177. Seven Habits of Effective Church Boards (Habits 5, 6 & 7)

In blog articles 175 and 176 I introduced the theme “Habits of Effective Church Boards” and considered the first four: the careful selection and appointment of a competent chairperson, the careful selection and appointment of knowledgeable board members, a church board that operates with the understanding that all of its work is spiritual work, and a church board that embraces and requires accountability. In this segment we introduce the other three habits.

Habit #5:  A Church Board that has the capacity to make good decisions.

Effective church boards are led by chairpersons who understand the processes necessary to develop good decisions. This includes clarity about the theological dimensions of decision-making, e.g. collective discernment of the will of God. A significant aspect of good decision-making involves knowledge of the limits within which the church board has the authority to make decisions without reference to the congregation and when it has to bring recommendations to the congregation for their approval. Skilled chairpersons will ensure that the board members can access the necessary information to make appropriate decisions. When such information is lacking, decisions are deferred.

Effective church boards engage all of their members in discussion and prayer so that collectively they own the decisions. Hard questions can be asked and answered because the board members have the spiritual and relationship strength and maturity for robust discussion. As part of this process board members suspend their personal interests in order to make decisions that are in the best interest of the congregation’s mission. When a conflict of interest is discerned, the board deals with it according to policy.

Accurate records are kept of all church board decisions, i.e. they are minuted. Such records express the voice of the board. Effective boards will stipulate in their decisions who is authorized to implement. Timelines normally will be expressed within which the board requires report of progress to achieve the goals stated in the respective decisions. In other words decisions are made in expectation of accountability from those authorized to implement.

Each decision is evaluated with respect to risk and the availability of resources. Where risk is exceptional or resources lacking, the church board carries responsibility to monitor risk and locate the resources.

Habit #6: A Church Board that practices consistent Risk Management.

The New Testament places the protection of the congregation in the hands of the elders (cf. Acts 20:25-31). Risks arise in many, varied forms and the effective church board is alive to these dangers to staff, congregational unity and vitality, financial resources, facilities, ministry dynamics, etc. It is not a question of “if” risks will come, but “when.”

Effective church boards inform themselves as much as possible about potential risks and guide the congregation in ways that provide as much protection as possible. This requires  board members to balance well the relationship between bold faith and recklessness. When risks become apparent, the board acts to mitigate such risks. Policies and processes are in place to protect congregational assets (staff, facilities, finances, reputation, information) through prayer, spiritual discernment, insurance, good management, astute financial oversight, accountability, environmental scans, awareness of societal trends, good care of employees, etc. When new proposals are brought to the church board for review, the board insists that they include a section on potential risks and their mitigation.

One of the more difficult risk management issues within church boards is that of conflict of interest. If these are not identified and dealt with the board risks serious damage to its credibility and also may expose itself to potential liability.

Habit #7: A Church Board that continually develops its capacity to govern well.

Continual education of the church board regarding its governance mandate, the “church industry,” theological issues, care and nurture of the congregation, etc. supports board effectiveness. The chairperson carries significant responsibility in this domain as he/she observes board operations and manages board assessment processes. In particular a church board has to work hard to enhance its capacity to serve as the strategic ministry leadership team within the congregation.

Assuming the role of board member carries with it the expectation and responsibility for improving personal capacity to govern well. In many cases this will require the commitment of specific time and energy to read, study, and reflect on the role of a church board. Perhaps it will include attending workshops, reading books on church governance, studying Scripture, and engaging more experienced board members as mentors.

Governance requires courage; effective governance requires disciplined, informed courage. To be innovative and creative in terms of strategic leadership does not happen accidentally or without significant hard work and willingness for adaptation. Yet without such personal commitment to the advancement of the congregation’s mission, stagnation will occur. Congregations are always dynamic, never static. They are growing, changing or declining and effective boards know the pulse of their congregations. They are hungry for the best information to guide their decision-making.

J. Carver (Strategies for Board Leadership, 15-16) said: “The board is creating tomorrow’s traditions with the actions it takes today. Leadership compels the board to be truer to tomorrow than to yesterday. It aims to fill the gap between what is and what can be, more than it seeks to escape what has been….Excellence begins with governance.”

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