It normally does not take a church board chairperson long to figure out that the church board, even though constitutionally it has considerable authority and responsibility, does not govern in a vacuum. Other groups within the congregation expect to have some voice in decisions, groups that include employees, volunteer leaders, and the membership. Sometimes this involvement is mandated by bylaws. Externally, as well, particularly if the congregation is part of a larger family of churches, a church board has to consider the voice of this denominational family and its leaders in its decisions. Managing these existing relationships and enabling the voices of these entities to be expressed appropriately in decision-making constitutes a major challenge for a church board chair. Some would say that in reality church boards “share” governance for this reason.
You might object to this perspective because in your view a church board has final decision in many situations. However, consider the issue of the annual budget. Usually the pastoral staff has a significant voice in its development. The church board takes the decision to present a draft budget to the congregation’s membership. However, in many church contexts it is the membership that must approve by their vote the proposed budget before it becomes official. So in this instance we can see how various elements in the congregation share the governance in this matter. The staff serve as a resource and consultants, making their best recommendation to the church board. The congregation receives a recommendation from the church board and then makes the decision regarding the annual budget.
The mix of voices in other decisions may be quite different. For example, a church board usually has the final decision when it comes to approving the position description for a lead pastor. In many cases it establishes policies that guide the life of the congregation, e.g. policy guiding the Benevolent Fund. Conversely, when it comes to policies related to staff, often the administrative leadership creates them, but is directed to do so by the church board because it holds the staff leadership responsible for ensuring that fair employment policies are in place. The staff leadership may consult with a church board before finalizing such policies, but the board assigns responsibility for developing and implementing them to the staff leadership.
Leading church board operations in light of this reality of “shared governance” requires a high degree of awareness on the part of the board chairperson. First, a board chairperson must help the church board when developing policy to understand which groups in the congregation must have voice because of principles in the bylaws, which groups should have voice because they possess information critical to the development of good policy, and which groups should be invited to have voice because they will be impacted by the implementation of that policy.
Second, a board chairperson has to make sure the church board knows what the appropriate and necessary pathway to decision will be. This reflects the need for the board members to receive the best information, for people who will be affected by the decision to let their views be known to the board members, and then for the board members to have time to reflect on this input and come to a defendable decision.
Third, once the pathway is known, then a board chairperson has to ensure that it is followed, that those involved receive necessary information about the nature of the input the board members desire from them, and also that where other groups have mandated points of decision, they have opportunity to make such decisions in an informed manner. If any of these elements are short-circuited or passed over, then it is almost inevitable that conflict will emerge and the board’s credibility will be questioned. A corollary to this is that sometimes when staff leadership, for example, is pressing a church board to make a decision, but those who should have voice in the decision cannot be included, then a church board will have to push back. Effective leadership is stymied when necessary process is ignored.
In my opinion when a board chairperson attends to these matters conscientiously, it results in better decisions, more effective board leadership, and generally a happier staff and congregation. People see that their appropriate contributions are respected and desired by a board that wants the best wisdom possible as it makes decisions or enables the congregation to make decisions.
So as church board chairperson you need to know what kinds of decisions the board has authority to make by itself, what kinds of decisions the congregation must make based upon a recommendation by the church board, and what kinds of decisions the board empowers staff leadership to make (with appropriate accountability). In addition, the chairperson will have a good sense of when it is important for the board to include other voices in their decisions, even though technically the board has authority to make the decision on its own.