When church board members asked you to serve as their chair and facilitator, you stepped into an existing model of church board governance. It may not have very clear definition and the board members individually may have only a modest sense of any coherent or intentional mode of governance, but one exists. You cannot have a church board without some underlying model of governance, i.e. assumptions and principles that determine why the board operates the way it does. In churches that have considerable history the operational mode of a church board probably has developed based on denominational tradition, pastoral advice, presumed biblical principles, ideas people have discovered, and/or experiential discoveries.Whatever this implicit or explicit governance model may be, it will define substantially your role as board chair. For example, if the board is viewed merely as a kind of administrative committee advisory to the pastoral staff, then your role as chair will be very limited, even though the responsibilities this group has — in reality the governing board of the congregation — remain the same as for any registered, non-profit charity.
In many cases the model of church board governance which has developed will be eclectic — a hodge-podge of ideas, principles, and learned behaviours that have minimal coherence. As a result the board may be severely challenged to achieve its leadership potential. However, it does not have to remain that way and as chair you have the responsibility as well as opportunity to enable your church board to “improve its serve.”
In the past two decades considerable research has investigated non-profit boards and models of governance. Charities have different missions, have different scope, possess different values and culture, have to deal with different kinds of accountability, and are at different stages in their development and so there is no single model that fits every situation. As well, in the case of most, smaller non-profit charities the model of board governance they adopt (intentionally or otherwise) tends to be a mixture of various models, rather than the pure application of one board governance model. In contrast larger entities tend to select one model and seek to apply it with some rigour. Asking the right questions can help you discern what board governance model or combination of models of non-profit board governance will suit your church’s situation with greatest benefit.
Before we define the key questions, let’s consider what value there is for a church board to understand and intentionally follow a particular board governance model. I would highlight three benefits that accrue to a church board if it knowledgeably chooses to follow a particular model.
1. It brings clarity to the function of a church board. Understanding why you do something motivates you to do it well. As well, it helps you work more effectively and reflectively, considering ways to improve the process because you understand what the model is and how it is supposed to work. The better an athlete comprehends the goals and rules of a sport, the greater opportunity he or she has to innovate in that sport and become truly outstanding in its execution. Wayne Gretzky and his exploits in ice hockey offer a significant example of this principle.
2. It enables a church board to discern what its proper business is. With clarity about the function of your church board you have greater ability to focus on the primary ministry work that it should be doing. How do you determine what needs to be placed on your church board agenda? Does an item become a board agenda item just because someone wants it discussed or is there a principled reason for its presence on the agenda? The only way to evaluate whether an item should be a matter for church board discussion is to understand the board’s model of governance and what the scope of its business should be. Further, you will discern through what channel the item should come to the board, thus allowing opportunity for preparation of appropriate information to guide the board in its discussion of that matter. For example, if the church board understands its model of governance, then it will have greater clarity about what decisions the lead pastor has authority to make and what decisions it must make as a church board. When uncertainty arises, clarification can be sought. This in turn allows the board to require greater accountability.
3. It allows the board to assess whether or not it is doing its work well. When a church board has little sense of why it does what it does, how can it assess whether it is doing its job well? Without some concept of governance model a church board does not know what its proper work is and thus cannot assess its performance. Doing the wrong things well and overlooking the necessary things will not contribute to mission advancement — the primary work of a church board. Or focusing upon minor things, but ignoring the major issues similarly deflects your efforts from the mission. Your church board might receive excellent reports from staff and spend much of the board’s time reviewing the contents of each report — but is this the best use of a church board’s time? Reports tend to cause a board to look back, not forward. I find it interesting that most church boards meet ten to twelve times a year and still do not feel they have enough time to get their work done. Yet many other non-profit boards meet only three or four times a year and manage to do their work with excellence. I wonder why? Is it because there is confusion about what the work of the church board is and lack of clarity about its governance model?
I think there are four key questions that help a church board sort out and identify the model of governance that will suit its current purposes and create a solid foundation for future development:
1. The first question is: what does your church board’s governance need to achieve in order for the mission of the church to advance?
2. The second question would be: what values will guide your board in its evaluation of governance models?
3. The third question is: what models of church board governance exist and what are their operational strengths and weaknesses?
4. The fourth question involves education and implementation: how can you as a church board chair enable your board to sort this issue through, discern the most appropriate model and then agree to implement it, believing it will add value to their work?
In the next article we will address the first question (entry 88).