According to John and Miriam Carver the person who chairs the board “ensures the integrity of the board’s process and,…occasionally represents the board to outside parties” (Reinventing Your Board, revised edition (2006), page 110). Within the context of a local church the board chair usually has very few specifications to provide guidance in discharging this role. The bylaws may have one or two general statements about the number of times the board meets, board quorum, the essential responsibilities of the board, and what key decisions have to be approved by the congregation. They may also refer to Robert’s Rules of Order as the basis for conducting the board’s operations, but no one has ever read it and no copy exists in the church.
Within Carver’s model the chair (or “chief governance officer” as Carver names this role) is responsible to the board for “the integrity of the board’s process,” i.e. to ensure that the board has decided and described how it will manage itself and is following its own prescriptions. In other words the board knows what its job is and the chair exercises on behalf of the board the discipline needed to keep the board in compliance with its own guidelines.
Two elements are critical for the chair to fulfill this role. First, the board must understand its collective role and define its own governance (i.e. how it will function and make decisions) processes. The internal governance processes aid the board in accomplishing its responsibilities with excellence. The board must have some clarity about itself and its responsibilities for the chair to provide good leadership. Second, the board must be clear about the way it wants its chair to lead. This will require the board to consider such questions as: board evaluation processes, agenda construction, board committees, discipline of board meetings, board education, orientation of new members. So two policies are essential — the board’s job description and the chair’s job description.
Regardless of whether a church board adopts the Carver Policy Governance model, it is important for a board to have clarity on these two matters. In the absence of written policy and position description, the board lacks ground rules to guide its decision-making and the board chair’s actions are subject to accusations of favouritism or inconsistency. The fact that most church boards get some things done without such policies probably speaks to the high level of trust that often is found within the group. However, when difficult issues arise or conflict emerges, then the lack of such policy and position description leaves the board and the chair vulnerable to a whole range of dysfunctions.
The person who accepts the role of board chair must also realize that the good functioning of the board depends upon his or her commitment to good process, good communication, and good governance. This requires humour, patience, and great persistence, but at the end of the day, if this role is fulfilled well and carried forward with integrity and care, then that church will be blessed (along with all of the board members and pastoral leaders).
If you want to see sample policies and position descriptions about these board matters, then you might consider Edgar Stoesz and Chester Raber Doing Good Better (revised edition 1997):112-113 and John and Miriam Carver Reinventing your Board (revised edition 2006):242-251.