One section of Boardsource’s National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices, January 2015 survey reports that in the area of Board Dynamics “board succession planning remains a vexing challenge for at least one-half of the boards” (42). Most nonprofit agency leaders experience one or more board leadership transitions during their tenure. These leaders “cite building a board leadership pipeline among the top five most important areas for board improvement” (42). If a board lacks strong leadership then its capacity for good governance internally and externally can be crippled.
In my work with church leaders and church boards succession planning emerges consistently as something seldom considered, and when it is discussed, no one seems to know what to do about it. Given the turnover rate among church board chairs, this is an incredibly important issue for these boards to address. The burden such frequent board leadership changes place upon the lead pastor can be debilitating.
When there is poor church board leadership and little hope for significant improvement, then lead pastors begin either to consider the board as a necessary, but interfering evil, or decide to ignore it because from their standpoint it offers little help in their leadership responsibilities. So the relationship between the lead pastor and the church board chairperson becomes strained or conflictive, or the lead pastor treats it with benign neglect.
So the question of who chairs a church board and the development of good succession planning carries significant implications for congregational health and mission fulfilment.
I think the issue of church board succession planning can be addressed only partially through policy development. For example. the role description of the board chairperson could include a specific statement that this board leader is responsible to guide the board in appropriate succession planning. At least that recognizes and assigns the responsibility. If your church board has a governance committee, then succession planning would come under its mandate, with appropriate consultation with the board members. If your church bylaws indicate that the congregation appoints the board chair, then you might want to change this, so that the board itself has the responsibility to appoint its own chair. If this decision is left in the hands of the congregation, then it will be almost impossible to develop good processes for board leadership succession.
By and large it is the current board chair who has to carry the initiative to enable the board members to engage in effective succession planning. First, you as board chair know what your preferred timeline is for filling this role. When you realize that your time as chair is coming to a conclusion, then you need to signal this to the board members and involve them in developing an effective succession plan. This might include a review of the policy statement regarding the chair’s role and responsibilities, appointing an adhoc committee (if a governance committee does not exist) to bring forward to the board at a specific meeting one or two names for the board to consider. In terms of process, try to help the board make the decision at least two months prior to your transition. When you model your transition well, you impress upon the board members the importance of their decision regarding a new chair.
As chair you also wield some influence within the board concerning the development of new leadership. For example, you will have considerable say in which board members lead standing or adhoc committees. Such roles can become good training grounds for potential board chairs. When the board is assigning some developmental tasks related to specific decisions (e.g. investigating and reporting back to the board about a specific issue), you again can try to involve board members who may be demonstrating leadership ability. As they fulfil their role, this gives the board members opportunity to observe their gifts, their leadership style, and their commitment to the board’s work.
When you discern one or two potential candidates who could become future board chairs, approach them informally and ask whether they might pray about this. Offer to mentor them and provide resources to help them grasp the importance of this role and the nature of its responsibilities. Discuss the succession question with your lead pastor, because the lead pastor will need to work with the chair very closely, as you know from experience.
Board succession planning is a matter of board discipline, good planning, and intentional board development. It needs and deserves greater attention.