It is easy for a church board chairperson to fall into the habit of just working one meeting to the next. In other words you become merely the chair of a committee, maintaining the machinery of the committee but not giving it leadership. You fill the role of umpire, but you provide no sense about the larger purpose of the game. And perhaps that is all your board is asking from you or maybe the lead pastor considers this kind of leadership within the board to be his purview. Or maybe you have tried to give such leadership and received some strong criticism from those who opposed it. So you have backed away from fulfilling this part of your role as chair. But you may be chairing in this adhoc manner because you have never thought about providing more significant direction to your church board.
I would agree that a board chairperson certainly has to ensure that board operations are being managed well. This happens one meeting at a time and so you must give singular attention to each meeting. However, if you do not have a fairly clear sense of where the board needs to go in the execution of its strategic leadership for the congregation, then how will the board advance the congregation’s mission in intentional ways? Undoubtedly somethings will be decided, but whether there is coherence to such decisions might be questioned. Board agendas in such cases will demonstrate no coherent board plan.
One of the primary ways that a chairperson expresses leadership within the board is by developing an annual agenda. Over a twelve month cycle there are actions that the board must take. For example, the board has to arrange annually for the financial review of the financial activities. The timing of this event is virtually the same every year. So as chair you know when the board has to make certain decisions in order to have the financial review accomplished in time for the annual general meeting. Another example would be the timing of the lead pastor’s annual performance evaluation. This can be scheduled. Other regularly occurring events would be preparation for the annual general meeting, review of insurance coverage, preparation of next year’s budget, and the annual cycle for the nomination of new board members and church officers. So as chairperson you know some of the board plan for the year and you can map this out.
Other parts of the board plan would include scheduling the annual board retreat, setting the schedule of meetings, and planning for one or two social gatherings in which board members (and spouses) can interact more informally.
Yet, once these parts of the board plan are in place, it leaves considerable space for strategic leadership initiatives. If the board has established specific goals for the year, how do you as chair develop a board plan that will ensure that the board’s goals are in fact met over the next twelve months? Obviously you will need to have continuing conversation with the lead pastor who has overall responsibility for implementing plans to operationalize these goals. You, as board chair, and the lead pastor need to have a clear understanding of what decisions have to be made at the board level for these goals to be met. The sequencing of discussions and decisions is an important part of helping the board make progress in an orderly and efficient manner. If new ministry initiatives are being developed, when does the board become involved in their approval? What new policies may need to be developed and approved by the board? Which of your current programs will require evaluation and possible revision in the light of these goals? If new hires are anticipated, when should the anticipate it will be engaged in such processes? Together with the lead pastor you should have a good sense of what the board needs to engage over the next four to five months.
As board chair you might begin by asking what actions does the board need to take in the next two, four, six, eight or ten months in order to achieve the annual strategic goals. In the case of decisions which require the approval of the congregation, you need to schedule board discussions in advance of congregational meetings so that board processes can be completed in timely way for good information to be shared with the congregation. Where you think the board may need external input to make an informed decision, how far in advance of the actual decision does the board need to receive that input and how can this be managed well? Sometimes board decision-making processes stretch over six to eight months. It may be that the annual appointment of new board members will occur part-way through this process. In such cases you will have to consider ways to bring new board members up to speed about the continuing discussion.
Developing a board work plan makes the preparation of agendas for specific meetings easier to manage because you know the key decisions that the board will be making and can plan for them meeting by meeting.