A church board chair employs many different ‘tools’ in order to help a church board maximize its capacity for good governance. These include careful agendas, communication skills, attention to process, board evaluations, and board policies. One tool which seems to be overlooked frequently in the context of church boards is a statement of ethical conduct for board members. Given the spiritual context of a church board’s work, most people within a congregation would assume that board members, usually pastors, elders and/or deacons, possess spiritual maturity and know what ethical conduct looks like. As well, congregants want to believe that such individuals are being “led by the Spirit” and working relationally with the “fruit of the Spirit.” Too many stories are circulating that unfortunately often reveal a different reality. Church board members do not always know and practice appropriate, Spirit-honouring boundaries for their conduct within and without the board’s meetings.
Ethical behaviour for church board members forms the foundation for credibility, productivity, and governance leadership. When church boards in whole or in part deviate from ethical conduct, sooner or later their mandate to provide spiritual leadership within the congregation dissolves and the harm to the congregation can be considerable. A code of ethical conduct or ethical action or ethical behaviour protects the board and its members, protects the congregation, and enables a board chair to help the board discern when it is in danger of acting unethically.
A code of ethical conduct for a church board will reflect the congregation’s values, which provide strategic guidance for this agency’s mission and vision. Values and ethical conduct principles should be compatible and coherent. However, the ethical conduct code will be more specific, describing agreed, appropriate boundaries for board members’ actions, behaviours and decisions. It provides a positive framework within which board members and the chair can develop effective working relationships to advance the agency’s mission.
Such a code of ethical conduct should include something about mutual respect for one another, acting with integrity and honesty, attention to due diligence, disclosing conflicts of interest, and compliance with legal requirements. A clear statement about the misconduct (e.g. sexual misconduct, criminal activity, divisive behaviour, harmful addiction, etc.) that triggers a board member’s resignation should be developed. Board members should keep confidences, not disclose publicly the nature of internal board discussions (confidentiality with transparency) let the chair speak for the board, not interfere in church administration, and support board decisions publicly. When the church board is discussing an issue about which a board member has particular expertise or information, the board member has a duty to share it with the board. A board member is expected to act with loyalty to the congregational mission. However it is defined, board members should demonstrate spiritual maturity in all proceedings. Fairness should exemplify all decisions. A duty to keep up-to-date on the issues affecting the welfare of the congregation now and in the future. Respect for the structure, work, and policies of the board, with a commitment to work for changes within those guidelines.
I am providing a sample “church board code of ethical conduct,” but please make sure to adapt it to your context. Not all of the stipulations will be equally helpful in every context. You may also discern some gaps. If so, please forward your suggestions to me.
Church Board Code of Ethical Conduct
It is the policy of XYZ Church Board that board members uphold the highest standards of ethical, professional, Christian behaviour. To that end board members shall dedicate themselves to carrying out the mission of XYZ Church and shall:
- Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the congregation and public in all of its actions.
- Act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance personal honour and integrity and the reputation of XYZ Church and not engage in unethical practices — business or otherwise.
- Treat with respect, fairness and consideration all persons, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, maternity, marital or family status, disability, age or national origin.
- Engage in carrying out XYZ Church’s mission as competently as possible.
- Collaborate with and support one another, staff and volunteers in carrying out the mission of XYZ Church.
- Recognize that the chief function of XYZ Church at all times is to serve the best interests of its beneficiaries.
- Accept as a personal duty the responsibility to keep up to date on emerging issues and to conduct themselves with professional competence, fairness, impartiality, efficiency, and effectiveness.
- Respect the structure and responsibilities of the board, provide it with facts and advice as a basis for making policy decisions, and uphold and implement policies adopted by the board.
- Conduct organizational and operational duties with positive leadership exemplified by open communication, creativity, fortitude, dedication, and compassion.
- Respect the board chair’s role to speak on behalf of the board.
- Exercise their discretionary authority in ways that do not violate institutional bylaws or applicable laws and ordinances.
- Serve with respect, concern, courtesy, and responsiveness in carrying out XYZ Church’s mission, not misrepresenting XYZ Church in any negotiations, dealings or contracts.
- Demonstrate the highest standards of personal integrity, truthfulness, honesty, and fortitude in all activities in order to inspire confidence and trust in such activities.
- Avoid any interest or activity that is in conflict with the conduct of their board duties.
- Respect and protect privileged information to which they have access in the course of their board duties.
- Strive for personal excellence and demonstrate spiritual maturity in all board operations, discussions and activities.
- In the event of serious misconduct (e.g. sexual misconduct, criminal behaviour, promoting false teaching, fraudulent actions, acting divisively, harmful addictive behaviour, etc.) resign as a board member.