208. Essential Tasks for Effectively Functioning Church Boards

Church board chairs sometimes wonder what the scope of their responsibilities entails. Because they serve their own boards their responsibilities are directly related to the work of a church board, primarily enabling that board to function effectively within the scope of the entity’s mission. So the better a chairperson understands the essential work of a non-profit governing board, i.e. a church board, the more competently that chair will be able to lead the church board.

Recently a report on corporate governance was published by the Group of Thirty for the banking sector (http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Industries/Financial-Services/Banking—Capital-Markets/Toward-effective-governance-of-financial-institutions—A-call-to-action-on-bank-governance). In the section on governance, ten essential board responsibilities are outlined (these are taken directly from “Towards Effective Governance of Financial Institutions” (no date) published by the Working Group on Corporate Governance of the Group of Thirty):

  1. Fashion an effective leadership structure that allows the board to work collaboratively as a team.
  2. Recruit the right members, those who have a balance of expertise, skills, experience and perspectives and who exhibit irreproachable independence of thought and action.
  3. Build a nuanced and broad understanding of all matters concerning the strategy, risk appetite and conduct of the firm, as well as an understanding of the risks it faces and its resiliency.
  4. Appoint the CEO and gauge top talent in the firm, assuring that the CEO and top team possess the skills, values, attitudes and energy essential to success.
  5. Take a long-term view on strategy and performance, focusing on sustainable success.
  6. Respect the distinction between the board’s responsibilities for direction-setting, oversight and control, and management’s responsibilities to run the business.
  7. Reach agreement with management on a strategy and champion management once decisions have been made.
  8. Challenge management, vigorously and thoughtfully discussing all strategic proposals, key risk policies and major operational issues.
  9. Put rigorous and robust processes in place to monitor organizational compliance with strategy and risk appetite and with all applicable laws and regulations.
  10. Assess the board’s own effectiveness regularly, occasionally with the assistance of external advisors, and share this assessment with the lead supervisor.

Although each of this principles will be applied with some variance because of the congregational context and the spiritual nature of church board work, nonetheless I would suggest that competent church board chairs and effective church boards will give attention to each of these responsibilities in the annual course of their operations. Principle # 8, for example, does need to function within a church board, but in a respectful and productive manner. Ideas and proposals do require vigorous debate and evaluation, regardless of who might be suggesting them. And so there is an element of challenge, however politely and spiritually it might find expression. When ideas receive no challenge, it is probable that the board is not doing its due diligence.

I think principle # 5 has particular significance for church boards — taking the long term view. In a very real sense a church board governs not only on behalf of the current congregation, but on behalf of the congregation that will be present in five or ten years. Consider, for example, the issue of facilities. Church boards have to make decisions about such matters not only for the usage of the immediate congregation, but as much as possible, for the usage of the congregation that will be present in five years.

Perhaps the foundational principle and correctly placed as #1 is the board’s own attentiveness to its specific organization, operation, and leadership role. If a church board does not have this figured out, then it will be very difficult for it to provide the strategic ministry leadership that the congregation requires and deserves.

As a church board chair you might use two or three of these principles as the focus of your opening remarks in one of the board meetings, encouraging the board members to reflect on the appropriateness of the principles in their setting. You might ask them to evaluate to what extent they think their collective board experience  reflects these principles and if not, what might be done to “improve their serve.”

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