115. Additional Thoughts on Carver’s Ideas and Church Board Leadership

Recently I have had several conversations with leaders whose church boards adopted Carver’s  model of Policy Governance  more than five years ago. The main point they shared was that while the model was useful, it was difficult to sustain its implementation, both among the board members and also among pastoral staff. In these cases this situation was occurring because personnel were changing and new leaders were not versed in or committed to the model. The result was a failure to maintain the processes required. These conversations caused me to pause and reflect upon the longevity of this model of governance within the context of local churches and what boards and their chairs have to attend to in order to sustain the usefulness of this model in the midst of constant change.

1. Church boards usually search for and adopt a new model of governance because of some crisis which they currently experience. This crisis may be generated because of growth, failed leadership, board frustration, or other factors. So after careful study the board members decide that Carvers “Policy Governance” model is the most appropriate board governance model for their situation. Much hard work and effort goes into preparing the board policies, writing the manual, and adjusting processes and position descriptions. Finally, after a year or two of effort, the transition for the most part has occurred and implementation is underway. The new model is embraced with eagerness by the board members, the chairperson and the lead pastor. It works well and progress is discerned. Five years later a new chairperson is appointed, about 50% of the board members are new, and the lead pastor is also new. Many of these individuals did not go through the educational process which enabled previous leaders to grasp the essence of “Policy Governance.” As well, a number of the governance policies are not being followed, some because of ignorance, others because they seem too demanding, and in some cases the lead pastor does not agree with them and has quietly abandoned them.

If “Policy Governance” is going to continue to be a valid and useful model of governance for such church boards, then a process of renewal will have to be implemented. Perhaps some adjustments in its application will be necessary because of the different strengths and abilities of the new lead pastor. If this review does not happen, the board and its operations will become more dysfunctional because no one will really know the principles upon which the board is operating.

2. When the chairperson changes, a church board that has adopted “Policy Governance” will need to make sure that this new board leader understands and is committed to “Policy Governance.” Perhaps as well the board itself needs to renew its commitment to this governance model. If the new chair has served on the board for several terms, he/she probably has some familiarity with the theory and practice of “Policy Governance.” However, this new chair will need to study “Policy Governance” to some degree in order to become versed enough to facilitate the board’s continuing, beneficial use of this model. This will be essential if the new chair desires to lead to the board to new levels of effective leadership. If the chair is a relatively new board member, it will be more urgent for him/her to develop this understanding and competence.

It will also be important for the new chair to have significant conversations with the lead pastor to ensure that he/she knows how the lead pastor is interpreting and applying relevant aspects of  “Policy Governance.” This is particularly important when it comes to understanding respective roles and responsibilities.

3. When a lead pastor change occurs, this will also serve as an important opportunity for a church board to review “Policy Governance” and make sure that in the hiring process the new lead pastor understands how the board expects this role to function. This may affect how the board revises the lead pastor position description. Not only does this pertain the way in which the new lead pastor does in fact “lead,” but it also affects how the lead pastor defines his understanding of the Ends policy and the Limitations policy. He will need to develop his own set of definitions and ensure that the board evaluates and agrees with these definitions. If the experience and competence of the new lead pastor differs significantly from the previous incumbent or the board is a little uncertain exactly how the new leader will perform, then some of the Limitation policies will need reformulation (i.e. changing limits on permitted expenditures, defining what decisions need board approval, etc.).

During such leadership changes a board chair would do well to check whether the new appointee is defining terms in the same way. For example, how does this new leader understand the concept of “accountability?” Or what does the lead pastor see as the role of the board chair in the leadership mix of the congregation? Will the new leader accept performance evaluations and take them seriously?

4. Sometimes the congregation changes dramatically, either by sudden growth or sudden decline. Given the mobility of people, the economic conditions, the trends in theological controversy, etc., sustaining the fabric of the congregation is not easy nor is it assured. If the congregation loses a substantial number of people (i.e. 30% or more), then the board will have to review and revise the policies that define its mode of governance. Size does change the way governance occurs.This is often difficult to attend to because so many other needs will be pressing at such times. However, reaching a new level of stability will require this review at some point.

Models of governance have seasons of popularity and relevance for various reasons. Currently Carver’s ideas have some traction, particularly  in the governance of larger congregations. This model has some significant benefits. However, boards who have embraced it must keep it fresh, otherwise confusion will emerge and uncertainty will increase in the board’s ability to govern. Perhaps one way in which to keep it fresh is to include in the board retreat every three years a educational section on “Policy Governance” and a review of the Ends policies. This will go a long ways to sustaining the board’s commitment to this model of governance.


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