Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

In recent years you’ve seen your church’s attendance stagnate or even decline. While considering the causes, you wonder if your church’s leadership model needs to be re-configured to better meet the needs of today’s world.

What are essential duties for a church board?

Did you know that many of the governance models that churches use today were developed in the 1950’s? If you’ve been alive since then think back to how much society has changed over the last 60 or so years.

In the 1950’s attendance at a church or synagogue was a powerful social expectation. Nearly half of Americans attended one or the other on any given weekend. More recently religious diversity has increased to such an extent that church affiliation is now a choice, not an obligation.

One of the consequences of consumerism in the pews is a heightened expectation of the clergy in the pulpit.

During the same time frame we’ve gone from the majority of families being two parents with a working husband and a stay at home wife, to either two parent families with the husband and wife both working or families headed by only one parent. This has greatly reduced a critical resource for churches, women willing and able to volunteer to help out at church. Another factor that’s affected the supply of church volunteers is the considerable growth in the number of secular non-profits since the 1950’s and 60’s. This has resulted in giving people many other options for how and where they can volunteer.

Today’s church goers also have more of a consumer’s attitude than their parents or grandparents did about where they go to church and how involved they become. It’s not uncommon to hear pastors decry the consumer mindset of the people populating their pews.

One of the consequences of consumerism in the pews is a heightened expectation of the clergy in the pulpit. Not only does this person need to have the speaking ability and style of a fine orator, he or she needs to be an example of a top flight business executive and psychologist rolled into one. Needless to say the pastor must also be God’s holy representative to the congregation. Imagine the resulting pressure on a pastor when all of these expectations get loaded onto one person.

So times have changed. Has your church’s governance structure kept up?

At least one writer suggests that a church’s success is based more on its leadership than its theology. Dan Hotchkiss of the Alban Institute says just that in his book, Governance and Ministry Rethinking Board Leadership. Much of what we will share with you here is from his book.

Often church board members are chosen because they have demonstrated that they are the church’s go-to volunteers. Getting things done is their strong suit. So when they are put in positions of leadership, it is natural for them to help run and manage the church.

Who Defines a Church’s Mission?

But what about high level pursuits such as defining the church’s mission and developing a strategy to guide the mission to fruition? If they get done at all, it’s usually seen as the responsibility of the senior pastor.

Often we’ve seen churches languish during the 12 months (or more) it takes to fill a vacant senior pastor position. Why? We suggest that one reason is that the board is waiting for the new pastor to arrive and lay out a new direction and strategy for the church. Even more unfortunate are those situations when neither a mission nor a strategy has been defined by anyone, resulting in a church going through the motions, doing what they’ve always done. Over the years the only changes that they’ve made in their programs have been minor, incremental ones.

But imagine a church that knows what its mission is, has a plan to accomplish it, plus expects church staff, both paid and volunteer, to be accountable for achieving results—a church where the staff is not micromanaged, but instead is given authority commensurate with their responsibility to accomplish what they’ve been asked to do.

Corporations, both for-profits and nonprofits, are organized under state laws. Those laws specify that nonprofit boards, including churches, have a legal obligation to oversee the management of the organization and ensure that the organization fulfills its mission.

Pastors may come and go at a church (at times too frequently), but one of the constants in the life of the local church is its board. Individuals serving on the board will likely change over time, but the board as a group within the church exists as long as the church does. This puts it in the best position to discern and understand the strengths, weaknesses and culture of the church. It also makes them the caretakers not only of the church’s past and its present, but its future, too.

Now this doesn’t mean that board members stop singing in the choir or teaching a Sunday School class. It just means that they need to realize that as part of the church they wear different hats. When they sing in the choir, they are a participant. When they teach a class they are a program leader. Even though they might like to think of themselves as the official food tasters at a church potluck, they are just participants.

But when they meet as the church board, they become responsible for setting the direction for the church, which road to take, setting up mileposts along the way and putting guard rails in place where needed.

“Guard rails?” you ask. By guard rails we mean things like conforming to current laws and regulations that the church must abide by and taking control of risk management issues such as safety and child protection practices. Basically anything needed to assure the safety of the church’s people and property and its existence as a tax-exempt entity.

Accountability For the Church Board

Earlier we mentioned that the staff should be held accountable. That accountability flows up to the senior pastor and eventually to the board. But to whom is the board accountable? Some might say to the congregation. If that is the case, would the board be disposed to lead the church to be an institution of transformation as it follows Christ’s example?

In a for-profit company the board of directors is accountable to the company’s owners or stockholders for making a profit. But nonprofits, such as churches, have no owners and are mission driven rather than profit driven.

Yes, some might symbolically point to God or Jesus as the owner of the church. But because churches are made up of humans who fall short of the expansiveness that our Lord represents, it’s doubtful that someone could find a church that does everything that is on His to-do list. Instead, every church seeks to find the mission that it belongs to—that distinct list of how it can best represent itself to its community. And when one stops to think about it, it starts to come into focus that the church’s mission is what the board is accountable to.

While we’ve been saying that church boards should take responsibility for defining a church’s mission and seeing that it is fulfilled, it turns out that we’re not alone. Corporations, both for-profits and nonprofits, are organized under state laws. Those laws specify that nonprofit boards, including churches, have a legal obligation to oversee the management of the organization and ensure that the organization fulfills its mission.

One step that churches can take to facilitate their boards taking on the roles that we’ve talked about is to move away from recruiting “super volunteers” and instead recruit those individuals who have the ability to discern who your church is, what God has called your church to be and to do, and who your church’s neighbor is. They should also be able to take what they’ve discerned using their imagination, courage and tolerance of frank conversations and articulate it.

If you would like to know more about how your church can redirect the efforts of its board to do a better job of defining your church’s mission, developing a strategy to fulfill that mission, holding church staff accountable for achieving that mission and keeping the people and property of the church safe, please contact us. Your church’s success is important to God and to us. We look forward to helping your church succeed for God.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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