Keeping a church board on task has to be one of the most challenging and frustrating responsibilities that a church board chair manages. It seems that many individuals and issues conspire to derail a church board from its primary purposes and diffuse its energy, resulting in wasted time, dissatisfied board members, and loss of ministry momentum. Church board effectiveness is directly related to the ability and discipline of the board to keep focused upon strategic priorities — whether these are defined in spiritual or in other terms. Somehow a board chair has to discern with the board what these strategic priorities are for a specific year and then through determined leadership assist the board to move towards addressing those priorities. Doing this requires hard work, humour, and no small degree of holy dissatisfaction, i.e. the conviction that God is at work in the congregation and He wants it to make a God-honouring impact in its community.
So the first question a church board chair must ask is this — do you know what the strategic priorities of your board are? Has the board defined these in general or specific terms so that after twelve months of work the board can evaluate its progress? If it has, are these priorities in fact “strategic,” i.e. the priorities that if advanced will help the congregation achieve its mission? If your answer to one or both questions is “no,” then the effectiveness of the board you chair is being compromised by lack of direction. This needs to be addressed by the board so that you as chair know how to guide the board in achieving its priorities. Perhaps at the next board retreat you as chair should challenge the board to establish in its collective understanding what its strategic priorities must be in the next twelve months to advance the church’s mission. If your board already has done this, then make sure it is reviewed and renewed annually.
What does the establishment of strategic priorities contribute to board effectiveness?
1. Requires the board to discern direction. As already mentioned the board has to set some direction in order to guide its work through the year. If the board sets no goals, then it will probably fail to advance the church’s mission in any substantial way. Business will be done, but board members will feel increasingly that it is busy work. At the end of meetings board members will consider their time and energies were not being used to full advantage. Priorities are tied to vision and values. Perhaps the absence of clear strategic priorities indicates that the board lacks clarity about the congregation’s vision. If this is so, then this must be remedied. The board could initiate action by asking the pastor and ministry staff to recommend a set of strategic priorities that will advance the vision, providing rationale for each priority proposed. The board can review this set of recommendations and adjust them, add to or revise them as they see fit. If a priority needs several years to achieve, then ensure that what should be accomplished each year is clear. Once the board has adopted a set of strategic priorities, it can then set agendas that will focus upon those priorities.
2. Requires the board to function in a disciplined manner. How does a church board determine what business it should be conducting? Too often the agenda gets set by external forces and the board finds itself in reactionary mode, rather than giving its attention to the things it regards as critical. No board can escape entirely the need to deal with surprises, but having clear priorities enables the board to discipline its time and keep itself on track with respect to the most important things. Boards in smaller congregations are particularly susceptible to these external pressures. There is a spiritual aspect to this discipline as well and that is the prayer agenda of the board members. Once the strategic priorities are identified by the board, these things can become the prayer list for the board. Answered prayers then become achievements of the strategic priorities.
3. It builds accountability. How does a board hold itself accountable for exercising responsible leadership within the congregation? At the end of the day it is the board itself that must define its agenda and hold itself accountable for achieving that agenda. The more clearly the board can articulate its strategic priorities, the better it is able to sustain and demonstrate good accountability. Both the chair person and the individual board members can track the board’s progress and raise questions when the board seems to be diverting from its agreed priorities.
4. It repays the trust given by the congregation. A board that defines clear strategic priorities and keeps focusing upon their achievement normally will garner the respect and sustained trust of the congregation. As the board reports to the congregation through the year, it both articulates the priorities and notes progress being made towards their achievement. When the congregation is encouraged to connect achievement of these priorities with achievement of the congregation’s mission, then people are encouraged by the board’s determination to advance the Kingdom of God in that place.
5. It enables the board to manage risk. When a board understands what its primary work entails, then it can focus its attention upon managing risks related to those priorities. To spend a great deal of time and effort managing risk for a project that is not a strategic priority produces frustration and sometimes needless cost if something goes awry. If the board is going to embrace a risk, better that it arise from something that the board considers absolutely critical to the advancement of the congregation’s mission. If the board should decide to approve something that is not a strategic priority and the project misfires with attendant problems, then the congregation is going to wonder at the wisdom of the board in even venturing such a project when it was not within the orbit of its stated strategic priorities.
6. It enables the board to celebrate gains. One of the great privileges that a church board experiences is leading the congregation in praising God for significant advancement of the mission. Whether it is people saved and baptized, missionaries supported, facilities for ministry constructed and well-financed, or the development and hiring of additional ministry leaders, because the board has sustained focus upon strategic priorities the congregation can celebrate and give glory to God.
The church board chair’s responsibilities touch on each of the 6 areas. As the board engages in defining and attending to its strategic priorities, the board chair’s role also becomes more manageable and satisfying.