Boards excel and flourish when they follow a model of governance that enables them work together effectively (get the job done) and efficiently (get the job done in a timely manner using the board’s resources wisely). Operating in this way requires a board chair to learn to recognize and assess the board’s own effectiveness and to recommend ways and means of enabling the board members to work collaboratively, use their time and energy in a smart manner, and apply the board’s resources (e.g. expertise, wisdom, skills, etc.) productively. Models of board governance are means to an end and so the means should be effective and efficient towards accomplishing the agency’s primary outcome within appropriate legal and ethical boundaries.
To help the board in its discernment of an appropriate model of governance, the chair should be able to articulate for the board the primary functions it must perform well if the agency’s mission is to be accomplished. For example, your church constitution and bylaws may mandate the board to work with the senior pastor to do three key things:
to ensure that the church’s mission is accomplished,
to protect and nurture the congregation’s spiritual life, and
to oversee and manage the resources of the congregation.
So what kind of board governance model will best enable your church board to do its job responsibly? The advisory board model will not help the board advance the mission of the congregation or oversee and manage the resources of the congregation because such a board has no authority to do any of this. A model of governance that focuses on monitoring and guarding will only achieve a small portion of this mandate. More appropriate would be a model that enables the board to focus its energies on discerning and planning for the future, assessing all aspects of the present ministry implementation, and giving the spiritual care required for the health and growth of the congregation and its employees.
One way to evaluate your current board’s effectiveness and primary focus is to review the board meeting minutes for the past two years. As you do this note the various kinds of activities and issues that occupied the board’s time and energy. For example, how much time in each board meeting was given to receiving and hearing reports from staff or committees? Were decisions about management issues forming the content of most motions? How much real time did the board spend assessing ministry programs, evaluating trends, praying and discerning future direction, evaluating the senior pastor? If the bulk of time and energy was preoccupied with monitoring and managing, then your church board will not be able to advance the mission of the congregation. Remember, boards are to govern, not manage.
Another operational aspect is the development of broad policy that guides the board and the senior pastor in their respective responsibilities. When was the last time your church board developed a board policy — not a management policy. By this I mean a policy that set parameters within which the board or the senior pastor would operate? When was the last time your board reviewed a policy and made significant revisions? Does your church board have well defined statements about the measurable outcomes it is striving to achieve this year so that the mission is advanced? If the board does not know where it discerns the congregation should be in 12 to 24 months, then how can it provide strategic leadership to ensure it arrives at the desired destination?
The third operational area I would suggest for evaluation would be the ability of the board to function as a ministry team, engaged in worshipful work. In other words, will the governance model chosen enable the board to discern and conduct its work with a deep and constant consciousness of the spiritual dimensions and dynamics? Church board work should never be allowed to occur in a spiritual vacuum. A church board then will select a governance model that supports its spiritual values and its spiritual work. This means that the agendas, discussions and decisions can be framed to express this spiritual mandate. The commission of Jesus will shape the board’s work; the Holy Spirit will guide the interactions; God’s kingdom values and plans will form the context for all discussions. As chair you do not want to keep forcing the governance model to attend to this spiritual ethos, but the governance model should enhance the ability of the board members to provide the spiritual, strategic leadership the congregation requires. What governance model will enable the board members give appropriate, energetic attention to the core issues that will enable the congregation’s mission to be achieved? What governance model will support values of integrity, excellence, respect, sacrificial service, and mutual trust?
As chair you should encourage the board to adopt a governance model that gives them the time they need to focus upon the big questions and not get bogged down in minutiae or side-tracked by personal agendas or become preoccupied with micro-managing the agency.
Some are proposing a model of board governance in which the board functions as a networked team, with all decisions taken by consensus or with unanimous support. The members are the ministry leaders. In their view such an approach to church governance reflects more adequately the family or community essence of the church. If you think that this model suits your congregational ethos, then beware of two fundamental issues that will arise. First, the phenomenon of fatigue. Participants may start out with energy and enthusiasm, but when the hard work of gaining consensus runs up against diverse opinions stubbornly held, then impatience and irritation may soon erupt. In such a model what do you do collectively when you cannot achieve consensus? Second, this model of governance usually blends governance with management. In other words the leadership team is the governing body. Maintaining the distinction between governance and management decisions will be a challenge. As well, those in charge of specific ministries may become reluctant to make decisions and constantly throw back to the leadership team decisions that they as leaders have the authority to make. Such a model eventually will prove ineffective and inefficient, in my opinion, within the context of a local church.
One other observation that may be pertinent. Sometimes it is not possible because of theological values or denominational traditions to adopt in a pure form a model of board governance. I would suspect that few church boards succeed in implementing a model of governance perfectly. Something in the local context will probably require some modification. That’s all right in most cases. Take the gains you can and implement well. As the board members see the value of the operating model in terms of their collective work, it may convince them to move to the next level of implementation.