278. Book Review: “Focusing Your Church Board Using the Carver Policy Governance Model,” by Ted Hull (Word Alive Press, 2015)

Ted Hull is the president of Ted Hull Consulting and an Associate Consultant with The Governance Coach™. He also has authored “A Guide To Governing Charities” (Word Alive Press, 2011). In this new book he outlines “the application of John Carver’s Policy Governance system in the context of a local church” (xii). He recognizes that “the church is different” from other charitable institutions because the Bible is its final authority. However, he is also convinced that a fair evaluation of the Policy Governance system will show that it is quite compatible with congregational polity and Scripture and provides an improvement on the rather haphazard traditions and unsystematic operational modes of governance practiced in many local church contexts — to the detriment of congregational health.

I want to state clearly that in my opinion Hull has provided an excellent introduction to Carver’s principles of governance and shown in considerable detail the benefits and the challenges of implementing them within the context of local congregations. Chapters 5-21 present these principles in an engaging manner, using straight forward language and explaining technical terms. Each chapter focuses upon one issue and is short and to the point. An appendix summarizes the “Ten Principles of Policy Governance.” There is a brief bibliography referencing Carver’s primary works and a few other pertinent publications. (If you desire to explore these principles more thoroughly, you might access the “Resources” tab on this website and click on “Reflections on John Carver.” As well there are numerous blogs on this website which discuss various aspects of this system in application to local church contexts.)

Hull emphasizes that when it comes to the Policy Governance system, it is “all or nothing.” He asserts that you cannot pick and choose some elements and disregard others. Each of the ten principles cohere together and failure in respect to one principle will probably mean failure in the implementation and effective operation of the entire system. Personally, I think this is a little extreme. For example, the principle of “board holism,” which “views the board as an it rather than a them….”(PDF, 40) is recognized as a principle of good governance generally. The corollary of  this principle is that the board has one voice. There is no doubt that this principle is central to the Policy Governance system, but it is also the case that this is commonly recognized as a best practice of non-profit governance regardless of the governance philosophy adopted. Similarly the important principle of delegation clarity is applicable in any model of non-profit governance. However, I would agree with Hull that if you want to adopt the Policy Governance system, then each of the principles is necessary.

Within the world of non-profit governance, which includes church boards, the model of governance that an agency selects is a means to an end, i.e. a healthy, vibrant organization. There is a fundamental relationship between excellent, effective and efficient governance and institutional health. So board governance within a congregation is an important issue, but governance must always remain a means, and not become an end in itself. Church boards that ignore best practices of governance and fail to develop their governance capacity with intentionality fail in their governance responsibility. Because I believe that good governance is central to church health, I will offer several criticisms of “Focusing Your Church Board….” I intend by this to foster continued conversation and reflection about the exercise of good governance within congregations.

1. Hull acknowledges “there is much more to be addressed in terms of board means, including the role of the chair,…”(83). However, within his book he says very little about the significant role that a board chair must have in the implementation of the Policy Governance system. He devotes several chapters to the role of the lead pastor and his/her relationship with a church board, but no guidance is provided for the similarly significant role of board chair. In my view, the implementation of the Policy Governance system has no chance of success if the board chair is not well-prepared to lead the board in a disciplined implementation and application of these principles. If the board chair is not up to the challenge, such a significant change will not happen. So the role description for the board chair, the responsibilities and authority of this role, his/her relationship to the lead pastor, etc., deserve focused attention and consistent evaluation.

2. I think that Hull may be somewhat optimistic that every lead pastor has the motivation and capacity to function well within the Policy Governance system. For a lead pastor to switch his mode of leadership from a “pastoral” to a CEO role requires significant adjustment. Many pastors are quite happy with a “working board” model because they do not have to be accountable for implementation. Further, they do not want the level of accountability to a church board that the Policy Governance system will require. So one of the key questions that has to be asked when considering adopting the Policy Governance system is whether the current lead pastor has the motivation and capacity to exercise the necessary kind of leadership which this system requires? If the lead pastor lacks either the motivation or the capacity and the board pushes forward with implementation, inevitably it will result in severe disruption. I think this needs to be articulated more clearly in Hull’s presentation. It is a hidden, but serious implication.

3. Another factor which I think Hull overlooks is the relationship between church size and governance operations. The majority of churches in Canada and the United States have fewer than one hundred people involved and the pastor will be the only paid employee, with perhaps a part-time assistant. The feasibility of implementing the Policy Governance system in such a situation is probably very low. In my opinion churches would have to have multiple staff, as well as several key volunteer leaders working in staff-level roles to adopt and implement the Policy Governance system. So this governance system becomes something a church board would transition to as a congregation grows and develops, perhaps in the range of 150 – 200 people. If adopted in that context it would provide a powerful platform to support future growth. So perhaps one of the issues to consider is how a small church can begin to develop its board operations with a view to eventual adoption of the Policy Governance system and when to make the transition completely.

