A reader writes: “I’m aware of the movement away from boards and committees in church life–a movement that I believe was first put forward from non-denominational churches such as Willow Creek. This is a quite different way of viewing church life and governance, but I’m not sure how it works. Is this something your book addresses?”
“You’re right that there’s a big trend toward pastor-centered churches where the board is quite secondary. I’m not sure Willow Creek really fits into that category–they have quite a strong board, I believe, though the test of that won’t come till the next change of senior pastors. But Rick Warren, Bill Easum, and Tom Bandy are pretty clear advocates of a senior pastor who “casts vision” on his or her own authority and also directs the daily work.
“The goal of my governance work, including the book, is to gain some of the purpose-driven, permission-giving virtues of the pastor-centered church while at the same time strengthening the role of the board and congregation in making governance decisions. I’m happy to have a staff-led, hierarchical structure for getting things done (ministry) so long as there is also a robust system for engaging leaders and congregants in discernment, vision-setting, and holding the “doers” accountable for their performance (governance).
“You would like my book, I think. You might also find Susan Beaumont’s work of interest. Her book Inside the Large Congregation has quite a bit to offer mid-sized congregations also.”
Boards that try to delegate authority to staff often worry that volunteers will lose commitment. It’s a realistic concern: volunteers who handled large responsibilities under the board do sometimes decide, when the board passes the management baton to the head of staff, that they are no longer needed.
This used to surprise me. Why would restructuring the flow of authority cause energy to disappear? Why are volunteers who take high-level responsibility under the board respond to the board’s delegation of authority to the head of staff by taking a vacation? I’m no longer surprised, because I’ve found that maintaining volunteer commitment while moving management from board to staff is pretty much a universal challenge.
The solution, luckily, turns out to be fairly simple: the staff needs to learn to ask people to take big responsibilities as volunteers. For some reason, there’s often a mental block against the head of staff (or a department head) saying to a proven volunteer:
Here is an area of work I’d like you to take charge of. Would you consider serving for a two-year term as Director of ________. You would not be paid, but you and I would set goals and meet on a regular basis, and you would be included in staff meetings as appropriate. I think of this as the equivalent of a quarter-time job. It is a lot to ask, but I am asking you, and I hope you will say yes.”
In larger congregations and nonprofits, staff leaders often have such conversations. Sometimes the volunteers say no, and sometimes they say yes. People have always taken big responsibilities as volunteers. There’s no reason they should stop because the board decides to get out of management so it can concentrate on governing.
When board- and committee-centered congregations engage paid staff, they sometimes struggle to find language to describe how staff members should relate to one another and to the rest of the organization. Especially if the staff person leads a program area like education, music, or youth work, which is “owned” by a committee, it seems natural that the committee should hire, orient, and supervise the new staff person.
Dial the clock forward ten years. The staff member is full-time, still working “for” a committee (though by then he or she may actually handpick its members), and in conflict with another member of the staff, possibly the senior clergy leader. What is the process then? Do you assemble the two staff members and their respective committees to try to reach a solution? Do you all go to your mutual boss, the board, and ask it to judge the case? If the congregation elects both the committee and the board, does the congregation have to vote?
Having seen all these methods tried, I have concluded that “a staff member reports to a committee” is one of those things that you can say in English but that makes no sense. . . . . Committees simply cannot supervise paid staff, because they are not present when the work is
done, and it is too difficult for them to speak with one voice. A staff member deserves a boss who works at least as many hours a week as he or she does.
Others can participate in the evaluation process or in making policies about staff treatment. But a congregation that wants to remain sane will set its staff up as a single team and hold it responsible for sustaining its own working relationships. Designating someone to be “head of staff” or “leader of the staff team” — and requiring the staff team to make its own plans, resolve its own conflicts and carry out its own evaluations (inviting others to participate in all of these except the conflicts) — gives the staff the space it needs to operate effectively.
The Lewis Center reprinted this from Governance and Ministry. Good idea! I’m reprinting it here as well.
“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, make 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 must be the owners. 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.
One of the interesting things about Governance and Ministry is the interest it has generated across the religious spectrum–I’ve heard from Southern Baptists, Catholics, and Orthodox Jews as well as Unitarians, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ. Most recently, I enjoyed reading a recent post by Art Scherer of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.
