How to Spend Your Board’s Time

by Dan Hotchkiss

Boards often criticize themselves for “getting too far into the weeds” of daily management detail. They know they should be spending more time envisioning the future and deciding big, strategic issues, but. But concepts like discernment, strategy, and vision seem rather soft and blurry. After trying to focus on them for a while, boards slip back to problem-solving with relief.

Harvard educator Richard Chait offers a way of thinking of this issue many boards find helpful. In a readable, short book, Governance as Leadership, Chait and his colleagues offer, in place of the frustrating simplicity of micromanagement is bad and visioning is good—three modes of governance: fiduciary, strategic, and generative. All three modes are necessary and appropriate; the goal is for the board to give each mode its due attention.

What follows is my slightly different riff on Chait’s ideas.

Chait’s first mode—or mood, as I would call it—is fiduciary. In fiduciary mode, the board protects the congregation’s assets, conserves its traditions, and worries about risks. Think of the fiduciary board as Ebenezer Scrooge, holding Cratchit to a single lump of coal. Above all, the fiduciary board makes sure the resources in its care —including especially its human and spiritual resources and—are conserved.

The strategic board looks to the future, and asks, “What do we mean to accomplish in the next few years, and what are the major choices we must make in order to get there? Strategic choices might include the timing of a capital campaign, a plan for staffing changes, or a commitment to launch worship in a new location or a different language. Strategy is macro management—making the big choices about how the congregation will live out its purpose.

Generative governance differs from the other two in that it addresses questions that do not allow for simple, fast, or practical solutions. Generative conversations wander. Their focus comes from the need to pose good strategic questions about how the world has changed, and how familiar modes of “doing church” or “doing synagogue” have lost vitality. Board members often describe time spent in generative mode as the most stimulating, spiritual, frustrating, and—especially in retrospect—fruitful time they spend.

So what do the three modes of governance look like in practice?

Fiduciary work

The most common way boards do fiduciary work is by listening to reports, responding to what is wrong or questionable or interesting in them, and intervening with advice, commentary, and direction. Often this is done without much sense of the appropriate level for board intervention.

A more effective way to carry out the board’s fiduciary function is to adopt policies that delegate authority, give guidance, and set limits. When the board receives reports, they focus mainly on two questions:

  • How are we coming on our goals?
  • Are we our adhering to our policies?

In ordinary times, fiduciary work takes only a small fraction of the board’s time. Once in a while, the board may have to spend more of its time correcting what is wrong. Micromanagement is not bad in an emergency—when children are in danger, money has been stolen, or key constituencies are rising in revolt, any board will grab the reins of power and bring situation back in bounds.

The trick is not stay on a war footing endlessly. Once the crisis is alleviated, the board needs to resist the tendency to spend more time on fiduciary work than necessary, so it can spend more time in the strategic and generative modes.

(Incidentally, I confess I wish Chait had found a different word for this. Fiduciary duty is not all scrimp and save—it has an upbeat side as well. Good fiduciaries require action, prudent risk-taking, and a willingness to accept failure. But I recognize the mode—or rather mood—that Chait is pointing at, and I accept that fiduciary for most people, is associated more with prudence than with boldness.)

Strategic work

Most fiduciary work is done quite privately, or even confidentially. The opposite is true of the strategic mode. To see why, think of what a congregation needs in order to successfully accomplish major goals—launching a new ministry, building a new building, starting a new worship service in a new style or new language.

For these kinds of initiatives, simplistic formulas like, “The board decides what to do and the staff carries it out,” or “The pastor casts the vision and the people follow,” don’t work. Big initiatives need strong support from all the major formal and informal power holders—board, staff, donors, lay leaders, and the grass roots all need to be enthusiastic about strategic choices.

To secure this kind of support, the board needs to be extroverted, letting people know what questions it is thinking about long before it has decided on the answers. This kind of extroversion requires courage. It is much easier to wait till leaders have made up their minds before beginning to “sell” the result. Sometimes this works, but maximum support requires wide involvement in the process leading to strategic choices.

Perhaps the most powerful tool for getting people into a strategic conversation is to pose strategic questions. “What is our ministry to our wider community?” “What difference do we mean to make in the lives of youth and young adults?” “How will we fund our Temple programs given changes in young families’ pattern of affiliation?”

By choosing a short list of strategic questions and persistently inviting people into conversation about them, the board (in concert with the clergy) prepares itself to make better strategic choices, and ensures the broad-based support strategic action needs.

Generative work

And where do good strategic questions come from? From generative conversation. By clearing its agenda of excessive work in the fiduciary mood, the board makes space for thoughtful and creative pondering of the big issues. Generative conversation may seem slow and wandering, and its results may not be easy to measure. But soul-to-soul exchange among a small group of lay and clergy leaders lays the groundwork for the board to ask the right strategic questions.

How small a group? For this kind of conversation, seven people is ideal, I think, though boards do it with a larger number. Many boards do their generative work mainly at their annual retreats—that’s better than nothing, but I urge boards to look for ways to maximize the time available to work in generative mode.

Fiduciary, strategic, generative. Only when survival is assured can a board move on to larger questions and concerns. If your board spends most of its time listening to reports, responding to requests, and settling disputes, I hope you will look for ways to set your sights a little higher.

Dan Hotchkiss, a long-time senior consultant for the Alban Institute, now works independently with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. Dan’s best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.

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