45. Decision-making in Church Board Meetings. #3: Implementation, Accountability and the Role of the Chair.

So the church board finally made the decision to support the initiation of a new ministry to the nearby community college campus students and employees. The board approved the ministry staff’s proposal, after vigorous debate, with only minor changes. Now it is three months later and as board chair you were reviewing the minutes of the last few board meetings to make sure the agenda for the next meeting included the necessary items. You have heard very little about the college ministry initiative in the meantime and none of the lead pastor’s recent reports have mentioned anything about it. So you do a quick review of the proposal and discover to your chagrin that nothing was said about followup reports. Nor was there much clarity about outcomes that would demonstrate how the board would discern whether the ministry was successful. Further, nothing had been said about what would happen if after six months none of the assumed outcomes had been achieved. You discern as chair that the board had not built in much accountability regarding this decision.

Far too often this is the case when it comes to church board decisions. The members and the chair focus on the big idea, identify some elements of risk, understand the resources it will require, and discern who is supposed to be initiating it, after being convinced that it will advance the congregation’s mission — if it is successful. But no one seems to have taken the time to define how the board will know if the initiative is successful.

As a board chair myself I know how hard it is to keep track of decisions made by the board over a twelve month period and manage the followup on behalf of the board that such decisions often require. One strategy you can implement is to number each motion the board makes (use a simple tracking scheme such as year, meeting number and motion number in the meeting (e.g. 2010-1-3. Third motion in the first meeting of 2010)). Then you can ask the board secretary to create an excel spreadsheet in which each decision is noted, with its number, the person responsible to implement and any information about dates for future required reports. The spreadsheet can become a standard part of the board’s information package. At the end of the year the spreadsheet for that year can be archived and a new one initiated.

Having figured out and managed to implement a tracking system, the chair then needs to ensure that as the board makes new decisions each one includes:

1. a clear statement of who is responsible to implement the decision. Does that person require any special authorization? If it is an employee, does this new responsibility require a change in that person’s position description? Do they have the skill and training necessary or will they need additional education to implement this decision? If it involves new financial resources, has the board identified where these will be found and authorized the person to access such funds in accordance with the project’s budget?

2.  a clear statement of the process by which the board will know when and if the decision has been implemented and is successful. What does success look like, i.e. how will the board assure itself that the expenditure of resources to implement the decision is justified because specific outcomes necessary to the fulfillment of the church’s vision were accomplished? In the case of the college ministry initiative used as the initial illustration, the proposal the board reviewed did not include specific outcomes that, if achieved, would indicate the initiative was successful. If such a statement of outcomes was not included in the original proposal, the board might decide for itself what these might include:

a. quantitative measurements (i.e. the number of students attending the college and involved with the church has increased by 50% in 12 months);

b. qualitative measurements (i.e. the relationship between the college leadership and the church leadership have improved to the point that the lead pastor has coffee with the college president once every six months);

c. the church hosted two events specifically for college students and employees ever twelve months.

Alternatively, before the board gives final approval, it might send the proposal back and require specific outcomes to be included in the report. Whatever the outcomes for the project might be, the board needs to be aware of them. Presumably the board approve the proposal because they consider these outcomes critical to the church’s achievement of its vision.

3. the motion of approval should include a specific date when the leader implementing the project must present a report to the board evaluating progress towards achieving the outcomes and demonstrating how resources used are enabling the program’s outcomes to be accomplished.  Perhaps the board may require a report at the end of the first six months of the initiative and a second after the first twelve months. This would enable the board to discern whether or not the initiative is contributing to the church’s advancement as the initial proposal had predicted. If it is not, why and what is being done to remedy the deficiency? A report of this nature would be included in the lead pastor’s report to the board.

Church boards seem to have some blind spots when it comes to such processes. Perhaps church people think it is inappropriate to require accountability or that defining the accountability too precisely shows a lack of trust or confidence in the ministry leadership. However, the board ultimately is accountable to the congregation for the use of resources in ways that will advance the church’s mission and vision. If the board betrays that trust, then it has failed in its duty and ministry.

One strategy as church board chair you can use to help the board and church leaders with this is to require decision and discussion briefs about new initiatives to incorporate as a standard feature a section that defines outcomes and indicators of success, a time line for reports, and a clear definition of who is accountable for implementation. Over time this would become a routine part of every proposal.

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