153. What is a church board ultimately responsible for? The Dangers of a “vision-vacuum.”

Traditionally navigators complete their work successfully because they accessed a “fixed point” or map to guide their journey. Governance work mimics navigation precisely in this way. Governing board members know what the mission of the charity is and pursue its accomplishment relentlessly. This constitutes their primary duty, consumes their loyalty, and concentrates their energies. The board chair enables the board to fulfill this critical and essential responsibility. The chair becomes the guide for the guiding team.

Many church boards conduct meeting after meeting without referencing the congregation’s mission at any point. In fact individual board members would be hard pressed to express the congregation’s mission.When church boards lack mission clarity, they operate in a vision vacuum. They cannot discern goals, define strategy or employ the right people because they do not know their primary purpose. As a result “muddling” becomes the operating modality. When this occurs, congregations stop growing, leaders get discouraged, conflicts increase, and witness diminishes.

As a board chair do your own assessment. Is your congregation’s mission or vision statement printed with each agenda? When key decisions are before the board members, are they reminded of the mission and vision? Do strategic proposals demonstrate how they will advance this mission and vision if accepted and implemented? When programs, policies or positions no longer advance the mission and vision, are they revamped or ended? When resources are allocated do they coordinate with and support the mission and vision of the congregation? When your board assesses risk, does it do this with careful reference to mission advancement? If your response to most of these questions is no, then your board is operating in a vision-vacuum. The board may be active, but not active with respect to the right things. When a board forgets or loses sight of the congregational mission, it also loses its ability to be accountable to the congregation for advancing that mission.  Credibility is quickly lost. Decisions become adhoc, not strategic.

If the church board you chair has lost its way, how can you work with the board members to recover your focus? I think you begin with a bit of self-examination as the chair. Are you committed to the mission and vision — committed enough to expend the time and energy required to stimulate the board to action? Do you as chair understand the connection between mission advancement and board duty, discerning that failure to advance the mission is a failure of the board to do its work? What indicators would you choose to demonstrate that the board is advancing the mission? Do you have access to information about these indicators? Are these indicators registering a positive or negative development? Another way to consider this is to ask what strategic outcomes has the board established for the next twelve to twenty-four months? If the answer is “none!” then your board probably is stuck.

A second action step would be to consider whom among the board members you might work with to create a “guiding coalition” to work for change. It will be hard for you individually, even though the chairperson, to leverage change all on your own. Quite likely one or two other board members are sensing the same missional malaise as you and are pondering how to help the board regain its strategic leadership momentum. One of these board members may well be the lead pastor. It is probably wise to engage such discussions informally, lest other board members get the sense that some sort of board coup is being attempted.

Another action step might be the development of a twelve month board agenda. Do you know what key decisions the board  will need to make during this period and how they should be prioritized? If you do not, who within the congregation’s leadership team has this knowledge? If it cannot be discerned, this suggests again that the board is running on autopilot, with little sense of congregational “location” and future direction. Take what information you can locate and develop your own sense of the board’s twelve month agenda. Share it with the board at their next meeting as information for discussion. You might be pleasantly surprised how this tool might generate some very useful direction.

When does your board meet in annual retreat? As you consider the agenda for those sessions, build in one that enables the board members to pray about and discern key outcomes that need to be the focus of energy over the next twelve months. Perhaps begin the discussion with a brief review of the current mission and vision statements, as well as an analysis of the board’s work over the past twelve months and how it relates specifically to advancing the mission and vision. What you are doing is building the board’s capacity to think “missionally” and to “own the vision” more emphatically.

Another natural moment in a board’s life for considering mission and vision arrives a month or two before the annual general meeting. Remember that this meeting is the one point in the annual cycle of congregational life when a church board gives account for its work. A primary theme within the board’s report at the AGM should be their evaluation of how their work has advanced the congregation’s mission and vision. Although as chair you draft the report, the board needs to own it. One or two meetings before the AGM would be a good time to ask the board to identify key ways in which their work together has advanced the mission and vision. If the discussion does not quickly surface four or five key ideas, then you might ask the board members whether they are working with sufficient awareness of the mission and vision, and so cannot demonstrate their accountability to the congregation for the trust they have been given.

If as chairperson you discern that your church board is in a “vision-vacuum” or “mission malaise” then one of your key tasks is to facilitate board efforts to get on track. Long term this might mean renewing the board in terms of members, educating the board as to its key responsibilities, defining more clearly specific ends or outcomes annually that need to be met in order to fulfill the vision, holding the lead pastor more accountable for ministry implementation, etc.

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