93. Book Review # 8: “The Chairperson’s Role as Servant-Leader to the Board,” by John Carver (CarverGuide; Jossey-Bass, 1997).

John Carver has produced a number of short, succinct discussions about various aspects of his model of non-profit board governance and its application. As the title indicates, this one focuses upon several key issues that define and shape the role of the chairperson. I appreciate the fact that he recognizes the importance of this role for disciplined, effective board work.

Carver begins by stating two key premises:

1. the description of the board’s authority, role and functions has to be defined first. “In the board-chairperson dyad, the board must unambiguously be the superior, the chairperson the servant” (1).

2. the chairperson’s role derives from the board’s job. The board appoints the chair to enable it follow its defined policies and processes so that good governance results. So the board empowers the chairperson to discern how best to facilitate the board in its work. “As point-person for board discipline, the chairperson is the leader” (2).

Carver proceeds to define then the job of the non-profit board (2-5) and this includes such things as “planning cycle,” “agenda control,” “officer roles,” “code of conduct,” “Committee principles,” and “Committee structure.” As the board develops its policies it “makes its own practices explicit” (5). Yet the broad nature of these policies require that they be interpreted and defined in their application to specific operations. This is what the board appoints and empowers the chairperson to do on their behalf in relation to board policies and board-staff linkage policies (Carver’s terminology). Similarly the board will empower the CEO, in distinction from the chairperson, to act within his or her interpretation of board-defined executive limitations and ends. The result is a chairperson who has real power authorized by the board, but also bounded authority as defined by the board.

One thing that Carver stresses is the importance for the chairperson actually to do what the board defines the role to be and to be held accountable for these responsibilities. For example, if the board says that it will evaluate its performance once a year, but the chairperson gives no leadership to the board to ensure that it is accomplished, then the chair is not fulfilling the role. Carver advises, “…if you have adopted a model, be sure to apply its principles consistently” (7).

The board has to define its own standards of conduct. It then appoints a chair to enforce those principles within the board’s operations. Carver emphasizes that the more the board members take responsibility for good governance, “who the chair is makes far less difference” (9). He provides a sample board policy entitled “Chairperson’s Job Description” (8). The description empowers the chair to lead board meetings, limits the chair’s role to the interpretation of board governance process and board-staff linkage (thus preventing the chair from interfering with the CEO), and authorizing the chair to represent the board as required.

Carver goes on to define other board officers, i.e vice-chair, secretary and treasurer (10-11). He urges a minimalist perspective, as few officers as necessary. The secretary preserves the integrity of the board’s records, i.e. “what the board has done” (11).

Another section is entitled “Tips for Chairing Effectively” (11-13). Here the essential point is that the chair “should lead individuals to become a leadership group” (11). The chairperson is not the CEO, so do not try to be. The chair’s role is to “lead the board, not the CEO” (12). Enabling the board to define its leadership, “design its discipline” and “evaluate its performance” form significant components. Two operational competencies are important — designing good agendas and ensuring the board members are participating in the discussions. Finally, he urges chairpersons to help their boards “build capacity” for good governance and this requires that the chair have a clear commitment to “the long view” (13).

His final comments address the issue of succession. Wise boards deliberate carefully over this question. Selecting and appointing a good chairperson is a critical part of good governance.

Perhaps Carver best summarizes his perspective on the role of the chairperson in this comment: “Your job is not to lead the organization — it is the far more sensitive and demanding task of helping the board to lead the organization” (14). Thus casting the role of the chairperson as ‘servant-leader’ is entirely appropriate.


Whether or not your church board has adopted”Policy Governance®” as your model of board governance a number of the principles Carver defines are highly applicable to the realities of a church board and the work of its chair. However, because Carver attempts to provide principles of chairing that pertain to all non-profit boards and to do this in a very brief and summary form, some of the unique dynamic and ethos that defines a church board and its work are not considered.

For example, the role of the lead pastor cannot be defined simply in terms of a CEO position. This means that the relationship between the chairperson and the lead pastor/CEO in a congregational setting will have some different contours. The pastoral staff and the board members, for instance, are responsible both for the mission of the ministry agency as well as the spiritual health of the congregation. The conversations between the lead pastor and board chair will have to consider both of these elements carefully as they coordinate the work of the board and of the staff.  As well, not every lead pastor sees their role as encompassing CEO elements. Sorting these things out creates complexity.

In smaller churches, i.e. less than 100 people, the ability of the board to implement Carver’s model will be limited. Because of necessity it will also serve partially as a management team for the congregation. Sorting out these diverse and sometimes conflicting roles takes considerable skill and understanding. In addition, for larger churches, discerning ways for the “board” to give significant oversight to the spiritual health of the congregation while tending its other “board” responsibilities, can also be a challenge.

Further, the chairperson is part of a congregation, a community of faith, within which he/she lives and actively follows Jesus. These relationships and spiritual dynamics also affect how the chairperson’s role is defined and fulfilled.Similarly each of the board members functions in that same community. Board members are appointed because of their perceived spiritual maturity and wisdom, as well as their possession of other competence.

I would suggest that a significant operational competency for the church board chairperson is enabling the board members to view their activities as worshipful work. Decision-making within a church board always occurs in the context of prayer and careful reflection upon biblical principles. We invite the Holy Spirit to be part of the proceedings. Decisions are not always made in terms of the financial bottomline, but may be based on other, more significant principles.

Cultivating congregational relations forms a critical part of the chairperson’s responsibilities. Much of this centres around the planning of the annual general meeting. The congregation is simultaneously stakeholder, “owner”, and beneficiary of the ministry agency’s work.



This entry was posted in Board, Board Chair, Board Governance, Board Member, Senior Pastor and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.