270. Better Church Boards, Better Congregations

The theme expressed in this blog’s title bears repeated emphasis because church board members and pastors do not always perceive the connection between effective boards and flourishing congregations. In most of my readings related to congregational health and growth, little attention is given to this correlation. If we get the preaching right, the worship right, the facility right, and the program right — then we presume that growth will occur. We ignore what can be argued to be the most important element in all of this — a committed, effective strategic ministry leadership team, i.e. an effective church board.

Research related to non-profits and their boards indicates clearly that if a non-profit wants to achieve a great impact, it will require a great  board (2015 Survey on Board of Directors of Nonprofit Organizations, prepared by Stanford Graduate School of Business in collaboration with Boardsource and Guidestar, page 1). A similar correlation will exist usually in congregations (which normally are constituted as nonprofit charities).

This survey of 924 nonprofit directors in the United States indicates that 36% of nonprofit boards do not evaluate their own performance; 46% have little confidence that the data they receive “fully and accurately measures” organizational success; 80% claim they evaluate the chief executive’s performance, but 39% have not established explicit performance targets to measure this performance. I suspect similar or greater percentages would be reflected in the results of a similar survey conducted among church board members. This data indicates that while most nonprofit boards have a desire to do well, their operational capacity prevents them achieving excellence because they do not give enough attention to key practices that contribute to success.

Time invested by a church board in learning how to improve its ability to lead and govern will pay significant dividends. But this effort will take time, intention, and willingness to adapt. Let me address two areas of board work specifically.

1. Resistance to developing and implementing a consistent lead pastor annual evaluation process shows itself in church boards. Although we accept in theory that pastoral evaluation is probably a good thing, moving from the idea to the well-practiced reality takes considerable effort. Theological misperceptions have to be addressed; feelings of inadequacy among board members for such a task must be challenged; misgivings on the part of the lead pastor have to be worked through; the logistics require a disciplined approach by the board’s personnel committee. However, in the absence of a consistent, well-functioning evaluation process accountability suffers and the capacity of the church board to achieve its vision correspondingly falters. Church boards have significant inertia to overcome if they are to embrace and implement a consistent, effective pastoral evaluation process.

2. Data presented to a church board often offers little help to the board members to discern whether the congregation is achieving its mission with success. Church boards get significant amounts of data — some delivered orally and some in written reports. However, often church boards have not taken time to identify what kinds of data they require in order to determine whether the ends or outcomes they have established are in fact being met. The board has to tell those reporting what data it requires in order to measure success. This should not be left to the discretion of the employee reporting.

If church boards addressed these two issues well and consistently, they would improve their capacity to govern. In addition they would give attention to their most important responsibility and that is to advance the congregation’s mission. Both of these factors are critical to church health.

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