The first question a church board chair may want to consider in discerning a model of Church Board Governance would be: what does your church board’s governance need to achieve in order for the mission of the church to advance? This question focuses attention on three elements. First, the most important work a church board does is to advance the congregation’s mission. Second, discerning a model of church board governance is a ‘means’ question, not an outcomes issue. It concerns the how and not the why. Third, if an inappropriate model is selected, then the church board may work diligently with a high level of trust, but not accomplish half of what otherwise it might. There is nothing sacred about a certain model, but it is probably the case that you will discern one model that in fact will enable your church board to accomplish the kind of work that is essential to the advancement of the congregational mission
Before you as chair get too far into this question, you have to pause and ask whether the board in your church setting has specific authority to provide strategic leadership for the congregation? In other words, who leads within your congregation — the pastoral team? the lead pastor? the board? or some other group? I would suggest that as chair you need to know both who in fact provides the strategic leadership and know what group should be exercising strategic leadership for the health of the congregation. The answers to these two questions may not be the same. If this is your church reality as board chair, then the pathway to discerning the best governance model at this time for your congregation will probably be somewhat lengthy and peppered with some turbulence. Those currently exercising the strategic leadership, i.e. not the church board, will not give it up easily and the board members themselves may not want accept this responsibility.
If it is already acknowledged that the church board should provide the strategic leadership for the congregation and is already doing this to some extent, then your quest to discern the best church board governance model should proceed well, because it is a matter of encouraging your church board to do better what it already is striving to achieve. However, if the lead pastor or the pastoral team considers that they provide the strategic leadership for the congregation, then as chair you probably have a very tough assignment to get to the point where the church board owns this function within the congregation. Let me hasten to add that when a church board exercises appropriate strategic leadership this potentially empowers the lead pastor or pastoral team more significantly then currently is their experience. Further, it shifts leadership within the church back to the board itself, where it belongs. If the lead pastor or the pastoral team is providing the strategic leadership, i.e. determining the primary outcomes that the congregation should be accomplishing, then in fact it is this person or group and not the church board that sets the board’s agenda. Such a situation subverts the proper work of a church board.
What governance models might a church board chair consider? I think probably there are three options, depending upon the particular congregational context.
1. The Advisory Board: In contexts such as church plants, or churches in which the founding pastor remains lead pastor for several decades, or larger churches which are essentially pastor-led, the church board may function primarily as an advisory board. Although the board legally may be responsible for the decisions it makes, in effect the lead pastor sets the agenda and the board routinely approves the recommendations that this person brings to the board. In other words the board advises the lead pastor, but essentially acts in support of the pastor’s leadership. Rarely if ever is the lead pastor’s direction challenged.
In this mode the board acts as a consultative committee, giving the lead pastor input regarding directions and actions that he/she has already decided to take. If this is the model of governance that your church board follows, then I would suggest that as chair you will need to have extended conversations with your lead pastor about the pros and cons of this model for the long term health of the congregation. Only if and when you and the lead pastor agree that the church board needs to adopt a new model should you then together present the need to the board for a careful examination of this question.
2. The Working Board: Usually in churches of less then 200 participants, the church board effectively functions as a working board. This governance model probably has just emerged over time without much conscious choice. In this model the board members both govern and manage concurrently because there are not enough paid staff to provide the administrative leadership to sustain the congregational community. This requires church board members to function as volunteer financial officers, youth leadership, children’s ministry leader, worship leader, etc., assisting the lead pastor. Often this exhibits itself in various ministry committees chaired by a board member, with each board member accountable to the board for a specific ministry area. The lead pastor is only one of several ministry leaders that is accountable to the church board for ministry. The church board in this instance is both church board and church ministry leadership team. Agendas will be confusing as the board seeks to discern when it is functioning in which capacity. As well, it is difficult for the lead pastor to know what aspects of ministry leadership he is responsible for and what his relationship to other board members who oversee specific ministry responsibilities should be.
In this model the church board will be responsible both for exercising strategic leadership and implementing strategic plans. However, it often will struggle to develop good processes of accountability. Further, it will tend to become bogged down in reports and managerial discussions and decisions, leaving little time and energy for exercising strategic leadership. The ‘urgent’ matter will trump the consideration of the more strategic issues. Board members responsible for specific areas of ministry tend to refer decisions to the board, rather than make them themselves.
If this describes the situation of the church board you chair, then you might consider several actions to help the board members understand the model of governance they are following and help them use this model effectively. First, the board has to recognize its dual role and embrace it wisely and effectively. This model is not bad in itself; it is required because of the ministry agency’s stage of development. Second, as chair you can help the board discern when it is functioning as a board and when it is operating as a management team by arranging the agendas into two discrete segments. each focusing respectively on board matters and ministry management matters. Third, make sure each board member who is also a ministry leader has a position description that the board can use to exercise some accountability as well as delegate clear authority. Fourth, in their position descriptions make these volunteer ministry leaders accountable to the lead pastor, who then has the opportunity and authority to create mission alignment with all of the ministries. Of course, in this model, the lead pastor then will be accountable to the board for ministry implementation.
3. The Policy Board: When the congregation employs multiple staff, has 200 + participants and is growing, then a policy model of governance is probably an advisable choice. The church board delegates responsibility for the implementation and management of ministry to the pastoral staff, but hold them accountable through the lead pastor. The church board does not get involved normally in management issues, although it still will advise the lead pastor from time to time and in emergency situations may take charge of a specific management responsibility. The board exercises strategic leadership by defining and delegating authority, defining boundaries within which management can act, and describing how accountability will function. The board gives its attention to the big questions of vision, outcomes, assessment, and policy development. Its focus becomes forward-looking. John Carver’s writings define one way in which a policy model of governance operates.
Adopting and implementing a policy model of board governance will require church board members to exercise a disciplined approach to their work and will require the lead pastor to accept responsibility for discerning and implementing strategies to achieve board-defined outcomes. It will take about two years of consistent effort under your leadership as board chair for a church board to transition from a working board to a policy board model. You would be advised to take time initially to resource the board through several education sessions. The power of a policy model of board governance gains force especially in situating the church board (of which the lead pastor is a member) as the strategic leadership team within the congregation. Concurrently this enables the church board to concentrate its energies on advancing the mission.