Churches, as organizations, tend to preserve their operational processes and resist change. I think this is the case particularly for churches whose congregations number between 100 and 500. Leaders get used to the “tried and tested” patterns. If suggestions for innovation do arise, they tend to be minor adjustments to current structures, processes or policies, rather than major, ground-breaking transformations. We get comfortable with “the way we do things” and change sounds threatening and unsettling.
Yet as leaders we all know that significant change is inevitable and good board chairs discern when the organization must change and adapt in significant ways if it is to continue to thrive and grow. The decision not to change will inevitably become a hindrance to the advancement of the vision and fulfillment of the mission.
But what are the signs or indicators that significant change must happen because preserving the status quo puts the congregation at risk. For a church board to ignore these signs and fail to respond becomes then an irresponsible act, a decision to abandon mission fulfillment because of fear, ignorance, personal motives or misguided “theological” reasons.
I would suggest that the following are indicators that changes to board structure and operations should be considered:
- Growth in the congregation. Once the congregation reaches 100, 300 or 500 consistent attendees these are levels which signal that the board needs to review its composition, structure and operations. The key principle here is for board leaders to figure out what board operations at the next level need to be and then to begin moving the board in that direction. To wait until the congregation reaches the next size plateau means that the board will have to figure out and tackle the necessary changes in short order if it is not to hinder the congregation’s development.
- Changes in board personnel or lead pastor may lead to significant adjustment in how the board understands its role. Sometimes church boards function for a long time employing the same structures and processes. But then something happens and the board begins questioning whether there are better ways it can discern and implement to fulfill its leadership role in the congregation. Perhaps several new board members are selected and they bring new ideas into the board. Or perhaps the congregation desires to have women involved in the board, but the bylaws require board members to be “elders.” And so the board has to figure out how to respond to the congregation’s desire in a way that affirms biblical principles. Or perhaps a new lead pastor is appointed and this individuals shares some insights about pastor-board relationships that serves as the catalyst for change.
- External factors sometimes act as the catalyst. In our denomination every five years local congregations go through a ‘consultation.’ A group of leaders from other churches in the denomination review a congregation’s self-study, visit for a few days, interview many different people, and then offer recommendations for change that the visitors believe would help the congregation advance its mission. Sometimes these recommendations include changes to how the board is structured or operates. In the Province of British Columbia the government is mandating a new set of principles to guide the formation and operation of what it terms “societies,” a term that includes congregations. Some of these principles will require congregations and boards to change their bylaws and discern new ways to structure their boards and their operations.
- When you as board leader sense that the system is broken and needs fixing. Sometimes you as board chair sense that the board is unable to accomplish its work. A variety of causes may be contributing, but you discern that unless the operational system and accompanying policies change, the board cannot fulfill its responsibilities. When you come to this point, you probably would be wise to check out your discernment by consulting with the lead pastor and one or two other seasoned board members and gauge whether they perceive the same things.
Church boards and their leaders constantly encounter change and have to develop a positive attitude towards it, if they are to lead their boards to a better future.