50. What Makes a Church Board Effective? # 1. Contextual Understanding

As a board chair you desire the church board you serve to excel in its leadership of spiritually-focused governance. After all you did not accept this role in God’s Kingdom to endure or mandate mediocrity. You may have served in this role for several years and are wondering what legacy you can leave that will help this church board to become even more effective in its governance leadership. But where do you start to try and measure your board’s effectiveness? What profile or standard should you use? Because it is a church board, you also desire to consider the spiritual context in your measure of its effectiveness. This adds to the complexity. Boardsource published a small pamphlet recently entitled “Govern More, Manage Less,” written by Cathy A. Trower. The last chapter suggests “six characteristics of effective boards.” In this next series of articles, I will be reviewing these and seeking to evaluate them particularly in the light of the church context and from the standpoint of a board chair’s role and responsibility.

An effective church board is a student of its internal context. A church board will only discern its future clearly, if it has a firm understanding of its past and present and this requires knowledge of context. As a board chair do you know the story, the commonly embraced narrative of the church’s origins, key struggles, remarkable faith victories, significant turning points that led to surprising growth? Taking the time to ensure that you and each of the board members and ministry employees knows this narrative is an important step in creating strategic alignment and appreciation for how the vision of the church has taken shape. Rehearsing this story from time-to-time in the board meeting and in other public meetings of the congregation helps everyone to keep in step with one another and develop confidence in the emerging vision.

Effective church boards know their church’s story and share it often.

Discerning the internal context enables a board to have its finger on the pulse of the congregational heart, the issues that may be causing strain, and matters that must be addressed to sustain church health. The board will not know whether the decisions it is making are the right ones, if they have little or no awareness about the connection between these decisions and matters of concern percolating within the congregation. If the board members know that significant numbers of people in the congregation have a passion to participate in short term mission experiences, but does nothing to encourage and support this, it could erode confidence in the board’s leadership. Or, if there is a theological issue emerging in various congregational venues, e.g. extent to which members of both genders can be involved in church leadership, but does nothing to give spiritual direction in this matter, then strategic governance is sadly lacking. Perhaps the church employees have a grievance over vacation policy and despite several communications to the board, the board takes no action. Then this again would display lack of awareness of the internal context which in turn prevents the board from demonstrating effective leadership.

Effective church boards know the congregation’s concerns and act to sustain and  develop church health.

The internal context relates to the congregation’s values and vision. New board members need specific orientation to these core elements in order to help them participate in informed decision-making. A church board chair carries some responsibility to ensure that new board members understand these matters. One way to accomplish this over the first few months of the new board members term is to link that person with a board veteran and encourage them to meet occasionally for coffee so that the new board member can orient himself as quickly and completely as possible to the congregation’s values and vision and learn how the board calibrates its decision in the light of these essential features.

Effective church boards work intentionally to orient new board members to the values and vision of the congregation.

Another aspect of the internal context is the life of the board itself — its traditions, it methods of decision-making, its relational ethos, etc. An effective board will be intentional and self-conscious in its development of these internal processes to help it lead with excellence. Regular review of these processes will help new and continuing board members keep themselves on track and even find ways to improve how they work together. Board life is always a dynamic reality.

Effective church boards regularly review their internal processes to ensure that they are working well together and making good decisions.

The church board chair ensures that the board is giving attention to this internal context. This person helps the board to articulate the values it uses to organize its life, relationships, decisions, and communications. Perhaps a term that might bring these various aspects together is the concept of “collegiality” — the desire, mutual trust, commitment, and processes that enable a board to work together, respect its diversity, and achieve deep consensus in its governance. Annual board retreats become important occasions for building and sustaining this collegiality.

Effective church boards have chairs who give attention to developing collegiality within the board and a deep spiritual trust.

In my opinion church board chairs demonstrate spiritual intelligence as they are awake to these actions, processes, and attitudes with the result that the church board appreciates and is attuned to the institution’s internal context.

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