4. Probably the chapter that raised the most serious issues for me was chapter four, “What’s the Difference Between Elders and Board Members” (15-20). I would not argue that all church board members must be elders. Congregations must discern whether this equation is necessary to provide good governance, but it is not a necessity. Let’s consider Hull’s arguments that these two roles are different and should be kept separate, distinguishing elders as guardians and board members as trustees (a distinction which I do not think is valid or sustainable).

a.  The role of elder is scriptural, while that of board member is a modern innovation. Of course, the term “board member” is a modern term. However, if we consider function, then the functions that contemporary boards fulfill in large measure were the same functions that elders, i.e. managers and stewards, filled in the house-churches of the New Testament era. 1 Timothy 3 does not use the term “elder.” It speaks of “episkopos” (which means one who has the oversight of, administrator), “oikonomos” ( which means one who manages or stewards), and “diakonos” (which means assistant). The reality is that these terms are essentially administrative terms in secular Greek and when they are brought into the context of the house-church (or the Jewish synagogue), they define roles that have responsibility for the total care of the house-church in all of its diverse aspects. This total care defines the spiritual ministry of these leaders — finances, care for the sick, support of the widows, teaching, worship, evangelism, etc. There is no artificial division in Paul’s perspective between the sacred duties of elders and the secular duties of other roles. When it comes to leadership in the congregation, it is all sacred, all spiritual. So it is, in my view, a fallacy to argue that some leadership roles in the congregation are “spiritual” and others are not, especially at the top level of congregational leadership.

b. Hull contends that the central focus of elders is “the spiritual and doctrinal health of the church.” As my comment in section (a) contends, this is only part of what elders in the New Testament, i.e., “episkopoi,” “oikonomoi,” and probably “diakonoi,” were responsible for. The particular situations in Ephesus (1 Timothy) and Crete (Titus) which Paul addresses requires some focus on rebuking false teachers, because this was the primary threat to the congregations. However, we should not let this contextual reality cloud our perception that the responsibilities of elders included all kinds of care (e.g., care for widows) that contributed to a healthy congregation.

c. Hull argues that “there are theological matters and doctrinal intepretations which are not up for debate among board members.” Here again I would have to disagree. If a church board is responsible for advancing the mission and vision of the congregation, then it must involve itself in “theological matters.” Without clear understanding of the congregation’s theological values, how will it provide strategic ministry leadership for that congregation? How will it help the congregation to discern direction when theological controversy emerges? Yes, the Holy Spirit is involved in the selection and appointment of elders (Acts 20:28) and this is why some elders should be part of a church board, because they bring mature spiritual wisdom into every board discussion. If the lead pastor is a member of the church board, then automatically the board includes an elder. So why should not all elders be part of this strategic leadership team?

d. Hull seems to suggest that elders are not accountable to the congregation and serve in perpetuity. Let me carry the logic of this forward. Most would agree that lead pastors are elders, perhaps with specific responsibilities. So given Hull’s argument once a lead pastor is appointed as an elder, he/she is not accountable to the congregation and serves until he/she dies or is no longer capable. However, we all know that no congregation would accept this position. So why is it different with other “elders”? Personally I believe it is this kind of thinking that leads to elders abusing their roles — they consider themselves untouchable and only accountable to God.

e. Hull asks the question, if there are two groups of leaders (elders and board) “how then do these two groups of leaders — board members and elders — coexist?” He suggests that clarity of roles will solve the problem. I would disagree. It may work for a time, but at some point inevitably the question will arise — who is in charge? And who arbitrates between these two groups when such a disagreement arises? There is no higher, third party to appeal to. This always will occur and create serious division. How can the board members make decisions  about vision and strategic planning without engaging theological issues (18)? There must be absolute clarity that the congregation has one governing board. If there is desire for a separate elders group, then it has to be accountable to the board, just as the lead pastor in the Policy Governance system is accountable to the board.

f. Hull contends “there is no overlap in the role of elders in relation to the role of the board” (18). I have suggested above (point c) that such is not the case. It is the board’s responsibility in its work of visioning, planning and programming to consider the congregation’s theological values their formation. If a separate group sees themselves as the watchdog of the congregation’s theological values and is sitting in judgment on the board’s decisions, then you can imagine what will happen when the elders begin claiming that the board’s decisions are contrary to the congregation’s theological values. The erosion of trust will be swift and the congregation will be divided in their consideration of who is right and who is wrong.

I have spent considerable space on this last question because in my limited experience in dealing with churches who have separated the functions of elders and board an inevitable clash of interests and division within the congregation occurs. Elders who have no accountability to the congregation or to the board will become at some point an uncontrolled entity. In such cases the health of the congregation suffers and the Policy Governance system will fail.

I do not want to end on a negative note. Hull’s book is extremely helpful when it comes to helping church boards understand the Policy Governance system and the implications of its adoption. However, I think the chapter on elders is not helpful and have sought to indicate why.



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