In one sense policies are the nerve system of a church board. Good policies let the board know when something is not working properly. They sensitize board members both to good and bad direction. They warn about imminent danger and give cause for celebration when things go well. In short they express the culture and values of a church board.
As with any culture, however, some elements become dated and need to be revised or replaced by new perspectives. Cultures are dynamic entities, being influenced by internal and external change. So if a church board is to remain on top of its game, then it also must find a productive and efficient way to keep its current policies up-to-date, as well as discern when new policy should be formed. In this blog we will consider the first issue — enabling the board to maintain up-to-date policies.
Several issues need to be sorted in this matter. First, to whom does the board delegate this responsibility? Frequently board policies languish simply because no person or group is assigned the responsibility to assist the board in this matter. So nothing happens. It is not the chairperson’s responsibility to do this work; but it is the chairperson’s responsibility to make sure the board has an effective mechanism for consistent policy review. In my opinion a standing committee such as a “governance committee” (see blog article #214 for further information) can take on this responsibility.
Second, what kind of system should be developed to enable the board to review and revise in a timely way multiple policies? An initial step is to create a list of all the board policies. This might seem to be a “no-brainer” but I suspect many church boards have no such itemization and so do not have a readily available list of their policies. Nor do they know when each policy was established. Once this is developed, then the group or individual responsibility needs to discern (probably with the help of the chairperson) when each policy was approved and when it last was reviewed. This information should be added to the list of policies for future reference. Within this data in hand, then a schedule of policy review can be developed.
I would suggest that the pace for policy revision will have to be a little more energetic initially in order to catch-up. However, a reasonable pace would be to review one policy every second meeting. This kind of rhythm keeps the board on track. So the group responsibility has to be disciplined in its work and be communicating with the chairperson which policy should be placed on the next board agenda for review. In some cases the time required will be short because revisions will be few. In other cases the policy will have to be completely redesigned, scrapped, or combined with others which address a larger question, e.g. accepting donations. When this happens, then the board may need significantly more time and perhaps discussion will flow over several meetings.
Third, once the policy is revised an official copy should be placed in the policy file, with the date of revision clearly expressed on the policy, as well as the projected date for the next review. A two to three year cycle of policy review and revision is probably reasonable and necessary. This keeps current board members aware of board policy and their contents and educates new board members about board operations.
Fourth, the chairperson has to champion this work of policy review as essential board work. Some church board members will be restive when it comes to policy matters. They consider it busy-work, tangential to the “real” work of the board. However, such a view is very short-sighted and usually gets expressed by people who have a very limited understanding of how effective church boards operate.
Good policy gives board members the tools they need to make the best use of their collective time. Good policy prevents the board from spinning its wheels and re-inventing policy every time the same kind of decision appears on the agenda. It simplifies board work, as well as enables board members to know “the rules” and build upon the wisdom generated from previous board action.