How I am Different from John Carver

“How is your model different from the Carver model?” Since Governance and Ministry came out, I hear this question now and then, especially from people in the United Church of Canada, the Mennonite Church, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, where John Carver’s Policy Governance is widely known.

I have benefited from John Carver’s writings and agree with him on many things, for instance:

  • Boards should focus primarily on long-range, big-picture matters,
  • Boards should record their most important decisions in written policies.
  • Boards should delegate substantial day-to-day management authority so decisions can be made away from the board table. In organizations with staff, it makes sense to delegate management authority to the staff leader.
  • Boards should exercise effective oversight of those to whom it has delegated authority without involving themselves too much in management.

Where Carver is well-known, you don’t need to say much more than this for some people to peg you as a Carverite—not because any of this is original with Carver or unique to him, but simply because people who know the “Carver model” may not know much about the broader conversation about nonprofit governance. Especially in churches and synagogues, where “normal” decision-making practice tends to be quite chaotic and diffuse, there is a tendency for any good advice to sound like any other, simply because it is so different from what we’re used to.

I appreciate Carver’s contributions to thinking about governance and have benefited from the clarity of his thinking. But I have some disagreements with him, and some reservations about the use of his model in congregations. Here are some areas of difference:

  • Carver relies heavily on the distinction between ends and means—what we intend to accomplish versus how we are going to do it. I agree that this is a useful distinction, but do not agree that decisions can be clearly classified one way or the other. Like many clear distinctions, this one is a polarity or spectrum, not a set of pigeonholes. This may be especially true in congregations, where “how” we do things is a major part of “what” we want to accomplish.
  • Carver’s seems to me to picture an organization as a machine that can be programmed to follow a set of rational directions. I take a more systemic or organic point of view. The official rules governing decision-making account for very little of what happens even in well-ordered groups. The special nature of a congregation, with its overlapping constituencies and multiple relationships among people, makes systemic and organic metaphors especially useful.
  • Carver states in many places that “chief executive performance is identical to organizational performance.” This may be a useful fiction in some organizations, but in a church it is can be quite pernicious, both because “performance” is so difficult to define and measure, and because the job of a senior clergy leader is only partly to lead the organization. Clergy contribute a great deal through their personal ministry, and congregations succeed or fail for many reasons–clergy performance being only one of them.
  • The separation of board and staff functions in Carver, while clear, seems to me less than ideal. I have never seen a board that could discern mission or cast vision without participation—nay, leadership—from staff leaders. In the book I define a zone of overlap between the board and staff that includes both discernment and strategy. While it needs to be clear what bucks stop where, only a shared process can produce the wide support such decisions require.
  • Like me, Carver says the board is a fiduciary for the organization’s “true owners.” But Carver’s “owners” are always human beings. If there are members, they are the owners. But for me, the true owner of a congregation is its mission. The board’s core responsibility to to ensure that the congregation serves its mission; likewise, when members vote, they vote not as owners, but as fiduciaries for the mission.

I am a grateful reader of John Carver’s writings and respect the effort some congregations have made to follow Policy Governance as closely as they can. My approach is similar in some ways, different in others.

Perhaps the most important difference of all is that my “model” is not a model at all. Congregations are different, and they can and should govern themselves in a variety of ways. I’m always delighted when my readers and consulting clients invent wildly unexpected variations on the basic themes of Governance and Ministry.

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