59. Policy, Governance and Biblical Principles
Phillip Jenkins has defined boards as “the well-intentioned in full pursuit of the irrelevant.” While this is a rather pessimistic and cynical evaluation, church boards often fall into this mode of operation. Church boards tend to operate by functioning as a advisors and rubber stamps or by meddling and micromanaging. Although the intention of board members in operating in such ways might be good, the results fall far short of the potential such boards could have in advancing their congregation’s mission. These realities which historically have been endemic among non-profit agency boards led John Carver to develop and advance his ideas now known as “Policy Governance” (a registered phrase). However, because Carver’s ideas were developed outside of the framework of Christian communities and church boards, some wonder whether they are compatible with biblical principles and congregational forms of church governance in particular.
Richard Biery argues that the fit between Carver’s principles and biblical values is very close. He defines linkages between four primary Carver principles — the servant leadership role of the board in stewardship, accountability, empowerment within policy guidelines, and clarity of values, i.e. the ends the board desires the organization to achieve. As well he shows how values such as integrity, the use of words, and excellence, as well as the concept of covenant and the wise use of resources similarly are harmonious with biblical perspectives.
I would add several, broader categories of biblical concern that Carver’s model addresses.
1. Ensuring the appropriate location of authority.
Applying the principles developed by Carver requires a non-profit agency to sort out the question of authority. In the context of a congregation, the implementation of his ideas enables the church board to discern its role, to define clearly the role of the pastoral staff, and to articulate how other stakeholders in that context speak into respective decisions. The writers of the New Testament were careful to control the use of authority within the church and quick to condemn its abuse. In the cultural setting of the Roman Empire, where authoritarian modes of control were dominant, the principles of Kingdom living Jesus taught created a community in which authority, while present, was to be expressed within the values of sacrifice, service, love, and grace. Authority in the congregation was always to be exercised in trust for the good of the body and not for selfish reasons. Carver’s principles enable a congregation to assign appropriate authority but also implement checks and balances so that authority is employed for advancing the mission in ways that are consistent with the values of the congregation. This model requires both church board and pastoral staff to submit to the distribution of authority as defined by the congregation.
2. Providing an effective and efficient leadership structure.
Jesus, Paul and Peter addressed matters of leadership within the church. Jesus talked about values and vision, primarily, but Paul and Peter also treated matters specific to leadership principles and structure. The metaphor of “body” that Paul invoked to illustrate the nature of the Christian church has embedded within it concepts of structure. When he expanded the metaphor in Ephesians 4:11ff, he described the body as joined together and working well because every part is restored to its created order and obediently fulfilling its function for the good of the body. The result is that the body grows the whole body (Ephesians 4:16) empowered by Jesus Christ and his gifts to the body. Paul again in 1 Corinthians 14:40 urges that everything be done “decently and in order.” In Acts we see how the Holy Spirit guided the church through various crises to develop new structures to facilitate its mission and ministry. Although structure and leadership patterns are diverse, there are many places where both are addressed. Carver’s principles take up this concern for clear, effective and efficient leadership structures and enable a church to define and implement such structures. In particular the clarity his principles require for the board’s leadership, the pastoral leadership and the congregational leadership enable each to work coherently together because they understand their respective contributions to the leadership of the congregation. Yet Carver’s principles provide considerable flexibility in their implementation.
3. Keeping the board on mission.
A key element in Carver’s philosophy of board operations is the definition of the primary “end” or outcome that the agency was created to accomplish. Once this is discerned and agreed upon, then all that the board does has to work in some fashion towards achieving this end. This singularity of focus brings discipline to the board and its operations. As well, it fosters unity and requires alignment of purpose within the roles of the staff. People know the direction, resources are applied to pursuing that direction, and evaluations are related to progress made towards achieving the goal.
4. Elevating the role of church board members.
The New Testament writers denounced the pursuit of leadership in the church for purposes of personal status and ambition. Yet, the writers encouraged the proper recognition of those who give their time, energy and giftings to serve the people of God well. Enabling believers to live out their calling in Christ in meaningful ways is also valued. Carver’s principles enable the board itself and the stakeholders in and related to the local church to recognize appropriately and to respect the important role that the church board fulfills. Too often within the congregation the board is regarded as a committee doing some kind of administrative work, rather than the energized, Spirit-directed ministry team that is giving its full attention to the accomplishment of the church’s mission. When church board members discern how directly connected their work is to the achievement of the church’s mission, it has the capacity to transform their sense of service.
5. Enabling voices to be heard.
The belief in biblical principles such as the priesthood of believers, the equal relationship that all believers have with and in Christ, the role of the Holy Spirit in every believer’s life, the concept of the giftedness and empowerment for ministry, all contribute to the importance that a church board must place upon enabling voices within the congregation to be heard respectfully and prayerfully. Carver’s principles allow for, encourage and enable church boards to develop and adhere to appropriate mechanisms that support shared governance. This means that the board knows and values the ways and means that the bylaws provide for congregational input and decisions. Similarly, the board understands the appropriate involvement of staff in its decisions and values that input. Too often church conflict arises because church boards do not know or do not value the input of appropriate congregational segments into the decision-making progress.
What does all this mean for a church board chair when considering ways to enhance the development of his or her board? Is the Carver model an appropriate means for a church board to define its role? Does it cohere with biblical principles and values? I think the answer is yes, provided there is trust and integrity being used in proposing such a transition. All systems can be abused, even the Carver model. However, if it is implemented well, with good understanding, and with a view to enhancing the theological and other values that the church embraces, then it can be a very productive and energizing church board development. As chair you would play a significant role in introducing such a proposed change, helping the board educate itself about this decision so that it discerns its value, and then working carefully and transparently to implement it, if the board decides to proceed. Recognize that implementation will take about two years.