80. Book Review # 5: “The Board Chair Handbook” (Second Edition) by Mindy Wertheimer, BoardSource, 2008

BoardSource® advertizes itself as “the premier resource for practical information, tools and best practices, training, and leadership development for board members of nonprofit organizations worldwide” (preface, p.iii). Its publications and workshops enable people who serve as board members of nonprofit agencies to develop understanding and skill to give confident leadership to such agencies. Dr. Wertheimer is “the director of field education and faculty member of the School of Social Work, Georgia State University” and serves as a  “consultant and trainer for nonprofits, professional associations, local and state governments, foundations, and educational institutions” (91). This includes board development and governance issues. She is well qualified to write a handbook for nonprofit, board chairs. “The Board Chair Handbook” provides excellent direction for those who serve as chairs of non-profit agency boards.

She divides her presentation into three segments:

1. “The Foundation: Building Individual Capacity”

2. “The Journey: Optimizing the Work of the Board”

3. “Finale: Creating Endings and New Beginnings.”

The simplicity of the outline does not limit the comprehensiveness of her treatment of key issues. For example, in section one she considers personal qualifications, the nature of the position of chair, the relationship between the CEO and the chair, and the importance of good communication and facilitation skills. In the second section she has a great segment entitled “Generative Thinking and Decision Making” (Chapter 6), as well as short discussions about orientation of new board members, effective board structures (including executive sessions), strategic and program planning, and evaluation of the board and the CEO. The final chapters emphasize the importance of succession planning. She concludes with two appendices: “Board Chair’s To Do List: A Summary,” and “Using the Right Tools,” as well as list of helpful resources. You can order this resource from BoardSource at www.boardsource.org.

Most of the contents of this publication do apply to the more specific role of a church board chair. Some sections will be more relevant depending upon the size and complexity of the congregation you serve. For example, the role of the Lead Pastor may have some elements of a CEO role, but often the  leadership responsibilities typically defining a CEO role are modified in a church context. This means that the relationship between the Lead Pastor and the board chair is normally spiritually defined with aspects of loyalty, friendship, and commitment not common in other nonprofit contexts. There is no consideration of the spiritual aspect of a church board chair’s responsibilities, i.e. the concept of worshipful work, or the significant reality that a church board is in essence one of the primary ministry teams within the congregation. So the spiritual values and the unique mission of a church will colour and shape the position of church board chair in ways that Dr. Wertheimer does not consider because she is writing for the entire spectrum of nonprofit boards.

In a church setting members of the board usually are appointed as elders or deacons. The primary focus in such roles is caring for the congregation, i.e. the people within the organization, spiritually and in other ways. However, the people in the congregation are both the members of the “society” as well as the consumers of the goods that the agency is providing. This complicates things and requires a church board to think more specifically about the range of people groups in the larger community their agency in fact is or should be serving. As well, the organizational structure of the board in a church setting is a means to an end, but is not essential to the nature of a church.  This means that the qualifications for church leaders given in 1 Timothy 3 bring into play elements that need to be added to the “personal inventory” that Dr. Wertheimer indicates. For example, Paul mentions that one’s marital relationship is an important consideration for the role of elder and deacon — something of course rarely an issue when selecting board members of most nonprofits. I appreciate her emphasis upon the exercise of integrity, but there is nothing about the primary Christian quality of agape-love and its application to church board operations, decisions and relationships. So this means that the values guiding the operations of a church board will be different.

In her view a board chair has to be a “visionary leader,” enabling “the board to move forward and to build organizational capacity” (7). A church board chair must respect and understand the organization, i.e. the church, as the context for his or her leadership. This understanding includes the history, current status and future potential of that church, as well as a basic biblical theology that summarizes Jesus’ intention for his church. Dr. Wertheimer gives a succinct overview of the duties of a nonprofit board chair, both the how (personal qualities, commitment to the board and commitment to the organization) and the what (key duties to the CEO, board members, board committees, and the community). Perhaps an area the church board chair only rarely develops is the role of a “community ambassador and advocate for the organization”(9). Most of the work of a church board chair is directed inward to the congregational concerns. Often as well a church board chair is responsible for other ministries in a local church and so has very limited time to devote to external advocacy. Given that church boards usually meet much more frequently than other nonprofit boards the time between meetings is much shorter. This affects the patterns of communication also. Dr. Wertheimer’s “Sample Board Chair’s Timetable” is an excellent model, incorporating annual tasks, then weekly, monthly or quarterly tasks and finally periodic responsibilities (11). Depending on the history and tradition within a local church a church board chair may or may not be involved in fund-raising activities.

