In several of my church board consultations I have encountered situations where congregations have established subsidiary ministries (e.g. Christian schools, child care centers, camps). In some cases the congregation is advised to establish a separate board to oversee this new ministry. However, it is unclear what the accountability relationship is between the board of this new ministry and the current church board. In other cases the subsidiary ministry is led by some sort of committee, but there is little documentation that defines the accountability of this committee with respect to the church board or the congregation. Generally the result of such organizational “structures” is conflict because of uncertainty about decision-making and accountability. This becomes exacerbated when finances become tight and competition for scarce dollars mounts. Once patterns of operations become established, they become difficult to change.
Consider this scenario. A congregation decides to establish a child care center. The recommendation from the church board is that it be a ministry of the church, but operated as a separate society with its own board. It will use facilities in the church and in some sense be expected to support the mission of the congregation. However, the board of this child care society is given broad authority to oversee the child care center. During the first three years thing go well. However, in the fourth year there are significant changes of membership both in the church board and the child care society board. The good will within which things had operated begins to erode as minor irritations begin to increase. At the end of the fourth year the child care society board decides to alter the qualifications regarding employees — they will no longer have to be/become members of the congregation. The church board does not agree and tries to have the decision overturned. However, the child care society board claims that the church board has no authority to intervene in its decision because as a board it is appointed by the congregation and is accountable to the congregation. The church board asks the congregation to support its recommendation, but the congregation sides with the child care society board. How will such a situation be resolved without a great deal of unrest, mistrust, and bruised relationships?
In cases where the subsidiary ministry is managed by a committee and its membership is appointed by the congregation, similar conflicts regarding authority can arise.
It is very important that when a subsidiary ministry is developed that the accountability of its oversight board or management committee be carefully defined. If this subsidiary ministry is managed by a committee, it would be advisable to have that committee appointed by the church board and accountable to the church board. The budget of this subsidiary ministry will be part of the church budget and the staff will be part of the church staff.
If the subsidiary ministry is set up as a society with its own board, this creates more challenging complications. If the recommendation is for this subsidiary board to be accountable to the church board, one way to ensure that this happens is to name the members of the church board as the members of the society. It will be the members of the society that appoint the society’s board members and to whom the society’s board will report at the society’s AGM. This creates an interlocking structure that mandates specific levels of accountability so that the church board maintains its primary oversight.
When a subsidiary ministry has been managed by a committee for some time, but the lines of accountability are quite unclear, then the church board has to work carefully to implement appropriate accountability. Such committees can develop a life of their own, with expectation that they have the authority to make decisions without reference to the church board. This might involve appeals for funds within the congregation or the recruitment of congregational members to voluntary roles that depletes the resources that the congregation has to support other aspects of its vision that it regards as equally or more important. When this pattern has developed and a church board desires to create greater clarity, often conflict ensues because the committee thinks its rightful authority is being curtailed or it is no longer trusted. There is no easy way to resolve such matters other than for the church board to be transparent, patient, and as conciliatory as possible, even as it seeks to implement new policy regarding accountability.
At the end of the day a church board needs to address these situations despite their complexity and challenge. Letting them continue without change will only result in more serious problems in the future.