September/October 2007 Issue
Every Church Needs a Healthy Board: Does Yours Have One?
By Jeff Dewsbury
Canadian experts point out some common problems to avoid and goals to aim for
Jesus performed many miracles but, unfortunately, there is no Gospel account of him attending a board meeting and making it either interesting or fun.
Yet in a show of faith equal to the moving of mountains, a number of Canadian leadership experts are convinced miracles of this magnitude can happen today in ministry boards across this country.
Boards, while necessary, have never really commanded the kind of enthusiasm other forms of ministry have. By re-examining a board’s purpose, however, and through clarifying its mandate, this form of servanthood can be revitalized and (gasp) become a joy again.
The most common reason serving on a congregational board can become joyless has to do with a lack of solid boundaries and properly defined roles.
The dangers of an unclear ministry structure “begin at the hiring stage,” says Don Page, a senior fellow and professor of leadership studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.
“Churches often take a ‘loosey goosey’ approach, mistakenly believing things will simply evolve over time. When the pastor is being hired, no one discusses how [the pastor and board] are going to work together.”
However, Page says it should be clear to all parties before hiring whether the pastor is responsible to the board or the board will instead serve in an advisory role to the pastor.
Page has created a detailed questionnaire designed to assess the health of a board.
It has shown that another way boards often become unhealthy is allowing themselves to become preoccupied with operational details.
One way to combat “micro-managing” is to focus on a forward-looking vision. Keeping this vision alive leads to growth rather than “just replicating the status quo.”
Mentoring is also needed to ensure a healthy board. It should play a much bigger role than it currently does, argues Page.
In 2005 he conducted a Biblical Leadership Survey for The Evangel-ical Fellowship of Canada. Among his conclusions: “Respondents were very concerned about the failure to develop the Christian leaders of the future [and the need] for current Christian leaders to develop a deliberate strategy for discipling, mentoring or otherwise developing these future leaders” in both the technical aspects of leadership and the theological. Everyone in the study acknowledged the importance of senior leaders sharing their knowledge and understanding with their junior counterparts but, “unfortunately, very few take the time to do it,” laments Page.
If more mentoring and education were offered to new board members many problems could be averted, according to the experts.
“Church board members come with a desire to do the best they can. Sadly, they don’t know what the job is,” says Jim Brown, author of The Imperfect Board Member (Jossey-Bass, 2006).
Brown’s book can help to meet the need for board education. The book is a “leadership fable” written as a fictional narrative like The Wealthy Barber. The book focuses on a character named David Slater, an executive with big goals and even bigger issues with his family and work relationships.
In the book Slater is mentored by a friend he meets on the board of a community association. Slater learns that board members must feel the impact of their decisions and their leadership as much as their shareholders. He also comes to understand a board’s role both to direct and to protect the organization in the interests of those they serve. Brown is a consulting partner with Strive!, a group of professionals dedicated to governance and leadership development. For many of the past 13 years he has been speaking to a board per week, including at churches, ministries and corporations in Canada and the United States. Brown agrees with Page that micro-managing is a big problem.
Brown points to Hebrews 13:17 – which extols believers to help make a leader’s work “a joy, not a burden” – as a passage that cuts to the core of a board member’s spiritual mandate. “The picture painted there is that the work of the elders should be done with joy. Sadly, pastors often tell me joy would be way down the list when thinking of the next board meeting.” Brown also cites 1 Timothy 4:13, which includes the two important elements of being a board member: ruling well and being devoted to the Word and doctrine. “The wonder of God is that His best interest is always in our best interest,” Brown says.
“Freeing our board members to be outward looking rather than reactive has allowed our organization to be dynamic,” says Bruce Clemenger, president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).
Over the past two decades, the EFC has experienced rapid growth, causing the organization to outgrow its previous governance model, where a general council convened only once a year. An integral part of the transition was setting the board members apart to dedicate themselves to the organization’s mission and vision, leaving managerial details to the president and his staff.
Part of this restructuring involved forming four task forces under the board’s umbrella. The board development task force works on team building exercises, recruiting board members and other functions that strengthen the group. The senior leadership task force oversees the president of the EFC.
Those who sit on the mission and vision committee focus on how the organization articulates its direction and future goals. And the operational limitations committee writes the guidelines that define the roles of staff and board members. These teams were designed to help the organization avoid the common trap of perpetually looking inward and to build a sense of momentum about the future.
Upping the Ante
“A purposeful board gives priority to strategic vision and direction. It ‘ups the ante,’” says David Wells, who speaks with the voice of experience. A board chair at the EFC, Wells also chairs the boards of Summit Pacific College in Abbotsford, B.C., and Canadian Pentecostal Seminary at Trinity Western University (ACTS) in Langley, B.C.
Wells believes organizations that allow their board to focus on the bigger picture will find it easy to recruit. The cream of the crop will willingly serve on a board that is destined for great things.
“The best people want to be part of a visionary process,” he says. Wells uses the term “catalytic leadership” to describe a board that concentrates on growth and moving forward.
“People don’t want to be simply troubleshooters for the congregation. Sitting on a board in that case can be absolutely painful.” Stories of hijacked board meetings running late into the night because members were sucked into a debate over a routine management decision are commonplace. Page recalls elders who were micro-managing a church to the point where they delved into the minutiae of buying a new dishwasher for the church. The result of such situations, he says, is that the spiritual leadership of the church is neglected.
Wells agrees. “When things are unhealthy you tend to get ‘overreach.’ When board members are talking about the youth pastor and what he should be doing on Friday nights with his young people . . . that type of situation is toxic.”
To address this issue, some churches now have administrative pastors who handle the lion’s share of the management duties, freeing the senior pastor to focus on the spiritual health of the congregation. These administrative pastors are often retired or semi-retired people from the business world who feel compelled to lend their management skills in a different arena.
Every denomination has its own leadership culture and therefore often a unique way of approaching the issues.
David Wiebe is the executive director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Churches. He says the historical emphasis on a congregational approach has always been a strength of Mennonite churches.
Yet in recent years his denomination has taken steps to be more leadership centered, ensuring a “sharpening” of mission and more clarity about the roles of pastors and the executive boards they work with.
They’ve even gone through exercises at the denominational level to get some of the authority issues out in the open. “Then we actually talk about what the relationship is to find out who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out,’” he says.
Many ministry boards, including the EFC, use the Policy Governance Model developed by John Carver. This model makes a clear separation between the organization’s goals – set by the board – and the achievement of those goals, which is done by the CEO and the organization’s staff. The model was designed with the non-profit world in mind, and it translates well to ministries in the way it separates the higher goals from the work in the trenches.
Yet according to Page, the biggest issue facing church leaders today is not merely organizational; it’s taking the idea of servant leadership beyond the realm of a nice catchphrase. Page says leaders struggle to follow a biblical model of leadership, often losing sight of the compassion and deep sense of calling that Christ exemplified.
“We’re still not leading the way Jesus modelled,” Page says. “Many leaders are missing an authentic relationship with God.”
Jeff Dewsbury is a freelance writer in Langley, B.C.