305. Church Boards and Church Transformation

In his book “The Advantage” Patrick Lencioni argues that organizational sustainability and advancement only occur when the leadership gives consistent, focused attention to improving organizational health. In the congregational context church boards, which include the lead pastor, carry the responsibility for the health of that spiritual community. While church leaders may shy away from the term “organizational health,” nonetheless a healthy organization contributes significantly to congregational health. Church boards that pay attention to improving organizational health will in fact usually see concomitant improvement in congregational health.

Rarely, however, will you see “improving organizational health” appearing in a church board agenda. More frequently matters indicating lack of organizational health, e.g., financial insolvency, staff issues, loss of members, etc., will dominate the agenda. Crisis mode or a fixation on symptoms or failure to understand what is essential for congregational health contributes to this unbalanced approach. Sometimes crises do demand the board’s attention and rightly so, but these should be the exception, not the rule. When the congregation as organization is unhealthy, it is almost impossible to advance its mission. This means that
a church board cannot accomplish its primary responsibility, which is to advance that mission.

In Lencioni’s view organizational health has two primary components. One is operational effectiveness, i.e., ensuring that all of the every day functions essential to organizational life are carried out effectively. This would include such things as administrative oversight, financial management, facility management, program management, member care. If these essential organizational sub-systems are dysfunctional, then they impair the health of the entire congregational system. Often a board will give attention to these aspects of organizational health through some of its standing committees, e.g., financial committee, personnel committee, as well as by ensuring that the lead pastor is holding staff accountable for the effective operation of these elements which are necessary components of congregational health.

The other key element in organizational health relates to big picture issues such as clarity about vision and outcomes (i.e., making choices about congregational focus), alignment of all organizational energy around the outcomes, a constantly developing strategic plan responsive to a changing environment, and consistent messsaging internally about each of these elements. Of course all of this depends upon having effective leadership in place. A church board will give the bulk of its attention to these big picture matters and delegate to the lead pastor responsibility for implementation and for operational effectiveness. If your church board agenda is entirely consumed with operational issues, then it will experience severe struggles to advance the congregation’s mission.

And this is where the influence of church board leaders and their commitment to church health becomes critical. The board chair and lead pastor have to lead the board in making church health a primary part of the vision and a key outcome that drives the ministry strategy. Defining church health in terms of organizational health then is one way to generate some tangible goals that might give direction to this part of the vision. Tasking board standing committees to work with the staff to improve operational effectiveness would be one action. Helping the board gain clarity about the key outcomes that will accomplish the vision would be another primary board activity.

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