We just completed (July) our annual church board assessment process. The key element in this was a survey designed for church boards, circulated to the board members. They responded anonymously. The questions were divided into 20 that required evaluative responses similar to a Likert scale, i.e. excellent, more than satisfactory, satisfactory, needs improvement, not good, and then four questions which invited written responses. We used an online survey service which also included analysis of the responses.
Our church board governance committee reviewed the responses and prepared a report summarizing what the key findings were, at least from the perspective of the governance committee. The report and the survey results were circulated to the board members prior to our annual planning meeting. The chair allotted thirty minutes in the agenda for board member engagement. By the way this is an internal board report and is not shared with the congregation.
This is the fifth year we have done this and the report always generates vigorous discussion as we try to discern what the results truly reveal about our board operations. The challenge we always seem to have is deciding from this discussion about the results, what our response as a board should be? How do we take this data and convert it into a meaningful action plan to help the church board improve its operational capacity during the next twelve months? How do we break out of dysfunctional and inefficient habits and form new productive ways of working together as the strategic ministry leadership team for our congregation?
I offer the following observations:
1. Sustaining motivation for the process and critical engagement in ensuing discussion remains a challenge for some board members. They are quite happy with the status quo and question (explicitly or implicitly) why we even do this. So whoever is leading this process has to help the board achieve some wins so that board members will be encouraged to continue with serious participation in the annual assessment. Getting consensus on what the “win” is requires some patience and wise leadership.
2. Try not to do all the improvements in one year. Work on one or two primary issues that the board has identified. Then consider how the board might address it. One of the issues board members identified this year was agenda management. It seemed more often than not we could not get through our agendas on time and so we found the number of deferred issues increasing as the year progressed. We need to find a more productive way to manage our agenda. This is a collective responsibility, but we empowered our chair to exercise more directive leadership to keep us all on topic. We discerned that we frequently moved into giving advice to our pastoral leadership on tangential issues arising from discussions, rather than keeping focused on the specific agenda item. We also tasked the governance committee to bring a quarterly report about the degree to which we were improving in this operational area.
3. Some issues are more complex and require considerable thought before we can discover a means to address them. For example, some board members thought that board needed to get move involved in budgeting and needed training how to do this better. As the discussion about this progressed, we began to discern that budgeting is a management issue, not a board issue. What the board needs to do is tell management what its “worry points” are in this regard and establish policy that sets out limitations within which the management can do budgeting. Management then provides reports to the board finance and audit committee which demonstrate that the budgeting is being done according to policy. The committee then keeps the board informed. So the board needed to do a better job at communicating with management what its goals for budgeting were and then authorize the management to achieve these goals. So the surface concerns may not really express the essential issue. You need to get beneath surface to grasp what action the board should take in order to improve its leadership effectiveness.
4. Establish new habits of board operation takes time, discipline, and leadership commitment. Board behaviour does not change easily or automatically. Modifying any human behaviour requires education, modelling, encouragement to persist, and recognized value added because of the adaptation. Someone or some group with the board must continually champion the agreed changes. The hope is that in another twelve months this aspect of board operational behaviour will improve substantially because of a commitment to adapt.