Seven Habits of Effective Church Boards
Larry Perkins, Ph.D.
Ineffectiveness within church boards is a choice we make, either implicitly or explicitly. Church boards can with specific effort improve their effectiveness, i.e. their ability to produce the results for which the congregation has appointed them. Max de Pree in Called to Serve states plainly that “the chief responsibility of boards is to be effective on behalf of their organizations.” In this article I propose seven habits that in my opinion define effective church boards. I admit that subjectivity enters into their selection, but I think that if these factors characterize your church board that all things being equal, it will be produce the expected results. As John Carver claims (Strategies for Board Leadership, 15-16), “Excellence begins with governance.”
Habit # 1: Effective Church Boards Select and Appoint Competent, Teachable, Disciplined Chairpersons.
Effective church boards take the time and diligence to discern the best leadership to enable them accomplish their goals. The primary board leader is the chair and the board will only become effective if its leadership knows, understands and is committed to board effectiveness. This begins with a clear description of the chair’s role and the chairperson understanding his/her role and the role and responsibility of the board. Effective chairs continue to learn and develop their own ability as team leaders.
One of the primary qualities required in chairpersons is that they be able to keep the board on track. This requires personal discipline and commitment to the various tasks that comprise the role. It also requires the chairperson to accept the cost for helping the board to be disciplined. Key to such discipline is continuous attention to mission and vision.
Within the congregational context competent chairpersons make all necessary efforts to keep connected with the lead pastor, nurturing a good, working relationship.
Without a competent chairperson, boards wander, make poor decisions, and remain blind to their responsibilities. The result is board ineffectiveness.
Habit # 2: Effective Church Boards Invest in Developing Knowledgeable Board Members Who are Focused on Mission.
Building an effective board requires a blueprint for an effective board member. Such a person knows the mission, vision and values of the congregation and is committed to their achievement — but within the framework of the authority boundaries established for the board by the congregation and other institutions to which the board is accountable. Effective boards have a clear statement of the individual and collective board members’ responsibilities. They have a code of conduct to which they adhere. They respect the congregation’s constitution and bylaws. They understand and accept their legal responsibilities. With considerable care they navigate the boundary between management and governance.
Developing effective board members is a long term process that begins with appropriate selection, includes good orientation, and continues with ongoing training. The equipping ministry of the church includes the development of competent board members. Much of this work falls on the shoulders of the chairperson. Measuring progress towards effectiveness requires assessment and effective boards annually will be evaluating their effectiveness and using the results to bolster their competence.
According to John Carver (The Chairperson’s Role as Servant-Leader to the Board) the chairperson is “clearly the board’s leader and just as surely its servant as well. Your job is not to lead the organization — it is the far more demanding task of helping the board to lead the organization.” This applies within the world of church boards.
Habit #3: Effective Church Boards operate with the understanding that all of their work is spiritual work.
An effective church board understands that all of its work is spiritual work and proceeds as best it can in dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s resources. Its most important work focuses upon discerning the will of God so that the congregation’s mission advances and its complex needs cared for. Discerning God’s will collectively takes patience, perseverance, mutual trust, and careful reflection upon God’s word.
Developing this habit begins with board members individually taking responsibility to cultivate their own spiritual health, keeping their lives attuned with God. Much of what this entails will be summarized in the board’s Code of Conduct. The chairperson will incorporate into the board agenda opportunities for board members to reflect upon their spiritual accountability.
Collectively the church board recognizes that it forms a significant ministry team within the congregation. People in the congregation have discerned the spiritual maturity and giftedness of each board member and for this reason entrusted them with the stewardship of the mission. So as mature spiritual leaders they need to model spiritual community, spiritual discernment, and spiritual commitment to God’s mission. Worship will be part of every church board meeting, including times of celebration and thanksgiving.
Given this spiritual framework, church boards know that difficult spiritual struggles will come — they are inevitable. It is part of their caring oversight to provide as much protection for the congregation as possible in such times. This also includes protecting the resources God has provided — primarily the people, but also including finances and facilities.
Finally, this spiritual dimension is absolutely necessary for the growth of the congregation. Effective church boards understand the church and study how to nurture its growth. Expanding the Kingdom is God’s agenda and this happens primarily through the growth of local churches.
Habit #4: Effective Church Boards embrace and require accountability.
The congregation entrusts the church board to steward all of its resources to advance the mission and vision. It gives the church board the authority to govern (within defined limits) so that its mission and vision becomes reality.
Embracing accountability has several dimensions. On the part of individual church board members it requires them to come to board meetings prayed up, studied up, and ready to contribute to discussions. Personal interests are subjected to the interest of the mission. Confidentiality is respected and practiced.