Her chapter on the relationship between a CEO and board chair in a non-profit context has some wonderful insights. She recognizes that context and personality will shape how these two individuals work together. Within a church context I think there are additional complications. Often the chair’s role in a church is regarded primarily as committee leadership and as a result the scope of a church board chair’s role is more circumscribed. This is particularly the case in so-called “pastor run” churches. This probably reflects a more substantial issue within churches and that is the place and ability of church boards in fact to govern. Do lead pastors and church boards agree “on what sound governance practices are and how to apply them”(16)? Is there recognition within church leadership that the lead pastor and board chair need to develop “a shared interpretation of what constitutes the best interests of the organization”(16)? Or in the simple matter of who speaks for the church board, more often than not the congregation expects the lead pastor will do this, not the chair. Or is there any recognition within church structures that “representing the board, the board chair is the chief executive’s primary supervisor”(20)? Dr. Wertheimer’s position on these issues raises some critical issues that church boards, their chairs and lead pastors need to wrestle with.

Her chapter on communications demonstrates how crucial this set of skills is for every board chair. Her suggestions regarding good listening, using open-ended questions to stimulate robust, but not necessarily confrontational discussion, group facilitation skills and discernment about when and how to confront misconduct are very helpful. One simple principle that church board’s could adopt is that normally a board member will be able to speak twice to an issue within the context of debate. This would prevent one or two members from dominating discussion and encourage all to speak to the issue. If the chair were empowered with this principle  (applied judiciously), he or she would have the authority to facilitate board meetings more fairly and effectively perhaps.

Part II: The Journey, focuses upon board processes and board tasks. In her view “board process is about building a strong team, and board tasks are what the team needs to accomplish” (29). She emphasizes capabilities that enable good process. These include a board development model (cultivating board relationships), successful decision-making, appropriate work structures for a board (i.e. committees, taskforces), resource development and fiscal oversight, the chair’s role in strategic and program planning, and evaluation of the chair, the board and the CEO. The nature of congregational life modifies church board chair options in each case. For example, church boards in congregationally focused churches do not usually become formally involved in recruiting new board members because of sensitivity for the congregation’s voice to be heard in this regard. This can be a weakness in that forming a pathway for training potential board members in a church context becomes quite complex and often does not happen because we cannot figure out a way to do it which does not seem to interfere with nominating committee processes. Decision-making is more complex in that church boards are always struggling with balance between faith and presumption, as well as the management of conflict of interests. Church board members often come to board meetings wearing several hats. Deciding what are the important committees for good board operation and having the courage to disband those that become too management-focused or not really relevant also brings challenges. And then what church board is into regular “program evaluation” or even the performance evaluation of the lead pastor? As important as these are to the health of the church, it seems that specific dynamics and presumed expectations get in the way of implementing these processes. For example, does your church board know clearly what “programs” your church agency provides, who is accountable for each program, and how the outcomes of each program align with and promote the congregation’s vision? When was the last time your church board ‘evaluated’ a program? Do you have a process for doing this? I am not sure I can remember an occasion when my work as a church board chair was evaluated by the board. So there is plenty of grist for the church board chair’s intellectual mill in this section.

Succession planning and exiting from the role of board chair are the focus of Part III. Because of the ethos of church boards it is difficult for a chair to engage in succession planning in any kind of formal sense. But nothing really prevents this from happening if a church board has a will to engage it. Continuity of good leadership is critical for maintaining momentum in good governance.

The first appendix entitled a “Board Chair’s To Do List: A Summary” presents in chart form the key ideas Dr. Wertheimer discusses in detail in the various chapters.

This “Handbook” provides an excellent resource for any one chairing a non-profit agency board. However, as I have indicated in my comments, the ideas and processes need to be adjusted to the realities of church board life, understandings of the pastoral role, and the uniqueness of church values and vision.

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