In his parable of the talents (Luke 19) Jesus tells how the owner of an estate plans a journey and so he gives portions of his money to various servants for safekeeping. He expects them to multiply the funds he entrusts. When he returns, he rewards those who have taken risk, worked industriously and increased the value of his property. This parable’s principle has application to the role of church board chair. A person in this leadership positionxxffff is stewarding the work of an important Kingdom resource, i.e. a church board, and God expects that this believer, when he or she finishes this leadership task, will leave the church board in better shape than when he or she began. God’s resources will be multiplied in their effectiveness.
Improving a church board’s ability and capacity to govern is a means to an end, namely the improved ability and capacity of the board to advance the mission of the church. Of course, if done well, these organizational adjustments should also result in better decision-making, greater efficiency, and more effective use of the board as a ministry resource. More importantly it should enable the board to spend more time on the important issues and on collective worship. As a result the board members will experience much greater satisfaction in their ministry.
Board organization has to be seen across a 12 month framework, i.e. within the scope of the annual general meeting. In one sense good board organization enables a board to prepare and present a good annual report because it has attended to its responsibilities well through the year. So I would suggest drafting the annual board agenda is an important first step in board organization. As chair you need to know what decisions must be made at the appropriate time in the year. Along with the annual agenda, you should also include the dates when key reports have to be filed or committee work must be completed. For example, when does the annual audit or financial review have to occur so that things can be reviewed by the board and reported to the congregation at the annual general meeting? When does the board have to appoint the auditors or approve the firm/person doing the annual review? When does the nominating committee need to begin its work so that necessary processes can be completed in time for the annual general meeting?
Second, establish a good working relationship with the board secretary. Work collaboratively to compose and circulate useful minutes, timely agendas, and other processes. The chair can also work with the board secretary to ensure that committees complete their responsibilities in a timely way.
Third, it is useful to ask the board to appoint a vice-chair who can provide leadership in your absence. As you proceed through the year, you can be mentoring this person as a potential successor. Getting the input of the vice-chair in the development of the agenda provides another board voice to ensure that you are keeping on top of things.
Fourth, you should have the board approve an annual schedule of meetings in which you also indicate other key meetings, such as the board retreat, the annual general meeting, etc. You might also include the name of the board member who will be asked to lead worship at each meeting. If the board agrees to meet socially with spouses once or twice a year, include those dates too. The more advanced notice you can give, the greater the participation of the board members in the meetings. If there is doubt about place and time when the board meets, then make that explicit also. Circulate that schedule and keep updating it through the year.
Fifth, at the first meeting following the annual general meeting at which new board members are appointed, seek to have the board fill all positions on any standing committees (e.g. finance committee, personnel committee) or congregational committees (e.g. nominating committee). If necessary, have the board renew your mandate as chair so that you continue to lead with appropriate authority. Make sure the chair of each committee is clearly designated and noted in the minutes so you know whom to prompt to make sure respective committees are active and carrying forward their mandate.
Sixthly, as you conclude each meeting, take a few moments to review assignments. Work with the secretary to record those on the minutes so that people have clarity about expectations. Especially seek to define the time line for reporting back to the board.
Seventh, keep reviewing policies. As you have time create a list of board and church policies. Then, incorporate into every second meeting of the board the review of one policy so that board members are reminded about it, as well as have opportunity to revise, improve or rescind because of changes that have occurred. As this occurs establish with the board when the next review of that policy should occur (perhaps two or three years). Work with the secretary to construct a time-chart that lists the policies and when they are due to be reviewed.
Eighth, as each meeting ends ask the board to evaluate their work at the meeting. This can be done in several ways. As chair you might ask a board member in advance of a meeting to be observing silently the flow of the meeting and then at the end give a brief comment on what went well and where the board might have worked better together. At the annual retreat take time to let the board evaluate their work during the past year. From this review you will probably be able to discern one or two things for the board to work on in the coming year.
Number nine would be the development of a one page document that describes the key ministry responsibilities which the church entrusts to the board. Of course, this should be a project the entire board engages and is informed by what is said in the by-laws. However, it will not be confined merely to a repetition of statements found in the by-laws. The annual evaluation of the board should reference this description. As well, this is a great document to use at the orientation of new board members.
Tenth, try to keep incorporating new operational processes. For example, if your board does not use a consent agenda as part of the larger agenda, this is well worth exploring. If implemented it will improve board efficiency significantly. Or consider the implementation of discussion briefs and decision profiles as means by which to aid board decision-making. Perhaps think about using an executive session once every three or four meetings in order to let the board members speak to issues that might otherwise become “the elephant in the room.”
These are just a few of many ideas that you can use as board chair to help the board improve its serve. While a board member occasionally might object, as you explain patiently and encourage innovation wisely, most will be open to experiment. As board meetings improve and the ministry of the church board advances, most board members will bless you for your leadership.