Many individuals who serve on church boards are used to leading through innovation. They are entrepeneurs developing businesses or creative individuals in other avenues. However, when they become members of a church board they struggle to discern how to express this dynamic, catalytic energy through their board involvement.
The messages they hear from board leaders and the lead pastor might be:
- the church board develops policy and the lead pastor implements.
- the lead pastor has freedom within limits established by the board to implement as he sees fit.
- the board tends to react to ideas and proposals brought to it by the lead pastor.
- the culture of the board is that innovations come through the lead pastor and generally are not introduced by a board member.
The message communicated, perhaps unintentionally, is that it is not the job of a church board member to be innovative. Rather the focus of the responsibility is to discern whether innovations proposed by the staff are in fact going to help the congregation achieve its mission. Even in the case of strategic planning, usually the process moves from the staff to the board, with the staff proposing to the board the strategic directions they think the congregation needs to take and the board reacting to these ideas. They may tweak them, but in the end normally what the staff proposed, the board approves, providing the resources are available.
So in what ways can church board members be innovative in their individual and collective leadership? In a recent paper (de Jong, Marston, Roth, “The Eight Essentials of Innovation,” April 2015, McKinsey Quarterly) four (of eight) behaviours tended to characterize companies that innovated effectively. They aspired to “innovation-led growth”; they chose to invest resources in selected innovations that would work; they discovered insights in their line of business that “translated into winning value propositions”; and they evolved, “creating new business models” to accommodate these innovations and ensure they added to the company’s bottom line.
I think these four behaviours or leadership stances give us some ideas about how church boards can exercise innovative leadership. Of course, the essential innovative action of a church board is guiding the congregation in their selection of a lead pastor who understands and embraces the need for careful and continued innovation in ministry, if the congregation is to advance its mission. However, having taken care of that key action, how then does a church board express its innovative leadership?
First, it has to lead from the top to develop a culture in the congregation that embraces innovation. We are not talking about theological innovation, but rather ministry innovation — new ways to advance the congregation’s mission. A church board builds expectation that innovation is part of the congregation’s DNA, as its external community develops and new opportunities for ministry will emerge. Perhaps ministry innovation could be developed as one of the “ends” that the board establishes.
Second, the church board in its review of next year’s budget projection will be asking where are resources being expended to support small, critical innovations? What risks are being taken to test new ministry models or opportunities? Do such innovations have sufficient resources so that they have a good chance of winning?
Third, is the board educating itself as to insights that will help it discern good innovation from bad? What is it learning about its external community, the gifts and talents that God is bringing into the congregation, the fresh ways that other congregations are making a kingdom impact, etc.? If a church board is not inquisitive about such things and purposefully so, then its ability to develop a culture of innovation within the congregation will be very limited.
Fourth, an a church board innovates by developing new strategies for good governance and effective congregational organization. Innovations will require older structures to change and evolve so that the new pathways can be pursued successfully. This may require job descriptions and titles to change, it may require different reporting arrangements, it may require facility usage to be reallocated, etc. The board itself may have to embrace new ways of operating.
In recent church development literature the “growth-cycle” of a congregation has gained considerable influence. This is an adaptation of the growth cycle of a corporation. We know that corporations emerge, grow, mature and then fade away. Congregations mirror the same pattern. When church boards engage and embed in their leadership a culture of innovation, this can break this cycle and produce are more sustained growth pattern for the congregation in its kingdom effectiveness. When we read the book of Acts we discern the Holy Spirit pushing the nascent church to embrace many different changes in order to pursue the Great Commission. The Holy Spirit’s purpose has not changed; He remains our primary transformation agent.