189. What Committees Does a Church Board Need?

Committees form an important part of a church board’s toolkit. But they are only tools and not essential components for good board operations.  Effective chairs help church boards decide what committees will be useful to their work and strike an appropriate balance between too many and too few committees. In addition the chair ensures that each committee is accomplishing its mandate well. All board committees serve the board and are not independent of board control and accountability. The term “committee originated in the 15th century and meant a “person to whom something was committed,” i.e. a “commit – ee” on the analogy of a “train – ee.”

John Carver in his work on non-profit governance argues that boards should avoid standing committees and only work with adhoc committees appointed to assist a board with specific projects. In his view standing committees tend over time to accrue power and exert undue influence over board work. They also create two different levels of board membership — those who serve on standing committees and those who don’t, with consequent implications within board dynamics. The one standing committee he considers important is a “governance committee,” one that assists a non-profit board in doing its work.

As with many elements of church board operations, the size of the congregation will influence the question of board committees. In contexts where the congregation is less than one hundred, has primarily one employee and a board of 3-5 people, the question of standing committees probably does not arise. The board functions in most of its work as a “committee of the whole.” Individual board members may be assigned specific responsibilities. When congregations grow beyond this size, then church board operations will also begin to develop and change. At this point the question of standing committees will become more significant.

In my experience within church boards serving congregations of more than several hundred people and with multiple employees two standing committees are probably important and helpful. One focuses upon finances and audit issues and the other on personnel issues. Church boards always struggle to maintain adequate oversight of finances and the attendant risks. As well audit responsibilities tend to receive low priority, even though they are incredibly helpful in managing risks. It takes a deep appreciation for the scope of spiritual oversight to perceive financial and audit matters as important elements in a church board’s ministry, i.e. its ability to advance the congregation’s mission.

In the case of personnel matters, church boards struggle to get good traction on these matters when they try to address this matters as a “committee of the whole,” i.e. with the whole board functioning as the personnel committee. Too many conflicts of interest can interfere and make good decisions hard to achieve. A well-run personnel committee can assist a board to deal with matters such as salary and benefits adjustments, annual performance evaluations, employee policies, harrassment issues, etc. The board retains final authority, but the committee can bring to the board recommendations that can take a lot of the “heat” out of the discussions.

Another frequently recommended standing committee would be a “governance committee.” The primary mandate of this committee is enhancing the ability of a church board to govern effectively. Common responsibilities would be church board education, recommendations for church board offices, proposed policy related to board governance and operations, oversight of board evaluation, development and implementation of board orientation processes, public acknowledgement of the contribution of retiring board members, etc. Such a committee can be a very helpful asset for chairpersons seeking to improve the capacity of their church boards.

Whatever your church board decides with respect to standing committees, their mandates and their composition should be reviewed annually and re-instated. Written descriptions of their key responsibilities should be reviewed and updated, with clear statements regarding their limitation of authority and their accountability to the board. Committee chairs should understand that the board chair has authorization from the board to oversee the good operation of the standing committees and bring to the board’s attention matters which in his or her view prevent a committee from achieving its purposes.

Adhoc committees serve church boards in their examination of particularly issues. The term adhoc is Latin for “pertaining to a specific matter, temporary.” Not everything of this nature has to be managed through an adhoc committee. A board can delegate one or more of its members to draft a report or policy on any specific matter without formally creating an adhoc committee. However, when the issue is complex or carries within it considerable importance for the board and/or congregation, then creating a formal mandate and committee structure can be an important means by which the board shows its careful and responsible handling of such issues. In every instance it is important that timelines be built into the mandate so that the ‘shelf-life’ of the committee is limited.


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