209. Who is Responsible for the Ethical/Spiritual “Tone at the Top” in Congregational Organizations?

In December 2013 Gar Emerson, the publisher of GovernanceCanada, published an article entitled “Ethical Leadership and Corrupt Practices” (http://www.governancecanada.com/wp-content/uploads/DM_TOR-6992867-v1-Ethical_Leadership_and_Corruption.pdf). On pages 8-10 he comments upon the “Leadership Role of the Chairman of the Board” and states unequivically that “the ‘tone at the top’ of an organization radiates from the quality of the leadership of the board of directors which in turn derives its character and quality from the Chairman of the Board” (p.9). His focus in the article is upon the “ethical ‘tone at the top’.” The context of Emerson’s remarks is corporate governance, but his ideas have application to the leadership role of church board chairs as well.

Within the congregational setting of church boards ethics is a subset of the larger framework of spiritual life and relationships that form the faith community. The values expressed in the Gospel normally give  direction and limitation to a church board’s operations and decisions. Whether these values are articulated in a specific code of conduct or operate more implicitly, congregations and the public in general have expectation that church boards incarnate these Gospel values in their collective activities. The chairperson receives mandate from the board to ensure that the board adheres to these values. This does not absolve other board members from responsibility, but it does mean that the chairperson must give particular attention to this issue. When the board is in danger of violating these values, the chairperson should be the first to call the board to account. As Emerson puts it, “the Chairman and the board cannot abdicate this responsibility to exterior forces.”

Sometimes in congregational contexts boards expect that it will be the lead pastor, normally a member of the board, who takes the lead in monitoring the board’s fidelity to its values. However, such a perspective is too narrow and disregards the board’s collective responsibility in this matter, the duty of honesty and integrity. And unfortunately it can be  the lead pastor who encourages the board members to bend the rules in such matters and board members are reluctant to call this and reject such direction.

The more seriously the chairperson and board members take this responsibility and live it out, the higher the level of trust they will engender within the congregation. People within congregations often have suspicion about church boards because they have had unfortunate experiences previously where board leadership has been sub-standard. And so when they come into your congregation, they hesitate to trust your church board until you collectively demonstrate your integrity and earn their trust. When a church board does violate explicit or implied values and the congregation becomes aware of it, it will take much hard work for the board to rebuild trust. Better not to lose it in the first place. The damage to the fabric of the community can be quite terrible. People’s memories retain such experiences in a tenacious way.

How can a church board chair provide “values” leadership for a church board?

1. Ensure that the board members have a common understanding of the values or ethical principles within which they collectively and individually operate as board members. The easiest way to achieve this is to lead the board in the exercise of a preparing a code of conduct policy.

2. Having a code of conduct policy only has effectiveness if it is used. So as chair insert into the board’s annual agenda a review of the policy, to keep its contents in the minds of the board members.  When the board does its annual evaluation, make sure that the code of conduct is part of that evaluation, i.e. have the board evaluate its actions over the past year in the light of its own ethical standards. If violations have occurred, the board should note these and take actions to correct them.

3. Build into the board’s decision-making process a standard question such as “does this proposal or recommendation violate our code of conduct or the values of our congregation?” This is a good way to ensure continuing accountability.

4. Keep yourself accountable to the code of conduct as the chairperson. If you are not informed about it and committed to it, chances are the board members will not be either.

5. In the board’s report to the Annual General Meeting include a statement indicating that the board has complied with the standards of the code of conduct in its operations and decisions for the last twelve months. This signals to the congregation that the board is intentional in regards to its ethical responsibility.

6. Try to ensure that the board members discern the essential connection between their spiritual commitments and the ethical standards in the code of conduct. The ethical standards are not a form of legalism, but rather form a spiritual frame of reference to ensure that the reputation of the Gospel is not harmed by the actions of the board.

New Testament writings are always connecting “being good” with “doing good” or as James puts it in his letter, he demonstrates his faith by his works. People involved in church boards represent mature, spiritual leaders within the congregation and they must lead first by example and then by policy.








This entry was posted in Board, Board Chair, Board Governance, Board Member, Senior Pastor and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.