196. How Long Should Church Board Members Serve?

In a previous blog article (123. Pros and Cons of “Staggered” Board Membership) I explored the question of length of term for church board members. I would like to address several additional questions related to this issue, some of which are rather unique to the faith-community context.

Richard Leblanc, York University Associate Professor, Law, Governance and Ethics, in a recent article (Huffingtonpost.ca, September 19, 2013) notes that a recent study indicated “optimal service for a director was nine years.” If a director’s term extends beyond this, “firm value was adversely affected.” This of course relates to the corporate world. Given our common humanity, however, the same dynamics probably hold true for church board members. At what point do church board members begin to “over-stay” and lose their productivity? Is there value to enforced “sabbaticals” for long-serving board members?

This question becomes intertwined with another issue. In some congregational contexts “elders” are appointed for life and this means that they serve as part of the board in perpetuity. However, other board members, sometimes called “deacons” serve as board members with term appointments. So some church boards include both elders who have a perpetual term and deacons who have limited term appointments.

Regardless of what theological justification might be offered to support the appointment of elders for life, personally I think such provisions are unwise. People who hold such positions, no matter how “spiritual” they might be, risk losing a sense of accountability to the congregation and the board. If the board makes decisions with which they disagree, they can walk out of the board and continue to be an elder in the congregation, creating divisiveness and disruption. The board then becomes dysfunctional and held hostage to one or two people, without any mechanism for resolution.

Given this kind of risk, it seems that some limitation for length of board service (or for any other role in the congregation) is both wise and necessary for effective board operations. But what might be a judicious provision to adopt for church board length of service? I would suggest three to four terms (of three years each, i.e. 9 to 12 years) is probably a good measure to adopt. Boards need renewal, as well as continued diversification of gifts, competence and experience. Older members need to give younger, emerging leaders opportunity. People need opportunity to rest and renew their perspectives.

When board members become “over-tenured,” they tend to become too “tight” with the paid congregational staff, relaxing requirements for accountability and hesitant to ask the tough questions. Long serving members may also develop a sense of entitlement, i.e. that their voice somehow should carry more weight in decisions than others. Often such board members become more adverse to risk-taking and tend to support the status quo, rather than pushing the vision forward.

There are always exceptions, but the exceptions should not be used to develop policy.

Board chairs may find it hard to lead their church boards to develop and implement policy regarding board member length of service. Vested interests will challenge the need and often respond from an emotional and personal point of view, rather than considering the best interests of the congregation. However, good board succession planning, effective leadership development, and sustaining vigorous board leadership with respect to mission, require such policy.

Another factor comes into play with church boards. Very few church boards are willing to initiate any kind of performance evaluation for individual board members. I understand why this is difficult either to implement or to sustain. However, the result is that church boards have no mechanism by which to discern with some degree of objectivity whether a board member no longer is serving effectively. In the absence of such a process, term limitations become a rough means by which to require board members to complete their service, at least for a required minimal amount of time (one or two years), and thus ensure that new, emerging leadership has opportunity to refresh the board.

As chairperson you probably have a pretty good idea which members of your church board continue to contribute well and which are present, but not functioning effectively. Sometimes individuals will perceive within themselves that it is time for them to conclude this aspect of their service for Christ. Conversely, some will never discern this and there will usually be someone in the congregation who will continue to nominate them for board membership. Having a policy related to length of service removes the “personal” factor, i.e. that the individual concerned views the actions to remove them from the board as a personal attack, with all of the unpleasant repercussions.

As you develop such policy, you might advise the board to consider other factors which might precipitate a board member’s conclusion of service, i.e. mental incapacity, immoral activity, failure to support the congregation’s mission and vision, etc. As well, you should clarify who has the authority to make such decisions. Can the board act on its own, or must it have the approval of the members of the congregation? You might also consider what process the board has to follow in order to arrive at such a serious decision, when the issue is something other than the normal completion of three or four terms of service. For example, it would be prudent for board, before it takes action, to ask the chair and vice-chair to have a conversation with the board member, expressing the board’s concern and indicating changes that board desires to see in the board member’s engagement. If no change is perceived by the board members over a specified length of time (perhaps two board meetings), then the board might proceed with a decision to ask the person to resign or failing that to take action that will lead to that person’s removal from the board.

Communication with the congregation about such matters will always be a challenge. If the congregation is aware of the process and can be assured that it has been followed fairly and respectfully, then there is some opportunity for the matter to be handled well.


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