49. Defining terms #3: Governance — Acts of Compliance or Acts that Innovate?

Governance can function in a compliant or an innovative mode. By compliance I mean that a church board does the expected business of monitoring key indicators of institutional stability (e.g. finances, report from the lead pastor, policy review, etc.) and asks questions. However, it rarely involves itself in visioning the future, discerning ways and means to advance the mission, or educating itself about developments in its community, culture or religious context. Passivity marks its mode of operation. Missional growth is not perceived to be an expectation emerging from the Great commission. It’s greatest concern may be checking and poking, but even then it may not be sure what questions it should be asking. After all, the reports are produced by the very people responsible for the operations the board members are seeking to check and monitor!

Monitoring for compliance to stated objectives and values and to manage risk remains a necessary and significant board member responsibility. A board should expect the lead pastor or executive pastor to be providing reports regularly on the key items the board considers important, i.e. preservation of financial assets, operational budget risk, facility care, employee care, progress towards stated goals, etc. It is the board that should determine what it needs to know to assure itself that all key risks are being managed responsibly. The principle is trust, but check. If the board is not sure about the information it is receiving, it should ask for external assistance to provide an “objective” view, but only after it has given the ministry leadership full opportunity to provide any clarification. Rarely should board members themselves seek to do this kind of checking. It creates too many awkward issues and has the potential to damage relationships significantly.

What’s the danger in governing in a compliant mode? Compliance usually generates complicity. While board members may think they are asking good questions and receiving complete information, that may not be the case. Asking questions in response to reports is a reactive mode of governance.  Another danger of the compliant mode is movement into micromanagement. If the board thinks the ministry staff is not able to do the job, having evaluated their reports, then it might be tempted to take over the responsibility itself. While this might be required in an emergency, it cannot be a long term solution.

If a board thinks its work is done after it has measured compliance, then it has failed in some of its primary responsibilities — advancing the mission, anticipating risk, and providing strategic leadership.

A church board operating with an innovative mindset handles the monitoring process expeditiously because it knows that its primary job is to ensure mission fulfillment. Maintaining the status quo violates that mandate. Strategic leadership requires board members to give the majority of their time to the big questions, ensuring that their meeting agendas are not filled with busy work, but in fact keep their attention on the important issues.

What might some of these big questions be?

a. where we do believe God wants this church to be in five years? What will it take to get there?

b. what are the biggest threats to the fulfillment of our mission and how should we respond to these threats in order to advance the mission?

c. given the many possible things we might do, what is the one thing we must do in the next 6 months in order to advance our mission?

d. how do we know that our ministry projects are effective? How do we measure effectiveness?

e. is our congregation healthy? How do we know? If it’s not, what do we have to do in order to restore it to health?

You can discern the question(s) which would be most stimulating and helpful for your board to consider. Discussions around such questions can be the most spiritually motivating conversations board members will ever experience and energize them significantly with respect to the church’s vision.

Another strategy to keep the board leading strategically relates to its education. Is there ever a time in the annual schedule of the board when someone with specific expertise is invited to help the board expand its understanding about a critical segment of congregational life, the external community, or theological issues? Perhaps your board is struggling to understand the issue of financial stewardship in the life of the church. Consider inviting someone (always consult others about your idea before moving ahead to make sure the right person is invited) who has expertise and experience in helping congregations learn how to invest in God’s work joyfully. It may be the catalyst to a whole level vision and ministry. Or perhaps your board is struggling to understand how to lead the congregation to engage in global missions in a responsible and effective way. Here again there are probably people with knowledge about this issue who could come and in 40 – 60 minutes give your board new perspective, new ideas, and perhaps even discernment about the best way forward.

Because governance is all about mission advancement, strategic leadership is an essential quality to nurture within the board so that its governance is innovative in the best sense.

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