213. Church Boards, Chairpersons and Board Committees

A reality in every church board’s operational life is the existence of board committees. Love them or hate them, church boards cannot entirely dispense with them. When used well, they help a board leverage its time and energy exponentially; if not managed properly, they have immense destructive potential. A board chair has to work with board committee chairs in order to orchestrate the board’s overall agenda.

Committees are merely ways of organizing people in teams to accomplish certain goals. It is group to which a larger body has “committed” a matter to be investigated, acted upon, or reported on. As such “committees” are always accountable to the body that has established them. They have no independent authority, only that authority delegated to them by the body to which they are accountable.

The number and kind of committees that a church board uses will vary in accordance with the board’s mode of governance. When a church board operates primarily as a management board because it cannot afford to hire staff to fulfill specific functions, then committees can be effective ways for a board to organize its work around specific responsibilities. For example, when a congregation cannot afford a youth pastor, a church board may decide to appoint two elders/deacons to serve as a youth ministry leadership committee responsible to the board to oversee this aspect of congregational ministry. When a church board operates as policy board, then the number of committees can be reduced substantially to one or two “standing” committees. From time-to-time “adhoc” committees may be formed to deal with specific issues.

What is the distinction between a “standing” committee and an “adhoc” committee? Boards create standing committees to manage ongoing responsibilities. For example, church boards are responsible to ensure that financial resources are being managed properly within the congregation. This usually includes an annual audit or financial review with appropriate reports produced for the annual general meeting. Church boards almost always manage such a responsibility by creating a “finance and audit committee.” Sometimes such a standing committee may even be mandated by church bylaws. Including such matters in church bylaws is not something I would recommend. So every year a church board would appoint some of its members to serve as its finance and audit committee because it is a standing committee.

Adhoc committees in contrast are temporary, mandated to investigate a specific issue and bring recommendations back to the board within a specific time frame. Once an adhoc committee’s work is done, the committee ceases to exist. The term “adhoc” reflects a Latin phrase “ad hoc” meaning “for a particular end or case.” At any given time a church board may have no adhoc committees operating or it may have several. Their number and purpose will be fluctuating. An adhoc committee can be an effective tool to help resolve differences of opinions within a board and bring some clarity to a particular issue.

What does a board chair need to understand about board committees?

1. Be clear about the standing committees that the board or the congregational bylaws have mandated. In each case the board should prepare clear operational guidelines defining a committee’s purpose, limits of authority, responsibilities, reporting schedule, and composition. Such guidelines become part of the board’s operational policies and should be reviewed on a regular basis.

2. I think it is helpful for church boards to have standing committees overseeing finance and audit responsibilities, as well as personnel issues. In addition, a board governance committee can be very useful in assisting a board to manage its educational development, orientation of new members, evaluation of board effectiveness, and nomination of officers.

3. Boards can appoint committee chairs or permit committees the right to appoint their own chairs. However, the board should make it clear that the committee chairs have some degree of accountability to the board chair for ensuring that the specific board committee is doing its work effectively.

4. In cases where a board committee, whether a standing or adhoc committee, will need financial resources to complete its work, the board has to take responsibility to include such costs within the congregational budget. They can be incorporated into board expenditures.

5. Board committees can include non-board members. However, it is usually wise to have one of the board members chairing the committee. This makes reporting and accountability function more easily. Often a board committee will need to include people who have competence in a particular area not represented among the board members. However, it is possible to have “consultants” assisting a committee without formally including them as committee members.

6. In the case of adhoc committees always ensure that the board includes a very specific term within which the committee is mandated to do its work and beyond which it cannot exist without specific board motion. This ensures that adhoc committees are not tempted to evolved into a standing committee.

7. Rotating the chairpersons of standing committees from time-to-time generally is a good practice, because it prevents board members from getting a sense of entitlement. It also ensures that other board members are being developed in their leadership potential. Often board members who serve as effective committee chairs can also serve as good board chairs.

Board chairs manage these various processes on behalf of their boards. Giving wise leadership to ensure that committees are properly formed, receive clear mandates, and have specific timelines for reporting will enhance their usefulness for board operations. The chair should ensure that committee minutes are being kept and made available to the board members. They are board committees and not entities existing for their own purposes.


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