Developing church board policy faces two significant impediments — people and process. In both instances inertia arising from tradition, ignorance of better ways to work together, and general antipathy to change discourages the development of policy. To break through this inertia requires disciplined leadership, a commitment to good board operations, and a passion for excellence. Effective board chairs know that up-to-date and well-written policies enhance a board’s efficiency, decision-making, and discussions. They contribute to a church board culture that takes the board’s leadership and ministry seriously.
- Inertia generated by tradition. Many church boards conduct their operations based upon formal or informal traditions. New board members “learn the ropes” from the more seasoned members and are reluctant to question “the way things are done.” And so “traditions” become entrenched and rarely questioned. For example, why does a church board devote forty minutes of its meeting time to the lead pastor rehearsing his report, which has been circulated a week before and which board members should have read in advance? The answer probably is “tradition.” Why does a church board review a proposed budget line by line, rather than stating general parameters and ensuring that the proposed budget meets those defined financial objectives? Again, probably tradition plays a large role in defining such a process. Establishing new modes of decision-making and reporting requires careful discussion, respect for tradition, and also large doses of trust. However, once achieved through good policy, these new ways of working together make board work enjoyable and effective. It frees church board time to focus on more significant issues.
- Inertia generated by people. Sometimes board members personally present a significant obstacle. In the minds of some the word “policy” smacks of too much formality and does not leave room for the “Spirit” do his work. Or they like the informality of the board meetings and suspect that developing policy might in fact limit their influence. In some cases such people have to be shown the value of policy in enabling board operations before they will support its development. In my experience some board members will never become convinced that policy development truly facilitates board work. So you work around those people or perhaps you as chair have a private conversation with them suggesting that they finish their term, but not seek reappointment.
- Inertia generated by ignorance. Sometimes boards continue with ineffective traditional ways or resist policy development because they just do not know there is a better way. So as chairperson you have an opportunity to bring some education into the board and suggest better ways. Consider planning a short workshop about the relationship between policy and effective board work. Tie it into the question of how this church board through improved leadership and operations can support the growth of the congregation. Perhaps one or two of your current board members have experience with policy development and can offer some testimonials to its effectiveness.
- Inertia generated by “the urgent.” When a church board does not operate with policies, then every issue becomes urgent because there are few guidelines the Board can use to deal with matters routinely. Board policy seeks to define what is legitimate board business and clear pathways for decisions about issues that the board commonly addresses. Defining principles and process, these policies prevent the board from “reinventing the wheel” every time such a decision hits the agenda. The board has taken its experience and formalized it into a written statement of principle and process. based upon its values and vision. It has collected its wisdom and stated its preferred mode of operation in such cases. And so what often is deemed urgent gets handled routinely. Of course, new issues arise from time to time, for which no existing policy gives direction. However, the board should discipline itself once a new issue is determine to ask whether policy should be developed to deal with similar issues in the future.
Developing good board policy takes discipline, intention, and hard work. If you have one or two people on your church board who are willing to shoulder the load for its development, take advantage of their expertise. The other board members eventually will bless you for this initiative.