51. What Makes a Church Board Effective: # 2 Continual Learning

Effective church boards keep challenging their boardmanship, i.e. they intentionally educate themselves about their organization, their role within the organization, and their performance in that role. When was the last time in your church board experience that your board took time to reflect upon how well they were doing or studied together an article about board practice that might help them accomplish their work for the congregation more excellently? Does your church board have an annual retreat where time can be given to “improving your serve?” Or do you muddle along, despite your frustrations about the process and its constant tedium and lack of direction? Effective boards are not satisfied with their current level of operations — they have a passion to serve Jesus better in their role.

People on the board may not know who is responsible for this aspect of board life and so the board is hindered in its development.  The chair person views his or her role as the meeting facilitator. Individual board members probably give little thought to the question. The lead pastor may desire the church board to work more effectively, but shies away from offering suggestions in case he is viewed as meddling or trying to change the board to suit his agenda, or being overly critical. So nothing is done and poor habits of boardmanship persist because no one has the energy, motivation or spiritual wisdom to lead change. And then there is the matter of turnover in board leadership and board members. Such discontinuity makes it difficult to improve board operations over the long term.

I am probably a little harsh and judgmental in my assessment, but I suspect I am not far off the mark in many cases. So someone has to seize the moment and find a way to help the church board discern effective ways of operating.

One place to begin is for the church board chair to suggest that the board take a few minutes at the end of a meeting to evaluate how well the meeting went. Initially the comments might be somewhat disjointed or disconnected because there are no common assumptions upon which to evaluate the meeting. This may be the first experience in which members of the church board  have reflected on the way the board operates collectively, how the chair manages the meeting, or how individual board members have helped or hindered the board’s progress. As the board members become more comfortable with the process and small changes and improvements in board operations become observable, it may set the stage for considering other elements of good boardmanship.

Another aspect of this focus on boardmanship would be the orientation of new members of the board to board operations. Again, you might discover that your board has no intentional means to accomplish this. If you are a board chair serving in this situation, consider adding this to one of the agendas as an item for discussion. Perhaps you could phrase it as a question: “When you started on the board, what information would have helped you begin to serve effectively? What do you know now that you wished you knew then?” Compile the responses and then at a subsequent board meeting propose that the board establish simple process for orienting new board members. You may as board chair have to volunteer your services, along with those of the lead pastor, as the team to develop and lead the orientation session. You might plan to do it over supper with the newly elected board members prior to their first meeting.

I have always considered it important to encourage board members to come to the meetings prepared, having read the materials circulated in advance. This means that I, as board chair, have to ensure that the agenda, minutes, reports and decision/discussion briefs are prepared and circulated electronically at least a week in advance of the meeting. If I as board chair am not prepared myself to facilitate the board’s work in this disciplined manner, then I cannot expect the board to improve their game too. Leading by example is biblical and extremely motivating. Excellence can be caught and taught.

Governance is all about process, planning, and purpose, undergirded with an appropriate understanding of entrusted authority. One area that church boards often overlook in their boardmanship is defining the appropriate process for a particular decision. For example, if the need for an extraordinary expenditure of funds occurs mid year and exceeds the budget parameters approved by the congregation at the annual general meeting, then the board members must decide how to process a decision regarding this item. If they decide to reject the recommended expenditure, then no further action is probably necessary, except to explain to those affected (e.g. perhaps employees whose salaries might be affected) the rationale for the decision. However, if the board decides to support the recommendation, then it must determine whether according to its bylaws it has the authority in itself to make such a decision. It it believes the bylaws authorize it, the board may still have to explain why they took the decision at the next congregational meeting. If the bylaws require the board to gain congregational approval, then the board has the responsibility to ensure that the approval is secured before making the expenditure. It is the board’s responsibility to manage the decision-making process such that groups in the organization whose voice needs to be heard, have opportunity to speak into the decision at their appropriate level. Understanding what processes are required is part of boardmanship.

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