121: Top Five Issues For Chairs of Church Boards

Two years have passed since I began this website. People are accessing it from many different countries. I trust you have found it useful from time to time. I invite you to use the question/comment option on the website to interact about issues which you have identified and about which you seek help.  As I review the “google” queries that lead people to this website, it seems that several issues keep surfacing. In my view the five most frequent questions or issues for which church board chairs seek information, perspective and guidance would include:

1. Does the Carver theory and application of “Policy Governance” work well in congregational contexts?

Carver’s influence on church board governance continues to be significant. As diverse church boards work with his theory and application, we are learning its good points and where it may need some modification in the congregational board setting. I continue to sense that its successful adoption and implementation requires considerable investment on the part of a lead pastor, board, and chairperson. In some congregational situations neither the lead pastor nor the chairperson has perceived the leadership requirements this model demands and so attempts to implement and sustain its application wither. One of the secrets to effective use of this model in church board settings is the consistent education of the board in its practice and the constant renewal of the discipline required on the part of the board and staff to make it work well. The issue of accountability between the Lead Pastor and the church board is perhaps the most difficult issue to manage and chairs often find themselves caught in the middle of communicating board expectations and moderating pastoral resistance. Comprehensive orientation of new board members is critical to sustaining this model of governance.

2. How do you foster good relations between a Lead Pastor and chairperson, as well as the board?

This issue seems to be a reflection of the previous one in many cases. However, it has a much larger scope. Historically, in my perception, seminaries have not paid much attention to governance issues in their development of pastoral leaders. They have focused on the role of pastor as spiritual guide, preacher, evangelist and counselor. More recently emphasis upon leadership development in the curriculum has surged, but often leadership issues are not discussed in relationship to lead pastor — board roles and responsibilities. A church board is viewed primarily as a team to support the pastor, rather than as the team appointed by the congregation to advance its mission, with the lead pastor being the servant of the board in this respect. Things become more complicated when church boards are composed partially of elders and deacons, or entirely of deacons, entirely of elders, or are just “leadership teams.” Significant confusion reigns and expectations are very diverse. The chairperson sits as “umpire” in between these two vested interests.

3. How do you deal with crises as chairperson?

Risk management should hold greater priority in the mind of a church board chair. Anticipatory prevention of crises is far easier to manage then dealing with crises which suddenly and unexpectedly come. You cannot avoid or even predict every crisis. However, church boards can do a better job at managing potential risks. This includes maintaining good insurance (including liability insurance for board and staff), maintaining and operating facilities in a safe way, implementing policies relating to children’s workers, harassment, and privacy of information, and having good succession plans. Further as proposals for new ministry programs or events are brought to the board, board members need to learn to ask the right questions to ensure that risks have been identified and all reasonable steps taken to mitigate them. Annual audits or financial reviews will go a long way to resolving trust issues surrounding financial oversight. Codes of conduct for board members and staff can also be useful tools to guard integrity.

4. What is the primary responsibility of a church board and how do you keep  the board focused on the main thing — advancing the mission?

The nature of congregational life and the responsibility of the board to ensure the congregation’s spiritual health tend to add items to a church board’s agenda which, perhaps significant in their own right, are not board matters and consume inordinate board resources. They can be dealt with by the staff or other volunteer leaders in the congregation if properly empowered and accountable. The result is that church board agendas get crowded with “urgent” matters. The board has little time to pray, discern and plan strategically for the future. The chairperson plays a very significant role in disciplining the board (as it mandates the chair to do) to focus on its primary responsibilities. The chairperson sorts out what the board must do from the many things it can do. Concurrently, the chair disciplines the board to attend to governance, not management. A church board’s time is very limited and in many respects forms its most precious resource. If a church board does not learn how to give necessary attention to its most important responsibilities at some point congregational life will suffer.

I think as well that in many cases church board members struggle to align and integrate their spiritual responsibilities with their strategic and legal responsibilities. This creates confusion about the best way for the board to advance the congregation’s mission and thus to steward its time appropriately.

5. How can I learn to lead a church board effectively — education  and personal development for the role of chairperson?

The turnover rate of church board chairs seems to be quite significant. Perhaps an average term for a chairperson would be 3 – 5 years. Few resources are dedicated to enabling a new board chair to learn the craft well, understand board governance, and discern how to integrate this within the spiritual realities of a congregation. That is one reason I began this website — to provide encouragement, training and resources for church board chairs. There are several publications that can provide some help, most of which I have reviewed in the website. However, the church board will not improve in its understanding and operational effectiveness where a chairperson does not engage this task.

I think as well that the term “governance” is not well understood in congregational settings, implying an authoritarian regime, rather than the responsible use of authority entrusted by the congregation for the care of the congregation.


If you do have questions about various aspects of a church board chair’s role or some advice about how you might approach a certain situation, please use the question and answer feature of the website. I will seek to respond in some fashion within 48 hours.




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