173: Bad Governance is Harmful — Chairs, Take Note!

In several posts on this website I have argued the benefits of good governance. It is useful, however, to remind ourselves of the harm that bad governance produces. In other words the absence of good governance does not mean that some kind of default system of ‘safe’ governance suddenly kicks in to protect the congregation. I think rather the opposite is true — where good governance lapses, harmful governance more than likely takes over.

You might argue that the situation is not quite so stark. Even if we cannot provide consistently good governance, this does not mean automatically that the congregation gets a dose of harmful governance. Mediocre, “muddle through,” “fly by the seat of your pants” governance surely can still get the job done in a local church. However, I am not sure there is such a thing as benign, yet harmless governance. If we think of governance as trajectory, it is either trending towards excellence or trending towards harm. It may take a while before you as chair discover in a board meeting that things are really good or deteriorating significantly. Effects can be cumulative over time.

For example, in your work as board chair you prepare the agenda as usual for the upcoming church board meeting. You know there is a controversial item that could create some problems. However, based on the board’s prior operations, you expect that things will get sorted without too much difficulty. Yet you are not aware that over the past six months two board members have become increasingly frustrated with board operations. They’ve managed to keep their concerns under control. But in the meeting, when this item hits the board table, it was like someone threw gas on a smouldering fire. The board had no mechanism to deal with the ensuing uproar. Relationships had not been tended, policies were out-of-date, and the sense of coherence and unity around mission was absent. The harm to the congregation became significant. When chairs do not attend to the details of board work that lead to and support good governance, things deteriorate.

People often get motivated to make change when they see the harmful effects of no change.  As chairperson you probably groan at the challenge of introducing and helping your board embrace and actually make changes so that good governance results. You know the hard work and persistent discipline this requires. It is a significant burden to carry. However, your commitment to the church’s mission, your sense of calling by  the Holy Spirit into this role, and your desire to do things well overcome your reluctance and reticence. But perhaps you are also motivated because you have heard the horror stories about congregations whose boards did not operate well. You have no desire for this to happen within your church on your watch.

So what kind of serious harm and damage does poor governance generate within the life of  a congregation?

1. Some church boards choose to ignore their legal obligations with respect to employees. As a result lawsuits occur and the damage to the congregation and its reputation becomes marked.

2. Some church boards (in Canada) do not attend to their annual filing of reports to the Canada Revenue Agency and risk losing charitable status for their congregations.

3. Some church board bend no effort to encourage good candidates to be recommended by the congregation’s nominating committee as elders or deacons. It becomes difficult to sustain board development.

4. Lack of good governance frustrates gifted church board members who decide to serve only for one term. Continual turn over generates instability in the leadership and makes it difficult to sustain vision and strategy.

5. Failure to require financial reviews or audits annually leads to cumulative financial issues. When the congregation becomes aware, their confidence in the church board is shaken.

6. A church board makes a decision which violates by-laws and then wonders why members of the congregation become seriously upset.

7. Despite repeated attempts by the lead pastor to have the board discuss a serious ministry proposal, it does not get on the agenda. After six months of frustration the lead pastor resigns — the surprise of some board members and consternation of the congregation.

I am sure that you as a board chair could add your own examples of harm created because boards fail to develop and sustain practices of good governance. The downsides seem obvious.


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