47. Defining Terms: # 1- Governance and the Role of the Church Board Chair

In books or articles that discuss the role of a church board or a non-profit charity’s board, the term “governance” occurs frequently. It seems that much of what a church board does today is deemed “good governance.” But what does “governance” mean when the word is applied to a church board? What constitutes “bad governance” and why is this so detrimental to church health? Does this word cover everything a church board does or just one part of its work?  What does a church board chair need to know about governance in order to fulfill his or her responsibility? Is “governance” a biblical concept that nestles snugly within the principles of congregational polity?

To paraphrase a definition offered by G. Douglass Lewis (“Governance: What is it?” Theological Education 44.2.2009, page 26), governance within a local church involves  “the processes by which the structures entrusted by a congregation with authority and spiritual care  discern, plan and make decisions for the purpose of fulfilling the congregation’s mission, with due regard for its values, bylaws, resources, reputation and stakeholders.” Good governance will “provide stability” for the congregation and “allow and encourage movement,” so that over time the faith community achieves it desired vocation and vision.

One of the primary “structures” congregations establish are boards (whether the traditional ‘deacons board’ in Baptist circles, or an ‘elders’ board, or some combination of the two). There is no biblical imperative that requires a church to constitute their key spiritual leadership group as a board. However, in the Canadian context, for a church to be a registered, non-profit charity, it must have a duly constituted board. Because most churches find that status beneficial, they shape this leadership group as a board, but integrate it with the spiritual principles and processes that nourish a healthy church, according to the New Testament.

Church boards, then, must understand the concept of governance, given these realities.

Within the concept of governance purpose, process and care (cf. Lewis’ article) emerge as critical elements. A congregation forms a church board in order to enable it to fulfill its mission. Everything that a board does must advance that mission. This is its primary purpose. If over time this does not occur, then the board is failing to live up to the trust the congregation has given to it. To achieve this requires deep commitment and consistent discipline on the part of the individual board member and the collective group. The board only makes progress in achieving the mission if it develops and pays attention to beneficial processes. Sometimes processes are defined in the bylaws (e.g. certain  items need to have congregational approval), sometimes they are defined by external authorities (e.g. certain annual taxation reports), and sometimes the board itself defines how it will work cooperatively and in a principled manner to achieve good decisions (e.g. decisions by consensus or by motion). A church board employs various means to provide the spiritual care necessary for congregational health. These means include prayer, teaching, policy-decisions, strategic planning, hiring key leaders, conserving resources, managing risk, and communication. A congregation gives a church board the authority necessary to exercise such care on its behalf and for its healthy development.

A church board chair must understand the essence of governance as it is expressed in and through the board’s work. Several aspects are particularly critical:

1. assisting the board to keep its focus on mission — agenda preparation, meeting evaluation, decision-making, accountability;

2. assisting the board to understand process — board education, board orientation, mapping decision pathways, alerting the board to inappropriate behaviour or risk, communicating on behalf of the board, knowing the ‘rules’, i.e. bylaws, legalities, and policies, employee review;

3. assisting the board to exercise spiritual care for the congregation in all it does — not abusing its trust, promoting worshipful work, and exercising its authority in ways that contribute to church health.

The better a chair understands governance, the more ably he or she can enable a church board to function well and continually work towards improvement. Much of this leadership depends upon Spirit-guided common sense and wisdom. This is particularly the case when a board is engaged in intense discussion about an issue. The chair has the responsibility, more than any other board member, to keep everything that happens within the bounds of good governance. When things get disordered, he must help the board members recover and re-establish good order. When proper process is not being followed, he must call the board to account. When spiritual wisdom is needed, he must call the board members to prayer. When relationships between two or more board members become strained, he must work to generate reconciliation. In all of this he is the board’s servant.

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