Because church boards are human entities I do not think it is possible to create and lead one that is “fail safe.” However, I think board chairs do have some responsibility in their leadership to help boards avoid some of the major and more severe pitfalls, if at all possible. Otherwise the damage to the congregation can be quite severe.
Dan Aleshire in his book Earthen Vessels discusses Seminary governance and its contribution to the health of a theological institution (pages 110-112). He notes three common governance failures that affect seminary boards:
1. A seminary board ignores or fails to follow institutional policy.
2. A seminary board pays too little attention to the critically important issues.
3. A seminary board intrudes into the operation of the theological school.
If we substitute “church board” for “seminary board,” I dare say the same governance failures can be documented within congregational life. Considerable harm occurs to a church board, board members and congregational development when these failures happen.
1. Church boards are known to ignore or fail to follow bylaws, legal requirements, and their own policies. When a church board does so and acts outside the authority that it has been given, it violates the trust invested in it by the congregation to govern. Such a board has moved beyond the bounds of accountability and de facto creates its own rules, regardless of what the congregation might think or expect. A church board may believe that it is acting in this way for all the right reasons, but regardless of motive, it cannot be justified and jeopardizes the mandate of the board to govern. If existing bylaws or policies are out-of-date, poorly written, or discerned to be misguided in their essence, then follow proper process to achieve change. In doing so a church board models servant leadership. It may take a few additional months to achieve the desired outcome and change, but in the end the process employed is just as important as the change being recommended.
2. Church boards do get focused on details or the urgent and forget to attend to what is critically important. A quick scan of the board minutes from the last six months will indicate how much or little of the board’s time — its most precious resource — is consumed with decisions about minor issues or apparently urgent items. If your board is not giving serious attention to at least one major issue at each of its meetings, then probably your board’s energy is being sapped by majoring on minors. It takes considerable spiritual intelligence to keep the board focused on the key issues, particularly those affecting the congregation’s future. Some questions that might help the board to focus appropriately might include:
a. are we advancing the congregational mission by our decisions? How do we know? If not, what has to change in order to advance this mission?
b. is our congregation healthy? How do we know? If the congregation is not healthy, what does the board need to do in order to move the congregation into a healthier space?
c. do we have the right key leader? How do we know? If not, how will we remedy this situation?
d. is our congregation supporting the right services and ministries? How do we know? If not, how do we change it appropriately?
3. Church boards constantly are tempted to intrude into the operations and management of the congregation. This issue is more difficult to manage, particularly for church boards operating in smaller congregation. In such cases boards have to govern as well as provide management functions. They do not have the resources to hire staff to oversee all of the managerial responsibilities. It becomes difficult to separate the board’s actions in governance from decisions or activities related to management. However, it is important to try and keep these functions separate, even in the way agendas are developed. When congregations are large enough to support multiple staff positions, a church board can turn its attention primarily to governance and mandate the lead pastor to implement board policy. In these situations the board has to discipline itself and resist the temptation to interfere in management operations. Sometimes leadership failure will require a church board to oversee some management functions temporarily, but this should always be exceptional and for a short period.
In all three of these situations a board chair exercises important leadership to help a board avoid such failures. The chair coaches and advises the board, enabling it to discipline its behaviour. An annual assessment of board operations will help the board to keep its focus.