277. Governance, Innovation and Sustainability in the Role of a Church Board Chairperson.

Governance, innovation and sustainability constitute a significant trio of church board activities — all in support of the spiritual health of the congregation. A church board chairperson consequently has to have some sense of how to assist the board members to engage these key functions consistently and effectively. Governance embraces the complex leadership role that a church board plays in congregational life. Innovation speaks to the advancement of the mission, following a clear and compelling vision. Sustainability involves excellence in each and every current project and service.

How a church board chair perceives the chairperson’s role and the role of a church board in the life of a congregation has critical implications for his/her leadership. What a church board may write into a chairperson’s position description is one thing, but how this gets embodied in the actual leadership of the church board may be quite another. Personal giftedness and preference will result in some aspects of the role being emphasized and others either left unfulfilled or barely addressed. Further the chair’s perception of the role of the lead pastor within the church board will also affect his/her performance dramatically.

I think one solution to understanding and embodying leadership of a church board requires church board chairs to focus their leadership on these three key church board responsibilities, i.e., governance, innovation, and sustainability. In my view if board chairs can manage these three elements reasonably well, other elements of the role generally will be all right.

Discerning how best to help a church board advance the congregational mission can assume such massive proportions that it is hard to know the most effective way to tackle it. The prospect becomes overwhelming. However, if we perceive and focus upon the major components, then it becomes more manageable.

1. Governance. If governance describes the leadership responsibility of the church board within the life of a congregation, then a key element in the chairperson’s role is to help the board members understand this and operate with this mindset. Defining the nature of this leadership and how it integrates with the appropriate leadership responsibilities of the pastoral team forms a critical part of this conversation. In many cases we assume that all board members and pastoral leaders are on the same page in regards to this question, but in my experience this rarely is the case. The result is confusion, unfounded assumptions, and cross purposes that generate tension and misunderstanding.

As chairperson you might find it helpful and instructive to develop your own written description of the nature of your church board’s leadership and how it relates to that of the pastoral team. Once you think you have it somewhat clear, share it with key members of the pastoral staff and get their input. It will probably generate some interesting discussion. Then revise it. At this point you might then present it as a discussion piece to the church board members. Once you have gathered their input and revised it again, then present it to board members for their consideration as one of the major documents that define the nature of the board’s work. It will have to be refined as time progresses, but it will become an important guide for present and future board members and pastoral leaders. The objective through this exercise is to develop broad consensus as to the nature of the church board’s leadership within the congregation.

2. Innovation. The degree to which a church board directs and fosters ministry innovation within the congregation probably becomes a good measure of whether that board is active or passive in its leadership. However, innovation within a congregation is a tricky matter.

I think most lead pastors would regard innovation as their particular responsibility. They bring the ideas for mission advancement to the board for review and approval. However, it is less common for the board to champion innovations which the pastoral team has not proposed. Now this characterization of things suggests a “them-us” operational reality. I think rather the ideal in terms of innovation should be a “both-and” interaction.

The lead pastor is one of the church board ministry leadership team so his or her ideas for congregational development in one sense constitute in some way innovative leadership for a church board. However, it is important for the lead pastor to encourage and invite church board members to share their ideas for congregational development. If there is mutual understanding about this reciprocity, then the chairperson can lead the board in ways that foster it. Probably this kind of interchange will occur during church board retreats and annual strategic planning sessions.

However it is done, the chairperson has the responsibility to ensure that the church board can provide innovative leadership through its work.

3. Sustainability. We all realize that when a church board makes a decision, this is only first stage of a complex process. Implementing it with excellence requires another, different level of leadership. The day-to-day work required to implement and sustain initiatives with excellence imposes significant responsibilities upon the pastoral staff. Board members undoubtedly will be involved as volunteers in some of these measures, but they do so with accountability to the pastoral team.

Sustainability involves developing the resources necessary to deliver the program’s goals, i.e. leadership, facilities, finances, program design, etc. Maintaining each of these elements with a high degree of operational effectiveness is a challenge, particularly when much of this effort involves volunteers. However, if the mission of the congregation is to advance, then each means of service has to be done well and sustained with energy and purpose.

A church board interfaces with implementation through the reports it receives from its primary employee, the lead pastor. Any decision to implement a new policy or program must make clear who is responsible to get it done, what reporting is required to ensure it is getting done well, and specific timeframes established to track such accountability. Without clear means of determining sustainability for each policy and program, a church board has no means of knowing whether its decisions in fact are advancing the congregation’s mission. So a church board chairperson has to help a board ensure that adequate and workable accountability measures are developed for each initiative.

The terms governance, innovation, and sustainability normally are not associated with spiritual health and development. However, from the standpoint of a church board these terms define the most important elements that enable the strategic ministry leadership team of the congregation, i.e. the board, to ensure that the spiritual health of the congregation is flourishing.

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