Among the frequent items on church board agendas are various proposals about new ministry opportunities or developments affecting current ministries. The type of ministry proposal will vary depending upon the size of the church and the traditions of decision-making that have developed over time. Usually the decision comes to the board when it involves changes to the budget, hiring of new personnel, a totally new ministry direction or changes to facilities or their use. Further, such proposals most often will be generated by pastoral staff or volunteer leaders who are invested heavily in the ministry which the proposal seeks to assist. Such emotional investment should not be underestimated. Often such proposals will test the ability of all the board members to put first the good of the whole congregation and its mission.
The church board chair often finds out from the lead pastor that a ministry proposal is in the works. He wants to keep the chair in the loop and usually desires to facilitate a positive response to the emerging proposal. It is important that he advocate for the staff or volunteer leaders. So at some point the chair will learn that the proposal is ready for presentation to the church board and so needs to be included in the board’s agenda. So far so good.
But it is precisely at this point that difficulties frequently emerge. What does such a proposal need to contain in order to assist the board members to evaluate it and reach an appropriate decision? Who presents the proposal? If there are various proposals coming to the board at the same time, how does the board sort out its priorities? If the board agrees, is there any additional decision-making process required by the congregation? Is there any evaluation process to establish whether the proposal when implemented has demonstrated success? And if it is not successful, who decides whether to cancel it or thoroughly revise it? Should there be a sunset clause in the proposal or a specific term after which a thorough evaluation will be done to decide whether to continue with this new ministry? Who will be responsible to implement it? If the board comes to a negative decision, what will be the repercussions among the pastoral staff, volunteer leaders, and/or church body?
Thinking carefully about these issues in advance may help you as chair to encourage the board to develop an effective process for evaluating all ministry program proposals. You have probably heard the terms “discussion brief” and “decision profile.” These describe two different ways that proposals can be presented to a church board. A “discussion brief” defines the issue/program, expresses key questions that need to be answered, provides essential background information (including possible personnel and other resource implications, relevance to the congregation’s mission, vision and strategic plan, resources to read etc.) and then proposes some means to prepare and formulate a “decision profile.” This could involve members of the board, staff people, external consultants, etc. The purpose of a discussion briefing is to enable the board to engage the issue, discern its possible implications and ferret out other questions that need to be answered before the board is willing to make a decision.
A “decision profile” usually is the next step following a “discussion brief.” The major difference here would be that key factors are more sharply defined, pros and cons may also be listed for the possible outcomes, and while several possible directions will be outlined, a specific recommendation will be included. It is prudent for the board to decide in what format it will require all such proposals to be presented. When the board receives such documentation in support of specific ministry proposals, this level of documentation enables the board to process the decision much more intentionally. Instead of the board functioning as a committee of the whole, seeking to formulate the proposal itself, it can concentrate its energies upon discerning the contribution of the proposal to mission advancement, evaluating risk, ensuring adequate means of implementation and evaluation, weighing its priority, assessing its impact upon current and anticipated resources, etc.
As much as possible a board chair should insist that ministry proposals come in written form to the board. Oral presentations without supporting documentation place a significant burden upon the board’s time and often end up straining relationships between the board and the presenter and generating considerable confusion. Of course, deciding who prepares such documentation is sometimes a question. However, in my view, it should be the person in charge of the ministry which is promoting the idea. In cases where the issues are related to board operations, personnel, and broad congregational issues, the board may have to assign their preparation to a specific group. Sometimes this responsibility will fall upon the board chair or the lead pastor. It may be that you, as chair, will want to prepare the first two or three of these proposals as a way of demonstrating to the board their usefulness as a decision-making tool and establishing an appropriate format.
One of the frustrations of chairing a church board is that despite your best efforts to plan the agenda well in advance and circulate it in good time with necessary documentation to assist the board members, there always seem to be the last minute items that threaten to derail the board’s deliberations. How often does it happen that such last minute items are presented with poor information, no specific recommendation, and a plea that the decision must be made immediately. So the board, because it wants to help and assist, struggles to comply, but ends of spending 30-40 minutes of key board time trying to do the work that should have been done outside of the board. The result often is a poorly worded decision, frustrated board members, and a general feeling that the board’s energies and wisdom have been misused.
Three aspects that frequently receive little attention in such proposals include identifying the resources to support the proposal, identifying who is responsible for implementation and to whom that person or those persons are accountable, and identifying measures that will demonstrate whether the proposal is successful and what time line will be used to determine success, i.e. evaluation. Without a clear source of funding identified and verified, the board accepts significant financial risk being imposed upon the operational fund. The board may require certain funds to be in hand before implementation is permitted, i.e. the proposal has to demonstrate there is leadership and support. Sometimes proposals are accepted with implicit understanding as to whom the board expects will be responsible to implement. Yet without explicit assignment, the board cannot discern what impact this proposal may have upon the work loads of current staff. Further, if there is no definition of who is is overseeing the implementation, then accountability is short-circuited. Finally, always include in a motion for approval a date by which the board will receive an evaluation of the proposal’s degree of success. Alternatively, the board might approve funding for a specified time and require such an evaluation report before determining whether funding will be extended.
As chair you may need to coach the board in considering such matters regarding individual proposals. In their eagerness to support exciting new ideas, the board members may overlook some of these vary practical, but important elements. You may also have to counter some objections that the board should just trust the good sense of those proposing the plan and not be so concerned with the details. However, I would strongly advise that gracefully you remind the board of their duties of prudence, diligence, and trust, which require them to give attention to such details.