Over the past several months numerous individuals serving on church boards have asked how new board members can be developed in a congregational setting. Usually this gets couched in terms such as, “Do you know of a good program for developing elders?” Elders often serve as board members too. I do not have an “off the shelf” program for board member development to suggest. Perhaps such a resource exists, but I am not aware of it when it comes to the world of church boards. We have good manuals that introduce people to the work of non-profit boards, but usually they do not deal with the challenges of developing new board members within a congregational context.
Several reasons might be suggested for this gap in church board resources. One might be the belief that if God calls a person to serve in the capacity of board member, then He will also provide the wisdom and skill necessary to do the job well. Theologically one might give assent to this principle, but I suggest that God often incorporates normal processes of human learning and development in training his leaders. Another factor probably is the process traditionally used in congregational settings for selecting board members. A congregational nominating committee is charged with the responsibility of recommending candidates for board positions to the congregation. It is often viewed as inappropriate for the current board to be involved too closely with this process, lest the board be perceived as becoming a self-perpetuating board. And so a church board does not know how to train potential board members without appearing to be hand-picking those from whom the nominating committee can select candidates. Thirdly, I do not think that much priority is given to developing new board members because it is not viewed as important or necessary by church leaders.
And so we tend to find this anomalous situation — the group in the congregation who is entrusted with being the strategic ministry leadership team in the church comes to this task with little specific training or preparation. The results are predictable — frustration on the part of those appointed and frequent dysfunction as a leadership team.
I am convinced that things can be different — and should change for the good of the congregation and their church boards.
Some issues need to be addressed:
1. Church boards, when developing potential board members, need to avoid the trap of becoming a self-perpetuating board, i.e. the board choosing board members. All appearance of manipulating the process of selection needs to be removed.
2. Whatever process we establish, we have to allow God’s Spirit to be directing it. This means that we have to provide some means for people who may not go through this developmental process to be considered for board positions. In other words the process is not the important thing; rather the question is how to discern individuals in the congregation who have the gifting, competence and experience to serve well in this capacity.
3. We have to avoid the assumption that everyone who receives such training will in fact be called by God to serve in this capacity. The training can become a pathway for board service, but there is no guarantee or expectation that such will be the case.
Acknowledging these challenges and committed to following the Spirit’s guidance in the selection and appointment of church board members, how can a church board design and implement a good process?
1. It is probably wise to place whatever “program” is developed under the oversight of a group composed of one board members, lead pastor and one non-board, church member. This committee should be appointed by the board and be accountable to the board. The committee’s mandate might be related to an annual cycle of training. A clear set of guidelines should be established by the board to assist the committee in its work.
2. A careful explanation of the program should be made at a congregational business meeting, seeking input and assuring the congregation that the desire is to equip people for service, not to place the selection of board members in the power of the board. In particular opportunity should be made in the process for congregational members to recommend to the committee individuals for this training process. This part of the process should be open-ended.
3. When the training begins, the leaders in the first session should make it very clear to those involved that participation is no guarantee of future nomination as a board member. Rather part of the purpose of the training is to equip believers to serve on non-profit boards in the local community as a means of community impact.
4. The committee should be instructed by the board to develop a proposed curriculum and mentoring process for the board’s review. Any costs associated with its implementation should be included in the budget. In this regard it might be helpful to consider a learning process that extends over an eight week period (one night a week) or four Saturday mornings (spread over an eight to ten week period). Keep the instruction segment relatively short, given the busy schedules that people experience. Include in this period the opportunity to observe on board meeting so that the participants can discern how a church board operates and be able to reflect upon that experience. I would suggest the use of case studies as part of the curriculum to enable trainees to grapple with the kinds of issues that church boards are expected to deal with.
5. I would suggest that an important element in this training process would be mentoring by current board members. This can be done by pairing trainees with board members. The expectation might be for two or three sessions (about an hour in length) during the eight to ten week period of training. Mentors would receive written materials to guide their discussions during each mentoring session, but also be encouraged to explore other aspects of board work as the trainee may desire.
6. Select good presenters who know and understand the material and have enough board experience to speak to issues based upon cases.
7. Incorporate an evaluation process so that the trainees can speak into the process and offer suggestions for improvement.
If this training gets implemented well, it probably will make the board orientation process much simpler.
In the next blog I will process a curricular outline for such training and some suggested resources.