In a recent article published in the Association of Theological Schools “Colloquy Online May 2017” E. S. Brown summarizes “ten lessons learned” seminaries have learned about governance. I recognize that seminary boards function in a different context than church boards, but would suggest that both kinds of boards face many of the same challenges. In this blog I discuss briefly the first five lessons.
1. “Mission is the most important driving force in good governance.” What does the agency or church aspire to be? If a church board cannot answer this question clearly and succinctly for its congregation, then how does it know what decisions will advance the mission? It is operating without direction. Good governance arises from a clearly stated mission, constantly referenced.
2. “Personal relationships and trust are critical to success.” Good organization facilitates good relationships; good relationships can compensate to some degree for poor organization. However, organizational structure cannot do it all. Relationships and trust are critical factors in organizational success. The same holds true for church boards both with respect to internal operations and in terms of their larger role in the congregation. When relationships and trust fail, then governance becomes dysfunctional. Time and energy taken intentionally to build relationships and sustain trust are critical to board success.
3. “Each constituency needs to be clear on its authority, responsibilities, and expectations.” Congregations are complex entities. Church boards need to understand the various constituencies to which they must relate — lead pastor, staff, volunteer leaders, congregational members, congregational adherents, denominational leaders, community leaders, government agencies, financial institutions, etc. Helping new board members understand this web of relationships and their diverse connections to the congregation requires a bit of time and explanation. Probably the linkage between the board and management and the board and congregation are the most critical constituency relationships. Wise church boards have a clearly develop set of guidelines and/or policies that explain how the board operates within this matrix.
4. “Communications need to be frequent, broad-based, and articulated in a common language.” Within this Colloquy article the focus is placed on communications within a board and between the board and the person executing the board’s decisions. Keeping church board members informed of decision implementation and congregational developments forms a key responsibility for the lead pastor. The board chair has responsibility to ensure that the board members have the necessary information to make informed decisions, as well as communicate the decisions of the board to the lead pastor and, as necessary, the congregation. With email, texting, dropbox, etc., the means for communication have never been more accessible. Good communications are a necessary element for sustaining trust. In the case of church boards, however, effective communications with the congregation forms another critical factor.
5. “Establishment of basic practices and processes helps to ensure a consistent and sustainable governance structure that is more readily passed on the next group of stewards.” Some church board members disdain policy development or spending time hammering out good process to facilitate board operations. They just want to get on with the “important stuff.” However, establishing best practices and processes is a necessity if a church board is going to handle “the important stuff” responsibly, as well as manage conflict well. Good policy and process save boards time and energy, because they avoid repeating mistakes and “reinventing the wheel.”
I have commented on these principles previously in various blogs. However, it is interesting that Seminary presidents and board members identify similar issues relating to board success. Church board chairs do well to give attention to such matters.