In the last decade church boards have given significant attention to discerning and implementing various “best practices.” The testimonies of many who have taken these practices seriously and applied them wisely reveals their potential significant benefit. I know, because I hear about the successes. However, it is also the case that implementing some best practices offers no guarantee that good church board leadership will result. Church boards involved in our “Best Practices For Church Boards Workshop” do not always reach new levels of ministry effectiveness. Other significant factors come into play that mitigate against success.
I think one could propose the following formula to define good church board church and provide a more complete picture:
Prayer + Spiritually Mature Board Members Committed to the Mission + Good Board Leadership (Board Chair and Lead Pastor) + Best Practices > > > > Good Church Board Governance over the long term.
1. Prayer: Prayer is both symbol and spiritual action. When a church board prays, it symbolizes and gives confession to their dependence upon God for discernment, resources, and courage. As spiritual action prayer engages the church board in the spiritual service of praise, intercession, and “kingdom coming” focus. Prayer within the church board gives reality to the fundamental truth that all of a church board’s work is spiritual work attending to the congregation’s mission and its care. Prayer keeps board members attuned to the spiritual struggles that fill people’s lives and challenge the church’s advance.
2. Spiritually Mature Board Members Committed to the Mission: a board member’s spiritual disposition should be governed by the agape principle, Kingdom experience, and a deep understanding of Christ’s mission for the church (summarizing key aspects of Paul’s list in 1 TImothy 3). They must have passion for the congregation and its mission, have a long term perspective, and take personal responsibility for the achievement of the mission. When things become difficult, they will stand firm, exercise spiritual resolve, and lead by example. With an appropriate spirit they will not be passive participants in board activity, but rather be willing to challenge ideas and proposals to make sure this is truly the best thing for the congregation and its mission. Sir Christopher Hogg, former United Kingdom Financial Reporting Council chairman has indicated that “Good boards are pretty uncomfortable places and that’s where they should be” (as cited in the McKinsey Quarterly, June 2011). In transferring this concept into a church board setting we have to be careful. Too often church boards have descended into verbal brawling and tenaciously held viewpoints that betray undisclosed conflicts of interest. What we do need in church boards is sufficient trust among the board members that robust conversations can be engaged without fracturing relationships. For lead pastors and church board members alike this can be difficult because we are friends, members of the Kingdom together, and we desire to be supportive, trusting and polite. However, in a very real sense board members need to drive the mission by working with the lead pastor to develop vision and strategy, monitor risk, and evaluate progress. In order to engage proposals robustly that come from the ministry staff, board members need a deep understanding of the ministry agency, i.e. the church, that they are stewarding. This is not to justify in any way a fractious spirit, but rather to promote relationships among church board members that have the resilience to ask the tough questions.
3. Good Board Leadership (Board Chair and Lead Pastor): church boards operate effectively when they have good leadership and facilitation. The chair understands the purpose of the board and its function as a ministry team entrusted to advance the congregation’s mission. He or she knows how to generate collaborative efforts among the board members, how to help the board make good decisions, and how to assist the board to organize itself effectively. The chair also realizes how important the relationship with the Lead Pastor is if the board is to advance the congregation’s mission and is committed to working collaboratively with the Lead Pastor. Conversely, the Lead Pastor understands the key contribution the church board makes to the health and vitality of the congregation as it exercises care for all aspects of community life. There is respect for its appropriate voice in the decisions of the congregation and support for its spiritual leadership.
4. Best Practices: Pastoral leaders know that there are good ways to lead weddings, conduct funerals, work with staff, etc. Similarly, the life and work of a church board can be enhanced significantly if it disciplines itself to follow good practices related to planning and leading meetings, maintaining good records, making good decisions based upon sound information, sustaining commitment to good process, and exercising appropriate care for employees, fiscal resources, and the safety of the congregation and public. Church boards have a choice to make. They can school themselves in doing their job well, enjoying robust discussions, and experiencing the satisfaction of worshipful work, or they can continue to be dysfunctional and contribute to the poor health and spiritual malaise of the congregation. For example, if a church board fails to document its decisions with good minutes, it will soon discover that it does not know what decisions were taken and thus becomes unable to speak with one voice within the congregation.
If these elements are present to some degree and working together appropriately, then Good Church Board Governance over the long term has a good chance to flourish. This does not happen in the space of a few months, but requires several years of deliberate attention so that good habits are formed and deeply embedded in the culture of a specific church board. The turn over in chair leadership, board members and lead pastors requires that these things be attended to constantly and intentionally. Benign neglect has the potential to create as much dysfunction as willful negligence. Further, if a church board chair helps a church board realize the importance of each of the elements proposed in this formula and nurture it, then the board members should have confidence that they are stewarding well the trust given to them by the congregation and being responsible servants of God.