It is commonly affirmed within the nonprofit board world that board members should be dedicating time, talent and treasure to their agencies. A recent survey of 770 directors from public and private companies representing various industries and globally distributed revealed that board members perceive their impact to be greatest relative to “the breadth of issues directors tackle and on the time dedicated to them” (“High-performing boards: What’s on their agenda” by C. Bhagat and C. Kehoe (McKinsey Quarterly, April 2014). I suspect that a similar result would occur if the nonprofit board members were surveyed. Board members desire to serve with impact, but when nonprofit boards major of the fiduciary responsibilities and minor on expressing strategic leadership and engaging in generative discussion, the opportunity for impact diminishes. The outcome is disgruntled and frustrated board members, as well as impoverishment of the entity.
Within the world of church boards I think some additional dynamics tend to keep board members restricted in their leadership. One of these elements is the belief by some lead pastors that it is their responsibility to set strategic direction and do the generative thinking for the congregation. The board’s role is merely to affirm what the lead pastor proposes. As a result board members in their collective work have little impact on advancing the congregation’s mission. Another factor is tradition. Church boards historically have functioned as management teams for the congregation or advisory committees for the lead pastor. To suggest that church boards have the responsibility and authority to provide strategic leadership and be transformative in their collective work to some sounds frankly outrageous.
Church board chairs exercise significant influence in helping boards ‘raise their game’. Board chairs usually are responsible in the main for developing the board agendas. If you evaluate the agendas for the last three board meetings, how would you rate them in response to these factors:
1. How many items in the agenda are reports? How much time was given in the meeting to receiving reports? If more than 30% of the board agenda and the board’s time is given to these two functions, I would suggest the impact and effectiveness of your board is limited. Remember — reports focus upon what has happened, not on the future.
2. When you evaluate the order of items in the agenda, after the opening prayer/worship and approval of the agenda, what are the next three items? In other words what is given priority in the agenda? Is it receiving reports or is it discussing and deciding issues that are key to the congregation’s mission?
3. Is there time given in the agenda to evaluating how resources are being allocated, to make sure that programs and products key to mission advancement are being funded well? When does your board have opportunity to discuss strategic alternatives for congregational development? How much time is given to adjusting strategic direction in the midst of changing conditions? For example, if your reports show no congregational growth in six months, how and when does the board evaluate and decide what should be done to overcome this plateau?
4. Has your board defined indicators that inform the board members about the health of the congregation? When the indicators report is given to the board, what discussion is given to discerning direction and effective response when the indicators are negative?
The time commitment required from board members when church boards engage such issues in their meetings will increase. However, when board members discern that in discussing such issues their ability to impact congregational health and development increases significantly, they are more willing to give of their time, talent and treasure to make it happen. There will be more to read, more information to digest, more prayer, and more educational development. While the board members have to give some time to fiduciary responsibilities, the time given to exercising strategic leadership does increase.
Some lead pastors are afraid that if their church board spends time discerning strategic direction or engaging in creative, generative discussion, it will infringe upon their leadership role. However, the research done in this survey indicates the opposite. When board members properly engage these issues, a new, deeper partnership emerges, where the responsibility for discerning direction is shared, reducing pressure on the lead pastor and enhancing the team dynamic within the board.