Something to Consider…

We recently asked church leaders about the following situation:

Often during the late summer or early fall church leaders start to think about who they should choose to serve on their governing board. It is important that members of this key group possess the right set of skills and abilities.

What attributes should board members have?

  1. Are major financial contributors to the church?
  2. Volunteer significant time to multiple ministries?
  3. Are close friends of the pastor?
  4. Attend church every Sunday as well as mid-week services?
  5. Meet the qualifications outlined in 1Timothy 3?

Society has placed churches in a segment that it labels as "organized religion"—a kind of oxymoron if you stop to think about it. While churches need to function with some degree of organization, much like any other entity that requires human and financial resources to operate; churches also seek to transform people’s lives spiritually—a far more disruptive process.

And as if that isn’t enough, changes in society and culture over the last 50 years also have contributed to making church governance and leadership even harder. Let’s briefly look at four of the changes in the cultural landscape.

Key Changes in Society that Make Leading a Church More Difficult

First, as religious diversity in America has increased, affiliation with a particular church has become more of a personal choice where previously it was seen as more of a social obligation for a member of the community in good standing.

Second, despite temporary variations in the unemployment numbers, the trend has been for more members of households to work outside the home and for longer hours. The effect of this shift is twofold. This has resulted in fewer young and middle-age adults to be available to volunteer for their churches. Also, with so many people spending a significant portion of their time at work, many now form their beliefs and assumptions about organizations there.

The third cultural shift is the growth of a shopping or consumer’s attitude resulting in an increasing lack of brand loyalty. The church has not been immune. One only has to look at the number of visitors who come once and never return during their search for the right church. Staying within a particular denomination is also less important than it once was.

Lastly, though not entirely new, expectations by congregants on lead pastors can lean towards the unreasonable. Pastors are expected to not only be excellent teachers and orators with smooth, rich voices, but also be able to counsel with the skill of a psychologist and be as competent at business as a corporate CEO. At the same time they are expected to be ultimately responsible for not only the success of their church, but also each individual member’s own religious quests.

So given this less than perfect landscape, what qualities should churches seek in choosing those who will lead them?

1 Timothy 3 is an excellent starting point. In this passage the Apostle Paul instructs Timothy that elders are to be above reproach, faithful to their spouse, temperate, well-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. They must manage their own family well and see that their children obey them, doing so in a manner worthy of respect. They must not be recent converts and have a good reputation with outsiders.

But before we venture to offer any suggestions to supplement Paul’s list, let’s examine what responsibilities church governing boards can be expected to fulfill.

Duties of Church Governing Boards

The Bible only mentions four duties for a church’s elder or overseer; they should be able to teach, preach, shepherd the flock and guard the church from error. But because most churches operate under the non-profit laws of the states where they are located their board members must also pay attention to the duties those laws mention. So regardless of whether your church calls its governing board a church council, vestry, session, board of elders or something else, board members are expected to fulfill three duties of public trust. These legal obligations, also known as fiduciary duties, include the Duty of Care, the Duty of Loyalty and the Duty of Obedience. Also, if your church is part of a denomination, the denomination may have a list of defined duties for its churches’ board members as well.

So what does each of these three fiduciary duties mean? The Duty of Care means that a board member will attend most, if not all, duly called board meetings, arrives at those meetings well prepared and participates in the discussions of all issues presented. The Duty of Loyalty requires that board members act in good faith in the best interest of the church and avoid or disclose any conflicts of interest. The Duty of Obedience expects board members to be faithful to the church’s purpose and obey the laws of the land.

If this discussion of board duties sounds a bit like déjà vu to readers familiar with other articles that we’ve written on church governance, they’d be right. While we’ve tried to summarize what we wrote in a previous article, readers who would like more information can CLICK HERE.

Often at smaller churches board members get involved in the day to day operation and management of their churches. This is understandable given the limited pool of people available to help run these churches’ programs. But as a church grows and the number of qualified people to operate the church increases, through greater attendance or the hiring of additional staff, board members should re-focus their efforts on tasks more aligned with governance.

Instead of being involved so much in day to day problem solving and activities, board members should start to spend more time working with the senior pastor to set the direction for the church by establishing goals, map out the strategy to reach those goals, set up mileposts to evaluate progress in reaching the goals and where needed, install guard rails in the form of policies to keep the church out of any legal ditches that may come along.

Instead of latching onto a small item in the treasurer’s report and asking, What should we do about this? the board needs to learn to ask, What guidance might we give that will enable someone else to make decisions of this kind?

We understand that this transition doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But sometimes it takes longer than it should because as the church has grown; the culture of the board has changed only incrementally if at all. In some situations church boards may see themselves serving more in an advisory capacity to the senior pastor. This can result in the senior pastor being the governance decision maker for the church. But we would suggest that this could be viewed as a case of the board abdicating its legal responsibilities.

As a non-profit entity, churches don’t have an owner or shareholders like for-profit companies do. Instead, governance in a church means owning the congregation, exercising ultimate control of its human and material resources and ensuring that it serves its mission. It’s the church’s board that has the legal authority that, in a for-profit company, is usually vested in its owner. And since they have the legal power to control pretty much anything about the congregation’s daily business, boards are continually tempted to escape into the world of management and operational decision making.

For example, a board used to dealing with concrete management or financial issues will at first have trouble focusing on the abstract. Instead of seizing on an issue and deciding it like a de facto chief executive or arbitration board, the board must learn to back off from the specifics and look for more enduring questions. Instead of latching onto a small item in the treasurer’s report and asking, What should we do about this? the board needs to learn to ask, What guidance might we give that will enable someone else to make decisions of this kind?

One way the culture of the board is revealed is by examining what kind of person is asked to serve on the church’s board. If super-volunteer types who are good at getting day to day assignments done are always chosen, it’s less likely that the board will be made up of conceptual thinkers and people who are good at discerning people or changing conditions. If no one on the board has ever developed a budget, can they be expected to fully participate in developing one for the church, let alone understanding financial statements? If no one on the board has ever hired or fired anyone, can they be expected to interview and call a pastor without violating employment law or legally release an ineffective staff member?

The best group for doing governance is diverse, patient, verbal, and at ease with abstract thinking and intangible work products.

Board members need to be able to champion the church’s overall mission while being able to let go of a favorite ministry or program, or other personal pet activities.

The best group for doing governance is diverse, patient, verbal, and at ease with abstract thinking and intangible work products. They are able to represent the membership by articulating mission and vision, evaluating programs and ensuring responsible stewardship of resources. They are able to make big choices about capital improvements, staffing, program philosophy, and outreach goals with input from the staff. They are able to ensure that people and property are protected against harm.

They are able to delegate authority for operational decisions while still holding people accountable. That requires that they are able to maintain a certain degree of separation from the staff. Doing so allows them to be objective about staff performance and serve as an effective check and balance.

Churches that select board members who see the church’s mission as their most important calling, who can think in the abstract about that mission and how to achieve it in ways that transform lives, understand the importance of good financial practices and controls, and are willing to protect the church from theological and legal error will go a long way in having a board that can govern in a God-honoring way.

Remember, a board made up of practical program leaders has trouble talking about anything except practical program issues. Imagine how churches would function if instead, their board members were capable of standing apart from the daily management of ministry and seek to guide the church’s path into the future while protecting it from the pitfalls that the future may bring.

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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