157. Setting the Tone at the Top — a Board Chair’s Responsibility

Recent assessments about what went wrong with significant failed companies keep pointing to leadership and governance as a primary factor. For some reason the board did not exercise due diligence in stewarding the corporate mission and values. I wonder what the results would be if a similar analysis of “failed churches” were to be conducted? Would we discover that primary reasons for these failures similarly often are located in the church board rooms? I suspect so, regrettably. What is more disheartening about this is that for the most part such failures might be mitigated or avoided altogether if boards and their leadership were committed to excellence and competence in church board governance.

This sounds harsh, but I think in many cases failed congregations occur because of choices made at the top and that includes boards, chairpersons, and lead pastors. If this is true, then it places considerable responsibility on the shoulders of the board and its chairperson to get it right — otherwise the witness of the Gospel and the life of the congregation will suffer. But before we get overwhelmed by this burden of leadership, let’s remember that God, the Holy Spirit, resides within us to give courage, wisdom, and capacity to lead. As well we have many beneficial resources to support our endeavours — if we will reach out and engage them.

So what should be the “tone at the top” in a congregation and how does a church board chair contribute to shaping this “tone”? I would suggest that within the context of a Christian congregation the “tone at the top” must express an attitude of humble worship and obedience, be congruent with Kingdom purpose and values, must be mission-focused, must require accountability from key leaders, must manage risk proactively, and must be “disinterested,” i.e. committed to the congregation’s vision without regard for personal prejudice, opinions, or benefit. These elements are fundamental, in my view, to establishing and maintaining the right “tone at the top.” In each category the board chair exercises considerable influence. When the “tone at the top” becomes distorted, then it weakens the resolve of the entire agency to do things right.

1.Humble worship and obedience. All church board work occurs within the fabric of worshipful life and service together as part of the body of Christ. Somehow the chairperson keeps reminding the board members of this fundamental orientation and ethos for all they do. This includes a continuing sense of dependence upon the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance.

2. Congruency with Kingdom purpose and values. A chairperson disciplines a church board to make decisions within the scope of the congregation’s mission and values. When it comes to a church board, the “values” include the statement of theology, stated ethical principles and specific qualifications for selected leadership roles. All of these should have their foundation in biblical teachings. When a chairperson permits a board to develop policy or make decisions that lie outside of these stated boundaries, he or she is not setting the right “tone at the top.”

3. Mission-focused. Church boards serve God by serving the congregation’s mission. This is the trust they steward. When a chair keeps re-focusing the board’s attention on achieving the mission, then the board knows the “compass” by which to navigate its way through various decisions and issues. As well this commitment gets communicated to all other congregational leaders, whether paid or volunteer.

4. Requiring accountability from key leaders. I think this is one aspect of church board work that often fails to get implemented and thus creates opportunity for failure at the top. Let’s begin with the board’s own evaluation of its work. As chairperson you need to lead the board in establishing procedures for this that are applied consistently and in using the results to guide board work and development. How are you as chair evaluated for your leadership in the board? And then we come to the annual performance evaluation of the lead pastor and other employees. If this is not occurring, then accountability cannot be discerned. If regular reports from the key leadership on the policies and issues the board determines to be important are not being received, then something will go wrong — it is only a matter of time. Good leaders desire evaluation so that they can improve their capacity to serve. Chairpersons can set the “tone at the top” by leading boards to develop performance evaluation policies and processes that are fair, manageable and effective.

5. Manage risk proactively. Some agency failures occur because boards failed to discern and manage risk. I think one of the chairperson’s primary services to the board is to help them discern risk, evaluate it correctly and then respond appropriately. To accomplish this requires that the board have access to necessary information and not just “positive” views on particular proposals. Further, the board members, who personally may like a proposal, cannot let their own “desires” get in the way of sound, thorough risk assessment. As well in the context of congregational life board members, while respecting the lead pastor, also have to be prepared to ask penetrating questions about proposals brought forward. Perhaps as well chairs need to ask themselves as board members whether they think the board is doing its due diligence in these matters. Church boards are often too quick to get to yes.

6. Make decisions “disinterestedly”. This is a hard one to navigate. All church boards members serve voluntarily because they are committed to the congregation’s mission and vision. So in this sense they are most “interested” in the agency’s ministries. However, individual board members need to control the degree to which they like or dislike a proposal because of personal factors. The key question is whether the proposal or decision will advance the mission and whether it is in alignment with its vision and values. Also,does the agency have the resources to accomplish the proposal or implement the decision? If not, where will the resources come from? I think in this category the chair can provide educative leadership through example.

Establishing and sustaining a tone of humble and obedient worship, excellence, mission-focus, ethical and legal rigour, and responsible embrace of risk sets a clear example throughout the agency for all to follow. The chairperson of a church board has a great opportunity to lead the board in setting such a tone.


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