While many who participate in church boards think that their role is to make sure the present congregational operations are sustained, in my view the more significant and critical work of a church board has to do with the future. Whether one talks about ‘transformative governance’ or ‘good faith governance’ or ‘policy governance,’ the focus ultimately comes to rest on how the board will govern into the future. The board’s perspective has to be long term and cannot become totally preoccupied with managing the present, no matter how pressing or urgent present matters might seem to be. Like a person rowing a boat, once you lose sight of your destination, you are liable to row in circles. Although a board chair is not the only one in the boat, he or she is like the coxswain, calling the beat and managing the rudder to keep the entire board ministry team rowing directly to the target.
What factors contribute to a future, generative stance as a chair and board person?
Leadership culture: as church board chair you are one person, but you have relationships with other primary leaders in the congregation. If as many argue leadership primarily is the expression of influence, then you are in a position to shape and affect the leadership culture of your church. Much of this influence will occur through example or informal conversations. However, you influence the ethos of the church board directly as you facilitate meetings, prepare agendas, interact with the lead pastor, and discern educational focuses for the board. As debate on various issues ensues, you can direct board members’ attention to the mission, values and vision that should shape each decision, i.e. the future. You shape the developing leadership culture of the congregation intentionally or unintentionally. The choice is yours.
Reputation for integrity: as chair you know that the decisions of today shape the congregation of tomorrow. When poor decisions are made for the wrong reasons, this creates a significant threat for the future, and destroys the board’s integrity. The accumulated impact of various poor decisions will sap the spiritual energy of the congregation and seriously erode confidence in the congregational leadership. It is better, once your discover the board made an inappropriate or ill-advised decision, to regroup, re-think, and if necessary change direction. Humility is better than perpetuated foolishness. While a board chair does not carry all the responsibility for maintaining board integrity, he or she should act as a bell weather for the board in such matters or should ensure that some one in the board is paying close attention to such matters. If you try to build for the future using shoddy material, you know eventually the steep price that will be paid.
Successful governance depends on the skill, dedication and integrity of leaders: future potential and vision will only be realized if leaders act today with integrity and employ their skill and spiritual wisdom to advance the church’s mission boldly. The generative work of a board does not happen just because people show up to a meeting. Without every board member working hard to come prepared and aware and filled with prayer-shaped expectation, then the opportunities the board has to advance that mission will often be wasted. The chair by example, verbal encouragement, personal prayer, and skillful leadership enables the board both to realize the trust they carry and have the courage to embrace it vigorously and in a sustained way.
Attention to the small stuff: we are often told “don’t sweat the small stuff” and there is wisdom in that. However, when leaders neglect to do the small things well, it’s like throwing sand into a gearbox. The gears grind, but what a racket — and the damage may fatal. Board’s get distracted rather easily and often it is the small things, such as late agendas, poor reports, lack of follow through, etc. that prevents a board from working to its potential. Much of the responsibility to ensure that the small stuff is being attended to competently falls on the shoulders of the chair. Sometimes the chair can be assisted by a well-organized board secretary in managing these matters, if the chair does not consider himself or herself particularly task-oriented in these matters.
Strategy and Risk oversight: do you as board chair know clearly where your congregation is headed strategically? Are you aware of any pending risks to the accomplishment of the congregation’s mission? Although omniscience is not a required trait for a board chair, discernment and wisdom are and nowhere are these gifts and abilities more needed than in defining actions needed by the board to help the congregation achieve its mission. And as this is being done, the chair will also be encouraging the board members to define the risks and take necessary steps to mitigate such risks and. There will be no movement towards the future without strategic discernment and boldness to risk.
Continuous learning: the ability to facilitate church board operations that are future-oriented requires a chair to be involved in continuing self-education about the church, its community, and the nature of governance within the Canadian (or American or other) reality. This can be done informally or formally. The congregation does not exist in a vacuum and a board cannot exercise appropriate and responsible governance if it governs as if it existed in a bubble, immune from any external realities. Our understanding of church life changes, the way people think about and respond to leadership alters over time,and the way congregations relate to the society is a dynamic reality. In all of this congregations grow — and decline. Leaders come and go. Being a student of the church, of board governance, of spiritual leadership, and of team dynamics can equip you to exercise adaptive leadership. Walking with God in and through all of this is itself a life-altering experience.
Adaptive change: no matter the size of the congregation, the ethos of the church board, or your own situation, over the longer term things change. As chair you bear a significant part of the responsibility in the board to help the member become aware of the need for change and discern how that change should be shaped and managed. It is not a question where change will be needed, but when. Sustaining the essence of the mission agency while concurrently re-shaping its vision and the implementation of that vision to achieve mission forms a significant part of a chair’s competency.
Prudence requires a board chair to embrace a long-term view of governance. Equipping and disciplining oneself to provide such leadership for a church board is part of the kingdom commitment we make when we assume such a role.
A concluding observation. Within the context of a Christian worldview our service for God as a leader in his church arises from both the creation and redemptive mandate. From the standpoint of the creation mandate we are to steward and care for the created order under God’s authority. From the perspective of a church board I would suggest this relates to good management of the personnel and other resources God has provided so that people in our employ flourish and the resources of the congregation are administered in ways that are environmentally responsible and contributing to the “shalom” of society in general. In terms of the redemptive mandate church board’s govern with a view the Messiah’s mission of worldwide disciple-making and that this entails. These fundamental mindsets guide a church board so that it knows how to govern with a view to the future.