Good leadership is critical to the health and growth of any organization. When the pool from which to select leaders contains primarily volunteers, this creates some interesting opportunities and challenges. Even in the context of a local church and with confidence that the Holy Spirit gifts people to the church to enable its development the selection process often encounters problems. It can even generate crisis and divisions which can destabilize the ability of the agency to function. Figuring out good ways to discern good candidates for church board leadership (i.e. chair, vice-chair, secretary), as well as establishing good process and sustaining it, become critical to effective church board leadership.
Who is responsible to ensure that a good process for board leadership is in place and functioning well? There is no question that it is the entire church board. Leadership selection is one of those basic, critical, repeated operations that the board must identify, own, and manage well. A church board can delegate authority to assist it in such matters, but first the board has to define its “policy” in such matters. [Yes, once more “policy” raises its head! This should not be a surprise.]
A church board has to decide how it will proceed in the selection of its leaders. In some cases aspects of this will already be defined in the church bylaws. For example, in some ecclesial jurisdictions the lead pastor is ex officio the board chair. So in selecting the lead pastor automatically the congregation is selecting the board chair. I wonder how many congregations who operate with this principle make this question an important qualification when it comes to choosing a lead pastor? In other contexts the bylaws will authorize the congregation to select board officers. If this is the case, then another layer of complexity is added to the process for a church board. They may have little direct say in who their leadership will in fact be! If this is your situation, then you may want to have a discussion with your congregation about the advisability of changing this and giving the board itself the authority to appoint its own leadership. After all, the congregation generally will have little awareness of what kind of leadership board operations require. In most cases, however, the bylaws will enable the board members to select their own leadership. In this blog article I will assume that this is the case.
Board leadership selection is a repeated operation. It may be annual or biennial, but there is no doubt that every twelve to twenty-four months a church board will repeat this function. Such a feature makes leadership select an excellent candidate for policy development. Such a policy would include position descriptions for each board leadership role, how nominations are secured and presented, when in the annual cycle of board meetings the selection occurs, and specific guidelines about length of terms, number of consecutive terms one person can serve in a position, protocol for resignation or removal, etc. You probably have all of this knowledge expressed informally, but it is good to convert it into formal policy which can be reviewed every two or three years.
In my experience two factors in board leadership selection create challenges for church boards. The first is developing a means by which the board members can simply, but clearly, with opportunity for forethought and prayer, propose candidates for the various roles. Often the business of selecting a board leadership team is placed on the agenda of a meeting, but no preliminary work has been done. So on the spur of the moment candidates are proposed, often with some urging and arm-twisting from the board chair or other board members. In other words, one of the most important annual board functions gets minimal attention and as a result perhaps good candidates get overlooked and less than effective individuals get selected. In either case the work of the board in the coming year does not advance as well as otherwise it might.
A more helpful process is to have several board members serve as a “nominating committee” and work with the board in advance to bring forward suitable candidates prepared to fill the roles well. One form of this committee is often called a “board governance committee.” It could be a standing committee. Guiding the nomination process would be one of this committee’s responsibilities. In addition it could assist the board in its annual evaluation, work with the board in developing policy and ensuring that policies are being reviewed and updated, helping the board discern its educational needs, etc. It enables the board to act intentionally and conscientiously, developing and implementing effective board operations.
One other element in board leadership selection needs serious consideration — succession planning. Whom on the board (or perhaps not yet on the board) has the gifting and potential to serve as board chair? Is the current vice-chair a candidate for this role and is his/her time as vice-chair an intentional opportunity for mentoring by the current board chair? Again, a governance community can assist a church board in managing these things well.