154. How does a church board exercise “effective control?”

“Control” in the context of church board governance usually carries negative connotations. It sounds hierarchical and breathes authoritarianism. In the free-wheeling, relational, “freedom” with which many characterize the Christian experience and Christian community “control” seems not only misplaced but quite out of place. But can you have leadership without some element of “control” or does governance exist where “control” is absent? Obviously how we define and exercise “control” are large questions in this discussion.

Most congregational constitutions vest “control” of congregational affairs in the church board, which normally includes the lead pastor. By vesting this authority in the church board the congregation entrusts to this group of people the responsibility to advance its mission and vision. A church board cannot delegate this stewardship responsibility to another group or person. And so in this sense a church board through its work “controls” the agency’s operations. This has several critical entailments regarding lead pastor accountability, board ethics and functions, and the board’s relationship to the congregation and other stakeholders. The board appoints a chairperson to enable it to carry out its responsibilities effectively, efficiently, and most importantly in ways that are consistent with the congregation’s mission, values, vision and resources.

But precisely how does a church board exercise “control” in ways that truly reflect biblical values and are effective, given the unique character and ethos of a church community? I think this is a critical question for any person who chairs a church board. If the chairperson does not understand the board’s authority and mandate, how will he/she give effective leadership to the board? And how will the chair discern the appropriate boundaries between the work of the board and the responsibilities of the lead pastor, as well as the appropriate decision-making role of the congregation?

1. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by knowing its mandate and authority. Understanding the board’s scope of authority is critical, otherwise it will not know what it should be seeking to “control.” Boards often get criticized because they act in ignorance of their sphere of authority. Further, they tend to forget what their mandate is and step into areas of management or other operations inappropriately. For example, a church board may seek to spend funds without gaining the authorization of the congregation as specified in the constitution.

2. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by serving the congregation’s mission and ensuring that the vision is robust and adequate to its accomplishment. When church boards make decisions or formulate recommendations, their strongest rationale  always relates to advancing the mission and accomplishing the vision. If the congregation has approved mission and vision statements, then the board knows its mandate and can operate with appropriate authority within that framework. It gets into trouble when it seeks to act outside of the mission and vision or fails to advance the mission and vision.

3. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by establishing specific, time-bound outcomes or goals that it delegates to the lead pastor and other ministry staff to achieve. A church board only knows that it is advancing the mission and vision if it has established short-term goals or outcomes ( 6 – 18 months in duration). Vision only gets accomplished when specific steps are identified that will ensure that the vision is being implemented. A board can measure to what degree those specific goals or outcomes are being achieved and thus evaluate whether they are advancing the mission and vision. This is the board’s work and defines explicitly how it exercises appropriate control over the mission and vision.

4. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by requiring accountability from those to whom it has assigned responsibility. Boards concern themselves with big picture questions, policy development, and key leadership decisions. They assign or delegate responsibility with appropriate authority to key employees, primarily the lead pastor in church contexts, in order to implement strategic decisions and policies. Church boards have to require accountability from lead pastors in order to know and assess that implementation is occurring within approved guidelines.

5. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by  managing the church’s resources effectively and managing risk vigilantly. Usually in congregation-led churches the members approve an annual budget recommended by the church board. The board is responsible to ensure that the budget is followed during the ensuing fiscal year. The board exercises control, financial control specifically, by its oversight of the budget, even though it delegates the day-to-day management of the budget to the lead pastor. Similarly, when it comes to risk management the board has to take the lead. It cannot delegate to another group its responsibility to control the degree to which the agency engages in “risky” activities. For this reason, the board will mandate how much insurance should be carried and will concern itself with the application of policies related to harassment, criminal-record checks of employees and volunteers, etc.

6. A church board exercises appropriate “control” by  being accountable to the congregation. I think a church board’s ultimate expression of control gets expressed in its report to the congregation at the Annual General Meeting. In essence this report demonstrates how the board, on behalf of the congregation, has exercised its authority and mandate to advance the mission and vision, in a manner consistent with the congregational values.

Many bridle at the use of the term “control” when it comes to church boards and their work. I think pastors particularly struggle to recognize this “control” and work willingly and happily within it because it often gets abused or is applied haphazardly. This creates confusion and uncertainty as pastors seek to fulfill their responsibilities. Here is where the board chair and the lead pastor need to be in continuing conversation, ensuring that the board is leading appropriately and thus creating the environment within which the lead pastor and other employees can do the work of ministry happily.

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