On the part of the collective church board it is committed to transparent operations and communication frequently with the congregation, seeking input and proposing appropriate direction and policy. Good records are kept of board decisions so that the board knows its mind and gives itself an effective voice. When decisions are made, the board is clear as to whom it is delegating authority and responsibility to implement so that the board can ensure appropriate accountability.
The board assesses its own performance annually, seeking ways to improve its operations and accomplish its mandate to protect, preserve, provision, and advance. It also conducts the annual performance evaluation of the lead pastor and ensures that all staff have an annual performance evaluation. Such evaluations are conducted based upon up-to-date position descriptions and the establishment annually of clear goals aligned with the church’s mission and vision. Edison is said to have commented that “Vision without execution is hallucination.” So the board has to monitor its own progress as well as the progress of staff towards the accomplishment of the vision.
Habit #5: Effective Church Boards have the capacity to make good decisions.
Effective church boards are led by chairpersons who understand the processes necessary to develop good decisions. This includes clarity about the theological dimensions of decision-making, e.g. collective discernment of the will of God. A significant aspect of good decision-making involves knowledge of the limits within which the church board has the authority to make decisions without reference to the congregation and when it has to bring recommendations to the congregation for their approval. Skilled chairpersons will ensure that the board members can access the necessary information to make appropriate decisions. When such information is lacking, decisions are deferred.
Effective church boards engage all of their members in discussion and prayer so that collectively they own the decisions. Hard questions can be asked and answered because the board members have the spiritual and relationship strength and maturity for robust discussion. As part of this process board members suspend their personal interests in order to make decisions that are in the best interest of the congregation’s mission. When a conflict of interest is discerned, the board deals with it according to policy.
Accurate records are kept of all church board decisions, i.e. they are minuted. Such records express the voice of the board. Effective boards will stipulate in their decisions who is authorized to implement. Timelines normally will be expressed within which the board requires report of progress to achieve the goals stated in the respective decisions. In other words decisions are made in expectation of accountability from those authorized to implement.
Each decision is evaluated with respect to risk and the availability of resources. Where risk is exceptional or resources lacking, the church board carries responsibility to monitor risk and locate the resources.
Habit #6: Effective Church Boards practice consistent Risk Management.
The New Testament places the protection of the congregation in the hands of the elders (cf. Acts 20:25-31). Risks arise in many, varied forms and the effective church board is alive to these dangers to staff, congregational unity and vitality, financial resources, facilities, ministry dynamics, etc. It is not a question of “if” risks will come, but “when.”
Effective church boards inform themselves as much as possible about potential risks and guide the congregation in ways that provide as much protection as possible. This requires board members to balance well the relationship between bold faith and recklessness. When risks become apparent, the board acts to mitigate such risks. Policies and processes are in place to protect congregational assets (staff, facilities, finances, reputation, information) through prayer, spiritual discernment, insurance, good management, astute financial oversight, accountability, environmental scans, awareness of societal trends, good care of employees, etc. When new proposals are brought to the church board for review, the board insists that they include a section on potential risks and their mitigation.
One of the more difficult risk management issues within church boards is that of conflict of interest. If these are not identified and dealt with the board risks serious damage to its credibility and also may expose itself to potential liability.
Habit #7: Effective Church Boards that continually develop their capacity to govern well.
Continual education of the church board regarding its governance mandate, the “church industry,” theological issues, care and nurture of the congregation, etc. supports board effectiveness. The chairperson carries significant responsibility in this domain as he/she observes board operations and manages board assessment processes. In particular a church board has to work hard to enhance its capacity to serve as the strategic ministry leadership team within the congregation.
Assuming the role of board member carries with it the expectation and responsibility for improving personal capacity to govern well. In many cases this will require the commitment of specific time and energy to read, study, and reflect on the role of a church board. Perhaps it will include attending workshops, reading books on church governance, studying Scripture, and engaging more experienced board members as mentors.
Governance requires courage; effective governance requires disciplined, informed courage. To be innovative and creative in terms of strategic leadership does not happen accidentally or without significant hard work and willingness for adaptation. Yet without such personal commitment to the advancement of the congregation’s mission, stagnation will occur. Congregations are always dynamic, never static. They are growing, changing or declining and effective boards know the pulse of their congregations. They are hungry for the best information to guide their decision-making.
J. Carver (Strategies for Board Leadership, 15-16) said: “The board is creating tomorrow’s traditions with the actions it takes today. Leadership compels the board to be truer to tomorrow than to yesterday. It aims to fill the gap between what is and what can be, more than it seeks to escape what has been….Excellence begins with governance.”