In blog article #309 I reviewed five findings about seminary boards and governance leadership published in the Association of Theological Schools “Colloquy Online May 2017” by E. S. Brown. While seminary boards function in a different context than church boards, in my view both kinds of boards face many of the same challenges. In this blog I discuss briefly the last five lessons discerned.
#6. Do not wait for crisis to improve governance. A general approach frequently practiced among church boards is to sustain the status quo until the board hits the metaphorical ‘speed bump’. Then in the midst of the crisis people want to upgrade or change or develop new policy, which only adds to the leadership complexity experienced in the crisis. Better to develop a process of continual, scheduled review of board policies and operations so that problems can be anticipated and addressed before they happen. Consider it part of the board members’ continued education and competency development. A board governance committee is a good way to enable the board to manage this need.
#7. Look ahead. We know that change is constantly occurring and it seems with increasing speed. A good rule of thumb in the light of this reality is to 25% of the board’s time to securing what the institution already has (risk management), 25% to sustaining the operation with excellence (management reports, etc.), and 50% to discerning the future and planning for change. When the percentages get distorted, board leadership will suffer. Remember, a church board is governing for the benefit of the people who will be part of the faith community five years into the future.
#8 Use external resources to benchmark your church board’s governance processes, policies and structures. Too often church boards become cocooned in their own culture and traditions. When this occurs, church boards lose the compass point that enables them to navigate well. In Canada one of these external resources is the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, which provides resources that church boards can use to benchmark their operations. Every two to three years a church board would be wise to invite an external consultant to sit with them and help them review their operations and recommend changes. Often denominations will have some expertise that they can share in this regard. An important kingdom value is excellence. An annual, internal process of board evaluation also helps to surface areas that need to be addressed. The ‘Church Board Chair Manual which I have developed is another tool that you can use.
#9. Be nimble and humble enough to respond to changing times with appropriate adjustments to governance structures. If you have operated as a board in a certain for ten or twenty years, then presumably your congregation has changed substantially in that period. So you might ask whether the board governance processes have kept pace with these changes? If not, it is probable that tensions and conflicts might be emerging because the congregation has changed and its expectations are different, but the board has not kept pace and so is out of touch with the congregation’s perspectives, expectations and needs. This may even hindering the ability of the congregation to grow and be affecting church health. Perhaps you policy on marriage, divorce and remarriage needs review and updating or your policy regarding member care and discipline is out of date. Or perhaps the size of your church board no longer enables the board to operate effectively. Sometimes the areas over which the board has exercised control need to be revised because the pastoral staff has grown and the board no longer needs to give attention to these things in the same way. When church boards are wedded to the status quo, this can have fatal consequences.
#10. A board’s work is never done, but you only have a very limited time in which to do it. Sustaining trust between the church board and the congregation remains a constant part of any church board’s agenda. With change affecting all aspects of a church board’s operations and the congregation’s life, an effective board will always be busy, anticipating change and providing wise leadership for the health of the congregation and the achievement of the mission. In the midst of this the persons on the church board are changing and so the board has to work hard to keep renewing itself. This responsibility lies squarely in the laps of the church board chairs and the lead pastors.
By giving attention to these governance principles and counsels, church boards can provide effective leadership for their congregations, as well as enjoy their work together in this wonderful Kingdom adventure to which God has called us.