60. What is a “Policy” and Why is it a useful tool for a Board Chair?

Church board chairs hear a lot about policy and governance by policy today. I have in previous blogs sought to define the concept of governance. But in this blog I give attention to the concept of “policy.”  What is a policy and how can such instruments enable a church board chair to help a board operate more biblically, effectively and efficiently?

The term “policy” is defined in various ways. For example, a policy is “a statement of principles and/or values that mandate or constrain the performance of activities used in achieving institutional goals.” Another definition is that a policy “is any standard, statement, or procedure of general applicability adopted by the Board of Trustees pursuant to authority delegated by law” or by the authorizing body. i.e. a congregation.

These definitions indicate several features that should be considered in developing a policy:

1. A policy is a written statement. Too often church boards will tend to operate on the basis of unwritten policy, following traditions. However, when difficult times arise or hard issues have to be considered, memories are usually less than accurate repositories of policy. And if two board members ‘remember’ it differently, whose version will you embrace? Which is the ‘official’ version? Policies need to be written, with wording reviewed and approved by the board through specific motion. A copy of the approved policy should be attached as an addendum to the formal minutes from that meeting for future reference. The policy should be dated so that you know which version of the policy you are using at any one time. These details may seem like overkill, but you will be surprised how short memories become, whether individual or collective, as to when a policy was approved and which version is the official one. Written policies encourage transparency, enable all board members to access them equally and allow for a timely review and updating.

2. A policy defines limits. One of the more useful things that policies provide for a church board is clarity about limits regarding use of authority,  decision-making, expenditure of funds, time frames for reporting, etc. Such limits  both empower leaders appropriately and control potential abuse. When good policies are in place the board can focus its energy on critical and strategic issues because it knows that its worry points are being covered. If policy is not being followed, then a board realizes that it needs to give attention to that area of its operations lest it incur unnecessary risk or to revise policy in the light of new realities. Once the board does define limits through policy, it has to take responsibility to ensure that the limitations are being followed regularly. Exceptions to policy should be board decisions in the case of all board policies.

3. A policy requires official approval.  For the board nothing is policy unless it has approved it by motion. Of course, policy exists at many levels of an organization, but when it comes to board policy, only the board can make it and it must make it by formal motion. Without formal approval a ‘policy’ is merely a discussion point or the opinion of one or two board members. It has no official standing with the board. When a board chair faces a situation in a board meeting where no current policy exists to guide the deliberation, he or she might propose several possible directions and seek the board’s support for one of them. Once that support is granted, then the chair knows how to guide the board. At a subsequent meeting the chair might ask the board whether it wishes to formally develop and adopt a policy based upon the prior situation. Current, widely available computer software allows a board to develop an electronic file of all policies that all board members can access at any time.

4. A policy has to be implemented to be effective. When a board has put energy and time into developing and approving policy, then it should discipline itself to adhere to it. An orientation for new board member becomes a significant time to provide education about current board policy, new policies being discussed, and the protocols by which new policies are developed, discussed and adopted. It is good for the board to develop for itself a schedule (probably multi-year) during which all policies are regularly reviewed. This keeps the policies somewhat fresh in the board’s mind, enables the board to revise them appropriately, and gives opportunity to eliminate policies that no longer are relevant. Sometimes it is helpful when developing a policy to stipulate how often it must be reviewed or put a sunset clause within it. This requires the board to keep its policies fresh.

5. A policy has to match the appropriate level of authority. In creating policy a board has to ensure that it does not begin to micromanage through policy. A church board’s policies should be broad based, giving to the lead pastor or other leaders scope within which to apply a specific policy. What a policy should do is set appropriate limits within which specific action can be taken. The most important policy that a board establishes is what Carver has termed “Ends Policy,” i.e.  defining the primary outcome that the agency or church has to achieve in order to fulfill its mission. Once the ends policy is defined, every other policy should serve to enable the board to ensure that the ends policy is being achieved. Executives should have the authority to establish internal, management policy that is consistent with the mission, values and ends policy. Congregational ‘policy’ normally will be embedded in bylaws. The board alone sets policy to define its operations within the context of the institution’s bylaws.

6. A policy is only as good as the thoughtfulness put into its creation. As your board develops policy take the time to write it as well as possible. Clarity is important because it will not take long before people on the board forget the context of the discussion and do not remember what they may have intended to say. If necessary put some definitions in footnotes so that you capture the intended meaning. Include a date for required review. Make sure the title matches the content. Use some sort of numbering system to keep track of your policies according to type (i.e. ends policy, board operational policy, executive limitation policies, institutional policies, etc.). The numbering system can be linked to the year in which the policy was created to form an easy way to track the date at which a policy was created or revised. When a policy is revised note the date of the revision. It is also helpful to state specifically in the introduction to the policy what it is intended to accomplish and who is responsible for its implementation and oversight. As well, if the board expects any reporting in regards to the policy, stipulate who is to do this and how often.

7. Church board policies will always have a spiritual frame of reference. One might ask whether we discern Paul or Peter working with early church leaders to define policy. I think one example might be the result of the discussion in Jerusalem (Acts 15) regarding the status of Gentile believers in the church. After debate the group agrees on a policy, i.e. that non-Jewish Christians do not have to become Jews in order to be full members of the Messianic movement. However, they do give some guidelines that would help this assimilation process. The primary point is that church boards must keep in mind the spiritual context in which their work is centred. This requires them to ensure that all policies are consistent with biblical principles and the specific values the church’s statement of faith articulates. This may mean that some policies may reference particular scriptural texts. It will undoubtedly mean that church boards will have policies about some things that other non-profits do not. For exampled, a church board may find it helpful to develop policy that guides it in considering who is qualified for leadership roles in the congregation. Finally, you will find that some organizations can help you develop policy because they will provide some policy templates. For example, the Canadian Council of Christian Charities has many helpful resources. Similarly your denominational head office will often be a useful source of information.

Policies are key tools that enable a board chair to facilitate the board’s work. They provide a framework of authorization, accepted procedures and agreed values. With these in hand a chair knows the limits of his or her authority and the operational preferences that the board has established. Without a good set of policies a board chair lacks a clear sense of what the board is to do, how it wishes to operate or the values it will follow in its work. Such a situation is a certain formula for frustration, conflict, and bad decisions. Do not think you have to rush to create all board policies as quickly as possible. Take your time, do it right, and soon the board members will discern the value of good policy. It will make their work more effective and more satisfying. As critical issues arise and are dealt with you will find it helpful to develop new policy.

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