arrange a workshop to help it develop greater competence in this aspect of its work. The governance committee would look after the arrangements on behalf of the board.
As you can quickly discern these aspects of board work, if the board chair has to give leadership to each one, adds immensely to the responsibilities that this role carries. Further, it places considerable power in the hands of a board chair, something that the board should do with caution.
Given the regularity of the issues that such a committee would deal with, it probably should be structured as a standing committee with its mandate and scope of authority clearly defined. Its relationship to the role and responsibilities of the board chair should be stated carefully.
For sample outlines of governance committee roles and responsibilities in non-profit board contexts, you can go to www.diversecitytoronto.ca>research overview>toolkits and tip sheets, or http://garberconsulting.com/governance_committee_terms.