201. Chairperson — Thought Leader, Catalyst, Motivator

Does a church board have responsibility to ensure that innovative thought-leadership is alive and well within the congregation? And if so, who is responsible for thought-leadership within a church board? Is it the lead pastor, the chairperson, individual board members, or some combination of these elements?

Of course, a key question concerns the definition of thought-leadership. Http://www.futurebuzz.com.au characterizes  thought-leaders as “a trusted source who moves people with innovative ideas.” Others see thought-leadership as close, knowledgeable interaction with stake-holders so that the agency remains relevant and clientele remains loyal. The essential ingredient in thought-leadership seems to be tied to innovation, particularly in terms of discerning and meeting client needs. When thought-leadership is absent, agencies stagnate and mission fulfillment falters.

If we define thought-leadership within a congregation as the discernment of innovations that will enable its mission to advance and the needs of its defined clients to be met and if it is a critical ingredient for church health, then how does a church board resource thought-leadership?

When it comes to corporate boards opinions vary as to whether the locus for thought-leadership lies in the board or in the management – or some serendipitous combination of the two. If management knows the industry and the clientele, then some think they are best positioned to discern and generate innovation that builds trust and confidence in clients. To position the board as thought-leaders encourages them to intrude into management. Others perceive that if the board is responsible for defining vision and strategy, it cannot do so without providing thought-leadership.  If the board did not have the capacity, mandate and opportunity to exercise thought-leadership how could it act with due diligence in advancing the mission.

Churches are not corporations, but many church leaders would regard themselves and their churches as innovators. They develop and disseminate ideas, develop programs, implement processes, etc., for the benefit of defined groups of people within and without the congregation.  Some church leaders naturally are innovative in terms of congregational development, community impact, and the development of leadership structures. But in the context of a local church, who is responsible to nurture innovation and ensure that such an ethos persists?  Or is “thought-leadership” a non-sequitor in such a tradition-bound institution? I would like to think that congregational leadership is continually exploring innovative ideas, but I know that often the reality is different for many, diverse reasons.

Church boards are responsible to ensure that their congregations have and continue to develop the capacity for thought leadership. The “tone at the top” – something a church board is responsible for — becomes incredibly important with respect to thought-leadership. It becomes a function of pastoral development and succession; a function of collective staff expertise and commitment, marshaled under the management of the lead pastor; and a function of church board education and development. Fundamental to all of these elements is the careful cultivation of spiritual wisdom. Of course, lead pastors have significant voice in enabling a church board to be innovative thought-leaders in terms of vision and strategic development.

A church board ensures that this innovation capacity continues to grow through three primary mechanisms:

·         the careful appointment and direction of a lead pastor who understands the nature of innovation within a congregation and has a track record of discerning and implementing it;

·         engagement with strategic planning;

·         giving careful attention to board recruitment and education.

A church board member’s contribution to congregational innovation varies depending upon the expertise brought to the table and the courage to ask hard questions.  As well, thought-leadership becomes a function of how the board as an entity organizes its business. Does the board chair appreciate the role of the board in developing a church’s innovative capacity? Given the thirty or forty hours a year that the board members meet, thought-leadership and innovation have to be a priority on the agendas. Crafting board agendas to ensure that thought-leadership has opportunity to flourish is the particular service of the board chair. The etymology of the word “governance” is good navigation, which implies knowledge about setting direction.

Thought leadership is also a function of good, pertinent information. Here again the board chair serves to ensure that the board is receiving the necessary information to make good decisions. If the only information the board receives comes from the lead pastor and staff, it probably will be too limited and skewed (not with any malicious intent). The result is the inability of the board to exercise its crucial role in thought leadership. Management controls the message and often the required candour within board discussion is missing or subdued. “An insulated boardroom is an ineffective boardroom” (Judy Marcus, Reuters, US Edition, January 15, 2013). I would agree and add that “an insulated boardroom cannot be an innovative boardroom.” Church boards need access to external expertise, carefully selected to suit their particular needs, in order to fulfill their responsibility as a primary collective thought-leader within the congregation. Here again I would suggest a board chair exercises important leadership, recognizing when external advice will assist the board and making arrangements for the board to access such resources.

Church board’s do have responsibility for defining the congregational culture and advancing the mission. Thought-leadership and innovation sit at the junction of these two realities. Where wise, mission-driven innovation thrives, congregational support will follow.


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