48. Defining Terms: # 2 — Governance and How its Shared

Decisions in a local church are often tricky things to manage. For instance, a group in the church may be urging the pastoral leadership to initiate a ministry to seniors. Who decides whether this should happen? How is that decision processed? The answers to such questions involve governance.

These questions include:

  • Does such a ministry advance the mission of the congregation?
  • Is it a substantive change to the previously approved strategic plan?
  • Which groups in the congregation should speak into this decision and who decides?
  • If the decision is positive, who decides which person or group will be responsible to implement?
  • Who determines what resources should be devoted to this initiative?
  • If there is risk involved, who is responsible to manage this risk so that the congregation does not become liable?

Good governance enables a congregation to sort through these matters, reach an appropriate decision, and implement that decision well. The church board chair often finds that he or she works at the very centre of these processes. Like an umpire, the chair ensures that “the rules of the game,” i.e. the bylaws, policies, and legal boundaries of the congregation are sustained as this kind of decision-making proceeds.

The fact is that authority for major decisions within congregational polity is shared among various entities. The congregation retains ultimate authority in terms of governance within a local church operates within the terms of congregational polity. The congregation entrusts the board with authority to make sure that the stated processes are followed fairly, completely, and in a timely manner. However, the congregation will require the board to refer some matters to it for decision (e.g. major facility development, borrowing money, appointment of the board members, appointment of the lead pastor, etc.).  The board in turn delegates to the ministry staff appropriate responsibility and authority to implement and oversee the doing of ministry. So governance is shared among the congregation, the board, and the ministry staff and the chair helps the board fulfill its responsibility to oversee this “sharing of governance.”

One understanding of “shared governance” is that various groups within the agency by virtue of role, assigned responsibility, and competence have legitimate voice in respective decisions. Sometimes this voice is mandated in bylaws or policies and sometimes it occurs because a particular group either has special competence or is going to be affected by the decision significantly. Theologically this concept of “shared governance” honours the concept of the church as “body”, respects the “priesthood of believers”, empowers those who exercise ministry oversight, and enables the wisdom of the Holy spirit to be heard through various people within the body.

In church board governance it is critical to understand, appreciate and respect these various roles and ensure that decision-making processes are being made with the right input.

1. The congregation’s bylaws will define the decisions that the congregation must discern. In the example previously used, the introduction of a senior’s ministry will probably require additional financial resources, i.e. an adjustment to the annual budget. Often the congregation must approve such budgetary changes. The new ministry may require the hiring of a new ministry staff person. Depending upon the status of this role (e.g. it may be pastoral, or coordinator, or something else), the bylaws may require the congregation to appoint the candidate by direct vote.

The rationale for giving the congregation such authority would include:

a. they are primary stakeholders;

b. they must have confidence in the spiritual competency of their ministry leaders;

c. as members in the charity they must ensure that financial decisions are being handled properly;

d. many in the congregation will probably be affected by this ministry initiative.

2. The ministry staff will have some voice in this decision because they possess certain competence that will help the congregation make a good decision. As well, they will have to work closely with the new staff person and so enabling their input expresses how the congregation values them as leaders. Further, probably more than anyone else in the congregation, the ministry staff will appreciate the dynamics that this new ministry will generate and the kind of person necessary to lead it successfully.

3. The board will play a pivotal role. First they must discern whether this proposed initiative will advance th emission of the church. Second, they will have to consider whether this initiative, among others, had priority and why this is the case. Third, they have to ask what the risks are and ensure, if it is implemented, that the congregation is adequately protected. They have to ask whether the plan for resourcing this ministry is prudent and sustainable. Finally, they will consider whether the plan of implementation and evaluation is rigorous enough.

The church board chair, in collaboration with the lead pastor, has responsibility to ensure that the appropriate groups have opportunity to give input and even make decisions about certain aspects of this initiative. When the proposal comes to the board, a key question in the board’s deliberation will be:  what is the decision-making pathway that this initiative must follow? Outlining this pathway formally for the board will bring clarity and remove what otherwise might be a contentious issue. When the congregation sees the board paying respectful attention to these elements of shared governance, it gives them confidence in the board and its leadership.

Some board members might think that shared governance diminishes the capacity of the board to exercise its proper role. However, in shared governance the board always retains the authority entrusted to it by the congregation. What the board does is distribute the decision-making because there is distributed ownership of the mission among various groups within the congregation.

To explore this subject further you can access the article on the website entitled The Delicate Dance of Congregational Government, which provides more extensive biblical evidence regarding this perspective.

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