This will the third and final blog article building from ideas expressed by Dan Aleshire in his book about seminaries entitled Earthen Vessels. In his chapter “Making Theological Schools Work: Governing and Administering,” he comments: “The importance of good board work is increasing, and I have a growing concern about boards. It is not about failure, or lack of goodwill or support for the school, or lack of good sense or thoughtful decisions. Rather, I am concerned about their capacity to do what schools today need them to do….the growing significance and complexity of governing processes is outpacing the development of needed governing skills” (112). This is a long quote, but I think the concern he expresses can equally be said about churches and their governance.
I do not think we lack church board members or board chairs who have good motives, fine character, spiritual maturity, deep passion, and a will to work. What I do sense is failure to come to terms with the need to develop the capacity to govern in ways that growing congregations require. The lack of capacity to govern well eventually harms the health and ability of the congregation to achieve its mission. Although an individual board member may bring to the table good competence, it is the collective competence of the board that is at issue — competence to discern the future, make sense of it and then make good decisions in the light of this perception.
Consider first how the complexity of congregational life and the relation of the congregation to its culture has changed in the last two decades. Many congregations have multiple personnel, large facilities, significant budgets, members struggling with serious issues, and difficult relationships with their communities. Add to this the management of social media, harassment issues, privacy concerns, increased liabilities, and increased demands for sophisticated services — and what church board would not be challenged? Growth in size, opportunities, and complexity require greater governance capacity on the part of a church board. This capacity needs to lead these developments, not play catch-up.
Secondly there is the intimate relationship between good governance and healthy congregations. Not everyone will agree with this equation, but I think this is a critical component in most growing and/or aspiring congregations. Good governance will be in tune with the congregation’s direction, needs, and dynamics, anticipating wisely and planning boldly. Spiritual wisdom will be abundant within the board and the congregation will recognize its presence.
How then can you as a board chair discern the level of your church board’s capacity to govern? One definition of “capacity” is “power to grasp and analyze ideas and cope with problems.” A different but related definition is “innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment.” A church board’s capacity for governance might then be measured by its ability to analyze issues, make good decisions and thus cope with problems or seize opportunities. It would also include demonstrated potential to develop its governance ability. In other words capacity for governance is both the recognition of governance deficiencies and the determination to remedy them. Within the context of Kingdom work this capacity emerges as spiritual wisdom or intelligence to provide the strategic ministry leadership required by the congregation for its mission accomplishment. And this requires church boards to discern where the congregation needs to be in the next two to three years so that its current decisions are integrated with and stimulative of such growth and development. Someone has said that good leadership is all about ‘sense-making’ and I think this fits well with the paradigm of good governance.
Church boards begin to understand what good governance requires and become aware of their need to develop this capacity when church board chairs challenge them, educate them, and cause them to reflect upon their work. Learning from mistakes can be a tremendous stimulus to developing capacity. The status quo is always perceived by some as quite adequate. However, the status quo is always a measure of what has been, not a measure of what should be or will be. Good governance is all about what should be and will be — and by God’s grace and wisdom making this happen.