In the past several years various church growth strategists have argued that congregations have life-cycles. It is argued that if church leaders know where their congregation is in their specific life-cycle, then they can adopt strategies that will enable new cycles of growth to be engaged before significant deterioration occurs. The question is this — do church boards similarly have life-cycles of growth, maturity, and decay? If so, how can church board leaders recognize where their board might be in the cycle and lead in such a way as to engender a new cycle of growth both for the church board and the congregation?
A subsidiary question, which we cannot explore, is whether the life-cycle of a church board mirrors or in some sense anticipates the congregation’s life-cycle? If there is a correlation (and I do not know this), then giving attention to a church board’s place in its current life-cycle might be very important for the continued health and growth of a congregation.
One might suggest the following stages in a church board’s life-cycle:
- Church Board as Informal Group (church plant). A person or denominational office has decided to plant a new church and recruits a leader. The leader gathers around himself/herself four or five families and the leaders of those families become the core leadership team of the new congregation. The church planter meets informally with this group of people to discern direction and keep these families invested in the project. However, the pastor is the primary leader and is making many of the decisions for the church plant.
- Church Board as Church Management Committee (50-100 people). When the congregation solidifies and the average attendance is between 50 -100 people, the lead pastor would begin to create a formal leadership team to manage necessary aspects of church life. These volunteers are responsible for specific aspects of ministry and really function as the church staff under the leadership of the church planter. However, this leadership team will also provide board-like guidance for the congregation related to finances, facilities, program development, denominational relations, etc. Once the congregational attendance is averaging about 100, the lead pastor will begin to discuss with this leadership team plans for initiating a formal board structure in order to provide future governance functions.
- Church Board as Incipient Board (100-300). At this stage of development the congregation becomes formally organized with a constitution and bylaws. Usually this frame of reference will include policies and procedures for selecting and appointing a church board and their attendant responsibilities. As the board begins to operate in accordance with its new mandate, it will struggle to become all that it can be because of the “memory,” individual or collective, of the board members and residual habits that create inertia. One of the key areas that must be developed well is the new relationship between the board and lead pastor. Operations related to performance evaluation, approval of new policies and programs, and hiring and releasing of employees will need careful attention. The authority the lead pastor formerly exercised will be affected by the board’s new mandate and this will require careful negotiation. Finances and their oversight will be another potential flashpoint.
- Church Board as Future-Focused Policy Board (300-?). At this stage of a church board’s existence it already has several years of experience operating as a board. However, with growth of the congregation come changes how leadership is exercised and what decisions the congregation must make. Working through these growing pains in governance can be challenging. Two things have to happen if the board is to achieve the level of governance leadership that the congregation needs in order to sustain its growth. First, its relationship with the lead pastor again will alter. The board will be giving more authority to the lead pastor, but defined carefully within a policy framework. Second, the board has to give more attention to anticipating the future and planning well in order to sustain congregational growth. It cannot become involved in management issues, unless an emergency forces it to. Rather, it gives its attention to planning the pathway for congregational growth and all of the consequent elements associated with this (e.g., facilities, finances, employee development, spiritual care, etc.). The board must also give attention to renewing itself and establishing a culture of excellence, improvement, and strategic thinking. This is governance towards the future.
- Maintenance-Focused Policy Board (declining congregation). Some boards eventually lose their way and slip back into maintenance mode or even assume management functions. Usually this occurs when board leadership focus shifts or the lead pastor changes and the board loses its future focus and becomes engaged with present, “urgent” issues that sap its energy. The board’s ability to governance wanes and the congregation loses confidence in its leadership. In turn key leaders in the congregation drift away because they sense a loss of direction and vision. The board responds by slipping into a maintenance mode. Finances become less stable and this in turn limits the choices the board has to respond. Consequent decreasing in staffing may require more volunteer leadership at the management level.
I think the most challenging stages of a church board’s life-cycle are the shifts to stage 3 (Incipient Board) and stage 5 (Maintenance Board). In the case of the Incipient Board individuals are learning new ways of governance and the tracks they set will in many ways determined whether they will move to stage 4. In the case of stage 5 the church board has to find the courage, wisdom and determination to return either to stage 3 or stage 4, depending upon the condition of the congregation. A remake is necessary.