Developing a process to assist a church board discern whether or not it should adopt a different model of governance requires education of the board members and their prayerful, careful analysis of the possible options. Presumably such a discussion has arisen because of some felt need experienced among the board or its leadership. The board’s ability to provide strategic leadership is hampered and it cannot achieve its potential resulting in dissatisfaction among board members, or some crisis has shown the inadequacy of current practice, or the congregation has outgrown the capacity of the current model board governance to provide sustained strategic leadership. Whatever the cause, discussion has ensued about the need to discern and develop new approaches to board work in the church.
The board looks to you as chair to provide some guidance and direction. How do you proceed?If there is deep consensus among the board that change is necessary, then you have a great opportunity. If the board is divided about exploring alternative governance models as a solution to current problems, then your initial task is to discern the worry points of those board members who are uncertain and seek to provide information and assurance so that the board can move forward together in this conversation and discernment process. One thing you can do is to prepare a “Discussion Brief” that summarizes the current state of board operations and effectiveness as you perceive it. It should propose a process of discernment and a pathway to decision that gives comfort to all board members that their perspectives will be considered carefully and decisions will be taken based upon good information and general board consensus (not unanimity). If there is confidence in the process, then the board in most cases will follow.
Often some education is necessary. For many who serve on church boards the suggestion that there are various models of church board governance will come as a surprise. They may never have thought about this possibility. For others the idea that the board should consider board governance models that are not spelled out in Scripture will raise considerable angst. Will such exploration lead the board to adopt ideas and processes that are contrary to Scripture or denominational tradition, thus weakening the church’s witness? Engaging someone who has experience and expertise in these matters, but who is somewhat distant from the congregational context, enables good information to be shared, allows board members to ask their questions and probe without the presenter feeling defensive, and gives opportunity for the board to understand the pros and cons of potential directions. It can be a great exercise in building board relations and modelling ways of working together as a board that the members may not have experienced.
After the information is gathered and discussed, perhaps encourage the board to form a small taskforce (two or three people at most from the board), who will sift the data and evaluate the discussion, and prepare a report with recommendations regarding a model of governance. This may take a month or two to prepare. Better to give it enough time to be done well, than to rush things and reach a poor decision. As chair you may need to be one of the task force members, along with the lead pastor. Make sure the task force considers implications for possible bylaw changes that their recommendations may require. It is important for the lead pastor to be involved because the model of board governance recommended may also require some changes in how his position is defined and understood. It is also quite possible that the role of the chairperson will have to adjust.
If the church board decides to adopt a new model, then much of the responsibility for steering this implementation process effectively will rest upon the chairperson. So make sure you understand the governance model as clearly as possible, i.e. become the resident board expert. Develop a realistic assessment of the amount of change that will occur and what timeline will be required to bring it all together. Be wary of making grandiose announcements to the congregation, which may establish unreasonable expectations or create uncertainty. Selecting a new governance model should have little impact upon the life of the congregation, other than to enable its mission to be accomplished more effectively. At some point various bylaw changes will probably have to be processed and at that time more explanation can be offered. Also, pay particular attention to changes in position descriptions that will ensue — board member, chairperson, lead pastor. Explicit financial costs will probably be relatively modest, apart from board education. However, if there are major changes required in the position description of the lead pastor, this may have salary implications. Once you have decided on the model, then try to locate a church board that has used that model for some time and request permission to use their documentation as a template for the initial development of new policies, etc. Do not worry about getting everything right the first time through. As your board gains experience in using the new model, they will discern ways to improve it. This means that new policies should automatically have a two year review cycle.
Bathe the entire process in prayer. Listen carefully. Be unswerving once the board has made a decision.