217. Adhoc Committees, Chairpersons, and Church Boards

Church boards tend to operate as “committees of the whole,” i.e. the whole board works to resolve an issue and arrive at a good decision. This is the case particularly in smaller congregations where most of those on the board have an intimate understanding of the entire congregation and have good knowledge of the questions before the board. However, when congregations grow and congregational leadership becomes more complex, the gravity of the issues, as well as their intricacy and number begin to tax the capacity of the board to deal with each one well. Agendas become bloated and unmanageable. Decisions get delayed. Board meetings get longer. Board members become frustrated and tired.

One of the most useful tools that a church board has in its toolkit to deal with this complexity is the “adhoc committee.” As I mentioned in an earlier article the term “adhoc” reflects a Latin phrase “ad hoc” meaning “for a particular end or case.” The phrase “adhoc committee” describes a select group of people assigned a particular, temporary task. For example, a church board may receive a proposal for implementing a child care centre. Recognizing that this is a complex issue and will require sifting and evaluating considerable information, the board decides to appoint an adhoc committee to help it reach a good decision. The committee is assigned a specific mandate, i.e. to bring forward to the board a report outlining the advantages and disadvantages, evaluating the resourcing plan, and indicating three or four possible directions the board might take in response to the proposal. The board decides who will comprise the committee and when the report is due.  Once this task is completed, the committee ceases to exist.

Adhoc committees provide tremendous utility to a board. They allow a board to treat an issue with due seriousness without consuming a huge amount of valuable board time. It enables a board to draw in people with specific expertise to help it sort out the possible directions. While it is normal to have one or two board members serve on such a committee, the board has flexibility to appoint other, non-board members, to the committee, who will contribute important wisdom, experience, and knowledge. The board chair tracks the progress of each adhoc committee by keeping in touch with the respective adhoc committee chairs.

So adhoc committees save time and bring needed resources to bear on complex questions, but also help the board evaluate various options.  Generally the task of an adhoc committee is not to bring forward one recommendation, but rather to outline various options and define their advantages and disadvantages. The board does not cede its authority to make the final decision. It wants to know what primary options it might have based on which it can arrive at a final decision. In this sense adhoc committees are advisory to the board.

When should a chair propose the formation of an adhoc committee? A board chair guides the board in managing its agenda. The chairperson should know what “big rocks” the board needs to consider over the next six months and where each can fit into the board’s agenda. Given the restricted amount of time the board has to deal with important issues, the chair should be considering which issues the board can assign to adhoc committees. This will ensure that the board has the necessary information at hand when it needs to process specific issues. Without this preliminary work the board will function as a committee of the whole, probably not have complete and unbiased information, and will spend a lot of energy discerning what its options might be. So the decision-making process is prolonged, sometimes fractious, and may even result in a decision based on ignorance. In other words the ability of the board to exercise its due diligence is compromised.

One of the areas in which an adhoc committee can be particularly helpful to a board is discerning possible risks and identifying ways to mitigate those risks. To return to the earlier example of the child care centre proposal, some board members might be aware of the liability issues a church assumes when operating such a centre. However, an adhoc committee can be mandated specifically to investigate such risks and recommend specific ways to reduce potential harm to the congregation.

Are there any downsides to using adhoc committees? As with any human mechanism problems can occur in the leadership and operations of such committees. Some board members may feel that the board itself should be doing this work and in some sense think they are being shut out of the process. If the committee understands its advisory role and the requirement to present various options to the board, then this feeling should be mitigated. Knowing when an adhoc committee has done its work can be tricky. For example, if the board appoints an adhoc building committee to help it oversee the construction of facilities, when is that committee’s work completed? Is it when the building is operational, when all permits are received, when all mortgage arrangements are completed, when fund-raising processes have run their course? It is up to the board to make this determination because the committee serves the board.

One last note to consider. Adhoc committees can provide helpful training opportunities for new board members to learn their roles. It is generally not wise to appoint a new board member to chair such a committee, but new board members can certainly be asked to serve supporting roles.

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