174. Building Better Church Boards.

“The high-performance board, like the high-performance team, is competent, coordinated, collegial, and focused on an unambiguous goal. Such entities do not simply evolve; they must be constructed to an exacting blueprint” (Harvard Business Review, May 2004. David Nadler).

I read this and breathed a silent yes! Effective church boards do not simply happen; they arise because of the hard work, sustained prayer, careful planning, and fervent commitment of leaders. Nadler identifies the need for some “blueprint” for church board effectiveness, if change and improvement are going to occur. We might use the term “vision” instead of blueprint, but the idea is the same. Effective church boards develop because board leaders have a clear vision of such a board. They know the destination and are planning, educating, and leading their church board in order to arrive at that goal.

So what is your vision, as a board chair, of an effective church board? And what has to happen to achieve that vision?

Perhaps your mode of board chairing is survival. You are not sure what you should be doing, so you follow the pattern of your predecessor. Agendas are produced, meetings proceed, reports are read and reviewed, minutes are prepared — and so on. You try to keep the board members reasonably on track, but the reading of reports generates so many rabbit trails that agendas rarely get finished. Some board members what to run everything and the lead pastor struggles to get his ideas and projects approved. No one has time or energy to think about a better way. But this mode of church board operation is not healthy for the congregation and rarely advances the mission in significant ways.

You may have inherited an efficient board operation. As chair you see your role as perpetuating the system. However, the routine is beginning to create frustration among some board members who do not think the board is asking the hard questions and focusing on mission. One of these board members recently indicated to you as chair that he would not be letting his name stand for another term. In his view board work is too much “business as usual.” The lead pastor is rather happy with the current state of affairs because the board is not interfering in his work. You did not sign on to be a change agent, but rather to chair a church board and sustain its machinery in good order. However, you are sensing that this may not be enough to advance the mission of your congregation.

Perhaps as chairperson you have tried to suggest some innovations to the board, but your ideas met with little enthusiasm. Some board members were happy with the current mode of operations, others were suspicious that these new ideas would introduce “worldly” processes into the church, and others had neither time nor energy to  invest in redeveloping the board. So you backed off. Now you are not sure what to do, whether to just let things be or try in some other ways to bring needed reform to your church board’s operations.

First, we should be clear that building effective church boards is a choice. It is strange how comfortable people get with the way things are, even though those ways may be quite unproductive. Church boards are more conservative than other non-profit boards. So if as chairperson you want the board to “choose” to improve, then somehow you are going to have to find some way to motivate them make this choice. You have to have a pretty good answer to the “why?” question.

Second, the chairperson cannot build an effective church board all on his/her own. If you discern that God wants the church board to change for very good reasons, then whom within the board can you encourage to join with you in this task? Effective change often requires a “guiding coalition” to lead the charge. If your church board currently has 7 to 10 members, then you probably need two other board members to support your drive for change. As well, having the lead pastor on side will be immensely important. Together you should sort out and communicate as well as you can why change in the board operations is necessary and what you discern to be the benefits for the mission, the congregation and the staff.

Third, you need to discern what needs to change and why before embarking on change. In other words the map to improved board effectiveness needs to be clear in your mind. In Nadler’s terms, what’s your blueprint for change? One of the best places to begin is to review with the board the description of their role and responsibility. Probe with the board aspects of this description which are not getting done or being done intermittently or ineffectively. As the discussion progresses note down these areas and then invite the board to offer ideas about what the board needs to do in order to fulfill its role and responsibility. Once the board members discern the gap between what is and what needs to be, this can be sufficient motive to consider change. If your church board does not possess a formal description of its role and responsibility, then start by having the board develop one. You can suggest that this is an important document for the board so that all board members know what their collaborative task is.

Four, the motivation for change probably will arise from frustration with current operations, ineffective decision-making, or crisis of some kind. Or perhaps the church board together with the pastoral staff have engaged consultants to discern various ways to advance the congregation’s mission because you sense you are stuck. And one of their recommendations requires the church board to change its mode of operation. In other words you may need to capture the moment, a “teaching moment,” in order to stimulate change. You may be able to tap into some of that frustration or concern to develop a guiding coalition within the board to support change.

Of course, not all change is good change and so careful discernment will need to be exercised. Perhapsn one place to start is to define your vision of what marks an effective church board. The next blog article will address that question.

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