Congregational budget-makers frequently divide into two
camps that approach the task in different ways. The first camp is
likely to include children of the Great Depression, experts in finance,
elementary school teachers, and persons anxious about their own money
situation. Their first priority is to make sure that the budget
balances and that the congregation makes no plans or commitments it is
less than 100 percent certain it can meet. They squint over budget
sheets like bookkeepers of old with their bright lamps and shoulder
garters—I call this camp the Green Eyeshades.
The second camp typically includes young clergy, upscale
decorators, Baby Boomers, college professors, and commission
salespeople. They firmly believe that with God (or even without God)
all things are possible. They say, “We are a congregation, not a
business.” This camp can be identified at budget meetings mostly by
their absence. When shanghaied into talking about money, they glaze
over. Staring at a distant sunrise, they float over the surface of
numerical reality—I call them the Rose-Colored Glasses.
Read the rest of this article at Alban.org.
The Alban Institute has published an excerpt of my new book, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership in this week’s issue of the Alban Weekly e-newsletter (click here to subscribe):
Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be, and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above self-interest, and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo.
Organization, on the other hand, conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos. Organizations can be flexible, creative, and iconoclastic, but only by resisting some of their most basic instincts.
No wonder “organized religion” is so difficult! Congregations create sanctuaries where people can nurture and inspire each other—with results no one can predict. The stability of a religious institution is a necessary precondition to the instability religious transformation brings. The need to balance both sides of this paradox—the transforming power of religion and the stabilizing power of organization—makes leading congregations a unique challenge.
A special risk for leaders is that a congregation can succeed so well at organizing that it loses track of its religious mission. Congregational life becomes so tightly ordered that it squeezes out all inspiration. The challenge of organized religion is to find ways to encourage people to encounter God in potentially soul-shaking ways while also helping them to channel spiritual energy in paths that will be healthy for them, the congregation, and the world beyond. Religious leaders who write bylaws would be well advised to do so, as theologian Karl Barth admonished preachers, with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, holding realism and idealism in a salutary tension.
Read more on the Alban Institute site…
By law, board members are supposed to put the best interest of the church above all personal considerations — but how is that even possible? Board members in most churches play many other roles throughout the church, and many board decisions affect them and those they love. Potential conflicts of interest arise whenever a board member plays multiple roles. In churches, multiple roles and relationships are the rule, not the exception.
Look around the board table: John and Frieda work for the same company; Frieda’s daughter babysits for Susan’s grandson; Susan has belonged for years to Peter’s study group; Peter, who has been assistant treasurer for 30 years, is married to the choir director. Then there’s the pastor, who stands in multiple relationships to everybody. Even in a relatively healthy church, an “organization chart” that tried to capture all such formal and informal links would resemble an unusually messy cobweb.
No wonder that on many boards it’s awkward to begin talking about conflicts of interest. Relationships around the table already bristle with potential conflicts, so anyone who tries to raise the subject risks a defensive response. That’s one reason boards put off this important conversation. Another is the belief (often against official doctrine) that church people are naturally well-meaning, moral people, making it offensive to suggest they might need rules to keep them on the straight and narrow. Nonetheless, a church governing board, like any nonprofit board, is mandated by law to keep its stewardship unsullied by conflicts of interest. In legal language board members are fiduciaries (from the Latin fides, faith).
Read the rest…
Comparisons are useful but tricky. New Testament writers compare the church to a human body, a herd of sheep, a bride, and a vineyard. Synagogues are often likened to a house, a tent, or an extended family. None of these analogies is meant to be exact or literal—a church may act in some ways like a herd of sheep, but a wise leader doesn’t plan on it. Poets do exaggerate sometimes.
In the same spirit of poetic license, it may at times it may be useful to compare the clergy leader of a congregation to a corporate CEO, its members to customers or stockholders, or its staff to the employees of a charity. We can draw many useful analogies between congregations, other nonprofits, and businesses, but ultimately congregations need ideas and language of their own. It is easy to say that “the church should run more like a business,” without recognizing that in some respects the church should and does run very differently.
Read the rest…
“Conflict of interest” is an ugly phrase, but it’s time to say it, lay it on the table, and deal with it as a normal part of life. Everybody who is not a hermit manages conflicting interests all the time. Congregations’ awkwardness and silence on the subject only makes us vulnerable.
Many congregations accept practices that in other contexts we would question. For example, when the driveway needs re-topping, why deal with someone we don’t know when good old Tom of Tom’s Blacktop sits right here at the board table? We know he’ll give us a good price (don’t we?). In any case, if we suddenly quit using him, he’d be upset…
Read more about “Conflicts of Interest” www.alban.org.