In some way the role of church board chair gets linked with the preparations for and oversight of the annual general meeting (AGM). As board chair you may or may not chair the AGM, but you must ensure that it is planned well and the members of the local church receive reports that demonstrate good accountability in relation to the church’s mission, vision, and values, as well as meet all legal requirements that your jurisdiction may have for the governance of non-profit charities. Of course, having an AGM is not an option for most churches because they are legally registered charities and must by law, at least in Canada, hold an AGM on a regular schedule and conduct specific business at that meeting.
What is the key purpose of an AGM? This meeting of the congregational members provides the primary, annual occasion for the church board to demonstrate how it has advanced that local church’s mission and managed the trust the members have placed in the board with excellence and integrity. While various people may report about several different aspects of the church’s ministries, including the lead pastor, they do so on behalf of the church board. I realize that most church AGM’s are not planned or presented from this perspective, but legally and also I would argue spiritually, this is what should be occurring. This assumes that the lead pastor is responsible to the church board for his leadership and through the board to the congregation. Of course, the lead pastor will be sharing stories of God’s work and his perceptions of where the congregation needs to give particular attention, but he should be doing this as part of the church board’s presentation to the church — because he is a member of the board. You will probably need to have a conversation with the lead pastor about this to develop good understanding in this matter and ensure that he realizes the board is not seeking to usurp his role or limit his voice.
Since this is the nature of the AGM, the church board and its chair needs to be involved with the lead pastor in planning the agenda, overseeing the presentations/reports, and making arrangements for the meeting. A first step would be for the chair to discuss with the board members their understanding of the purpose of an AGM and through distribution of basic information help them appreciate its importance — and potential for good. An outcome of this conversion would be a clear statement of the two or three key outcomes that the board desires the AGM to achieve. The second step would be for the chair and the lead pastor to develop a proposal for an effective, vision-focused AGM that delivers the accountability required, but is future-oriented. Once the board has reviewed this proposal and achieved consensus about it, then the chair and lead pastor should be empowered to implement it.
At least four key things need to happen at the AGM:
1. Provide an accurate, honest, transparent account of the “state of the mission” as a result of the last twelve months of ministry.
The church board members are accountable to the congregation which has appointed them and entrusted them to provide spiritual and governance leadership on their behalf for the mission of the church. The AGM provides the most significant opportunity for the church board to report how they have fulfilled this responsibility, indicating both the positive and, as necessary, the negative. The AGM is an accountability session. In this regard the church board chair reports on behalf of the board to the congregation. Normally the church board will also invite the lead pastor to present a report focusing more on the ministry aspect of the congregation’s development. It is quite possible that the chair and lead pastor will decide to present a joint report, with each emphasizing different aspects of the board’s work. Because this report does represent the church board’s governance, it is important that the board members have opportunity to review the report before it is circulated so that they are supportive of its contents.The report should be available in printed format (as well as in electronic format). It is a public document and so should be written with that in view, i.e. that all in the congregation and those outside the congregation (government officials) will have access to it.
It is helpful to put this report close to the beginning of the meeting because everything else in the agenda will build upon this report. Normally linked to this report will be the treasurer’s report regarding the state of the congregation’s finances. Consider including a paragraph or two that explains what the different figures and categories mean, i.e. what are the two or three key indicators that reveal the true financial state of the congregation. Putting this in print will take a lot of the mystery out of the process and educate the congregation in these matters. Every effort should be made to provide a financial statement that has been reviewed by someone, preferably not directly connected with the church, who has financial expertise and can make some expert pronouncement regarding its validity. Though dollars might be scarce, scrimping on this part of the report may prove to be a serious mistake. Financial credibility is usually linked with other kinds of credibility. You should ensure that the report affirms that all required financial reporting to the government for purposes of retaining charity status has been done. As well, the board’s report should indicate how many members/partners formally are part of the society and which members/partners have been removed or voluntary resigned. It is important to keep the membership current because this number will affect things such as quorum requirements.
2. Elect key officers and church board members.
The Nominating Committee normally is appointed directly by the members and thus should report directly to them. While its work will be overseen by the church board and one or two board members may be part of it, it does not report to the church board but operates at arms length. So it will need some time in the agenda to present its report regarding recommendations for new board members, treasurer, and clerk, plus any other official positions that the church bylaws require the congregation to elect directly. The committee’s report should be included in the materials sent to all members two weeks prior to the AGM. If the bylaws allow for nominations from the floor, then arrangements should be made to accommodate this (i.e. ballots, pencils, etc.). The chair of the meeting will need to appoint scrutineers to secure the ballots and count the votes on behalf of the congregation. Once the ballots are counted, there should be a motion to destroy the ballots. When the results are announced, this presents a good opportunity to thank publicly those who have served and contributed their time and expertise to the congregation’s mission.
3. Review and approve changes to foundational documents (i.e. bylaws, church policies, etc.).
It is always a challenge to keep core documents up-to-date. However, working with unrevised and inaccurate bylaws and policies creates confusion, inhibits the ability of new and current board members to carry out their responsibilities, and can lead to manipulation of process because no one knows how things are supposed to be done — you make up the rules as you go. Preparing for the AGM provides an annual opportunity for the church board to review these matters and discern whether any recommendations for change need to be proposed to the congregation and provide enough time for the recommendations to be formulated carefully. Every five years there should be a major review of these documents — institutions change more quickly than we realize.
4. Review and approve key plans for the coming year, explaining how these plans fit the vision and will advance the mission.
I would suggest that you consider integrating a report regarding mission-directed plans for the coming year with the presentation of the proposed budget. If you lay before people a set of numbers devoid of context, then it will be confusing and for most an exercise in frustration because they will not understand the rationale behind the numbers. However, if you lead with a summary of four or five key ministry initiatives that the church board (and the ministry staff) believe should be attempted in the coming year and tie these then to the proposed budget, the budget becomes a planning tool, a way to express anticipated, missional gains. When people link numbers to mission and vision, they become motivated.
Give yourself enough lead time to enable the church board to prepare well for the AGM. It would be wise to introduce some discussion about the AGM into the board’s agenda at least two months prior to its date. Remember that you need to have materials out to the congregation, at least in the Canadian context, about two weeks prior to the actual meeting. So if your church board meets monthly, this allows six weeks for preparations to be made. This also enables you to work with the lead pastor to draft the board’s report and seek their input at the meeting prior to the AGM.
If at all possible, provide some children’s care so that parents of younger families can attend. Encourage people to see this as an opportunity to celebrate, praise God, and pray together for his continued guidance and help in this mission. While some “business” has to be done, in the church context it is all related to mission fulfillment and this important spiritual work.
Finally, you might consider asking the Board to appoint someone, other than the board chair, to chair the AGM. If you as chair are giving reports and perhaps making motions, it will be awkward to do that and simultaneously chair the AGM.