123. Pros and Cons of “Staggered” Church Board Membership.

In many ways the ability of a church board chairperson to fulfill specific responsibilities on behalf of the board depends upon the quality and competence of the individual board members. Chairmanship is a “team sport” in many respects. Whether you see yourself as “captain” of the team or the person in the stern of the racing scull calling out the cadence for the rowers or the conductor of the orchestra — you can multiply analogies — your ability to facilitate the team’s efforts is directly related to their collaboration and competence. Recruiting and developing a diverse group of spiritually mature, competent people who are passionate for the congregation’s mission remains a high priority because it is linked so integrally with successful board work.

Probably most of you have discovered one or two people on your board who seem to have served forever — perhaps 20 or more years! They truly are veterans and for them and the congregation stepping off the board would seem extraordinarily unusual —  the end of an era. But is this a healthy practice, permitting people to serve term after term? Does it lead to a sense of personal entitlement? Or, to put the question differently, is it important for board effectiveness to keep renewing the board members? Should there be a limit to the number of terms a person serves? And even after the oft required one year hiatus, should they be invited back onto the board?

In recent discussions regarding non-profit board governance the argument has been made that once board members have completed their maximum number of terms there should be a celebratory thank you, but no return engagement. The arguments against this practice of recycling old board members is that it discourages good succession planning to renew the board, does not encourage transformative thinking in the board, and fosters a kind of “old boys” network that may not be healthy for the organization. Rebekah Basinger has proposed such arguments in her website “Generous Matters.” There is wisdom in her concerns.

Does this issue have relevance for church boards? In my experience the difficulty of recruiting people to volunteer for service as a board member usually means that once you are appointed, it easily becomes a life sentence. Normally the same faces year after year meet around the boardroom table, unless personal frustration sets in and a person no longer desires to serve. But is this good for the health and sustainability of the congregation? While it might give the appearance of stability, is it in fact a formula for stagnation?

Perhaps there are factors in the congregational board context that require some modification of these arguments for not re-appointing board members in non-profits after that they have served their maximum number of terms.

1. The potential pool of board members in a local congregation can be quite restricted, particularly in smaller faith communities. In some denominations board members are also elders and this role is restricted to males. This automatically reduces by more than 50% the potential pool because male generally form a smaller proportion of the congregation than females. Regardless of one’s position theologically on this matter, it is a reality in many congregational contexts.  Another limitation is that church board members are expected to demonstrate spiritual maturity as defined in 1 Timothy 3:1ff or Titus 1:5ff. So within the potential pool of male candidates this tends to eliminate another significant group. Add in age factors and varied length of time in the congregation and the number of candidates available and also willing becomes very small. So when a person agrees to serve and the congregation appoints that person, there is considerable motivation to encourage continued involvement over multiple terms.

2. Once individuals are appointed to a church board they encounter a steep learning curve. Most people becoming church board members have never served on a non-profit board before and have had little or no training. It takes them their entire first term to figure out what they are supposed to do and how they might contribute. If the board offers no orientation or there is little appetite on the board for board education, then the situation can become quite desperate. Chances are that individuals will become so frustrated that they quite or lose their motivation. Given that resources are scarce, it is poor stewardship to expend significant efforts to develop board leadership only to lose the benefit because the trained people can no longer serve.

3. It is already difficult enough to sustain an effective board because the members are changing constantly. This reality does conflict with the previous two points. I have served on the board of our congregation for about six years. I think two of the current members (apart from the lead pastor and myself) remain from the board that led the congregation at that time and one of those is completing his term in a few months. Sustaining the ministry life and operations of a church board in the midst of such constant change creates a significant challenge. Perhaps “staggered” church board membership occurs “naturally” in most cases.

I would suggest that in the case of congregational boards a more nuanced approach may be helpful and necessary. There is wisdom in requiring a person to rotate off the board after serving two or three consecutive terms. It provides a sabbatical for that individual and does allow new people to emerge into board leadership. It also requires succession planning because the board knows who is completing their terms of service and must be replaced. It is important when such a change occurs for the chairperson or other board members to have an “exit interview” with the retiring board member. It does not have to be very formal, but should engage some evaluation of the person’s contribution, convey gratitude for service given, and solicit their counsel for the board as they complete their term. In the light of that interview a recommendation may be formulated as to whether this person should be considered for additional terms of service after the obligatory year off.

The more important question for the board, in my opinion, is whether they have the right mix of experience, competence, and leadership qualifications within the board. If this means that a prior board member who has made a quality contribution is asked to serve additional terms, that is quite fine. At the end of the day as chair you work with the board members you have to do the best job possible for the congregation, believing that God can do wonderful things through his Spirit. However, this should not inhibit you from leading the board to exercise wisdom and intentionality in developing the best board possible.


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