One of the important questions that church board chairs wrestle with is this: how does a church board preserve the gains it makes in leading with excellence? Board members change, chairpersons move on, but the “church board” as a “virtual reality” has to maintain its strategic leadership in a continuous way. How best can this be done? What responsibility does a board chair have to help the board consolidate and pass on its wisdom?
Typically congregations begin as church plants. In the chaos and pressure of these initial years church boards are overwhelmed with sustaining the life of the congregation. Who has time to think about consolidating wisdom and passing it on to the next group of board leaders who carry forward the congregation’s mission? The pressure of the urgent obscures the need for preservation of wisdom.
Church board chairs can encourage a mindset of preservation by insisting that good minutes be kept of each board meeting. These records will be invaluable when the board gets to the point of moving to the next stage. Make sure the minutes record board motions that approve policies and a copy of the policy as approved. Often I find that board minutes will note that a policy was approved, but then the board forgets to attach a copy of the policy to the minutes for future reference. Along with these provisions ensure that the minutes are kept in a safe place. Often during the start up years a congregation will not have a building or set of offices. Leaders work out of their homes. Records can get dispersed and lost easily. Similarly if copies are only maintained electronically on someone’s computer, what happens if that computer is stolen or dies, or for various reasons that person no longer is involved with the congregation? Are there any backups? Is there both hard and soft copy prepared and preserved? Attention to these details will make life far easier for the next group of leaders.
At some point in the congregation’s development a church board will need to decide how to track its growing number of policies, as well as articulate how it operates. In other words it becomes intentional about its own work as a church board. This becomes increasingly critical as the initial board members finish their terms, as leadership of the congregation becomes more complex, as the number of employees grows, and as the board shifts from acting predominantly as a management team and becomes primarily a governing board. At this point or in preparation for it a board chair can recommend to the board the development of a “Board Manual.”
Various experts in board governance recommend such a development. John Carver, for example, indicates that “your board policy manual should be where everything that the board has said, in its most recent form, can be found” (Reinventing Your Board, 213). Les Stahlke in Governance Matters (p. 329-49) provides a model a Board Governance Manual that can be used under license. Fredric L. Laughlin and Robert C. Andringa in Good Governance for Nonprofits focuses their entire publication around the development of a Board Policies Manual, with the conviction that it “is the key element in a plan to implement best practices in non-profit governance” (p. 14). In their view it is “the roadmap to good governance” (p.15). They provide detailed guidance in developing and implementing a Board Policies Manual in a non-profit entity.
If your church board already has a “Board Manual” of some sort, then you have already made progress. However, if that manual is merely collecting dust on a shelf and you and your board hardly ever reference it, then it is time to dust it off, update it and make a useful tool for your board.
You may be leading a board that has not developed such an operational guide. Well, perhaps it is time to take the plunge and help your board improve its ability to govern well and lead your congregation strategically.
In the next series of blog articles I will focus on helping you as a church board chair lead your board in developing a “Board Governance Manual.”