Life after Governance Change

by Dan Hotchkiss

An anthropologist from Pluto might be forgiven for misclassifying “board and committee meetings” among the sacred rites of Earth religion. Meetings, with their arid liturgy of motions, seconds, minutes, and reports, give comfort and security to some, while driving others—particularly those who like results better than extended conversations about pros and cons of possible approaches to activities that might or might not one day issue in results—nuts.

It is not actually meetings that drive people nuts—most leaders expect, even enjoy productive meetings—it is the perpetual unclarity in many congregations about who makes what decision. Lay leaders burn out like old brake pads from the start-and-stop decision-making tempo. People who, at work, carry assigned projects from start to finish find it hard to understand why relatively small decisions require long discussion, often at not one but several meeting tables.

Leaders burn out and disappear, but do not necessarily complain. Good-hearted folk, leaders excuse or even justify tedious decision-making methods, calling them “congregational” or “presbyterian,” “Jewish” or “episcopal.” In many congregations, it is more comfortable to raise doubts about religious doctrine than to question the committee system.

Questioning the unquestionable

This is gradually changing. For a variety of reasons, leaders in congregations of all kinds have begun to question the unquestionable. Sometimes the departure of too many former governing board members triggers the rethinking. Sometimes a strategic planning process launches an imaginative plan that quickly founders in the sandy shoals of governance. Sometimes an exceptionally vital, growing congregation notices that its most innovative programs have emerged only when someone, in despair of working though the formal structure, worked around it.

For whatever reason, growing numbers of churches and synagogues are considering alternatives to their traditional ways of governing themselves. Since 2009, when Alban published my book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, I have enjoyed consulting, coaching, and cheerleading congregations using it to engage in a deliberate governance-change process.

It is not easy work. Institutions naturally resist change—not because the people in them are especially conservative, but because conserving is what institutions do. They codify and repeat patterns of behavior—building trust by repetition, growing in proficiency by practice, building a clear “brand” through consistent and predictable performance.

All institutions resist change; communities of faith resist it for a special reason: almost anything they regularly do, quickly becomes part of somebody’s religion. The oddest things turn sacred—furniture and flower arrangements, calendars of fund-raising events, organization charts. People cling to such symbolic objects, not because they love them, but because they love the congregation and the good they have experienced from its influence, and worry that if surface symbols change too much, they might lose the reality beneath.

Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy write, “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.” Resisting change can be a good thing when it helps people to hang on to what is truly precious. A congregation with no change-resistance worships on a different day and in a different place each week. That makes it difficult to find it or know whether to support it; in constant motion, it stands nowhere.

Sometimes only innovation—which requires letting go of symbols—lets us hold on to what we truly value. Congregations have begun to realize that comfortable ways no longer produce comfortable outcomes. Change, no longer a threat, becomes our best hope for avoiding deeper loss. When old modes of governance threaten to strangle what is precious in the congregation’s life, governance change becomes more thinkable.

A governance road map

Governance and Ministry does not present a model for all congregations to follow. Instead it offers helpful terminology, a “map for thinking about governance,” and a process many congregations have used in shaping their own answers to the governance conundrum. The book draws on the best and most current thinking in nonprofit governance, recognizing that in some ways congregations are distinctive.

The map shows two overlapping parabolas, one for governance and one for ministry. Governance is the job of the board (under whatever name). Governance includes acting as chief steward of the congregation’s human and material resources and ensuring that it serves its mission. Governance is “owning the place” in behalf of its true owners, which include its members, its denomination, its community, its God, or—most usefully, I think— its mission. The board governs when it “owns” the congregation in behalf of the mission.

Ministry is the congregation’s active work, including managing its workforce (paid and unpaid), spending and receiving money, choosing programs and priorities, and managing the myriad details that must be managed in order to achieve the practical results the congregation exists to achieve.

The board is not concerned primarily with finances or buildings—important as those are. Its primary focus is religious. It aims to spend as much time as it can discerning and interpreting the congregation’s mission and translating that into an annual vision of ministry to guide the staff. It spends smaller amounts of time monitoring and evaluating the work as a whole, including money, buildings, and the work of the staff. It does all this in close collaboration with the head of staff, its main partner in fulfilling the congregation’s purpose.

The board has only a few standing committees—most of what are typically called committees join the staff structure as ministry teams. The board governs primarily through written policies and holds the head of staff accountable, sometimes along with an executive minister or a small team, for complying with board policies and for achieving hoped-for results of ministry.

I have been delighted to see leaders of congregations across all of the major polity traditions finding Governance and Ministry of use. The results, in terms of the structures, have varied. What they have in common sets “good governance” apart from much of what has become standard across faith groups. Some of the marks of effective governance include:

  • A single decision-making structure for governance and one for ministry, with a clear definition of which bucks stop where. Governance bucks stop with the board, and ministry bucks stop with the head of staff. Differences are resolved directly rather than through intermediaries.
  • A board that speaks as one. Individual board members have no special authority outside board meetings. Board members may play other leadership roles as well, but remove their board “hat” when they do so.
  • Boards speak primarily through written policies. Like any human gathering, a board meeting is a cauldron of informal, nonverbal, and emotional communication. People come away from meetings with a “sense of the board” on any number of topics. Effective boards make it clear that staff and others will not be expected to read the board’s mind, but must treat the board’s formal actions as the final word.
  • Whenever authority is delegated, it is balanced with guidance and accountability. Too often, congregations plug people into generic positions or point them in vague directions, and then expect them to come back repeatedly to rehash each decision and appropriate each dollar. It is not fair to hold anyone accountable for results when the results have not been specified, or to blame them for violating an unstated rule. This principle applies whether the board is delegating to the staff or a staff member is delegating to subordinates or volunteers.

The most challenging part of the governance-change process comes after the details of the new structure are worked out. Everyone then needs to learn how to live under the new arrangements. Having taken itself out of day-to-day management, the board must fill its meetings with a rich diet of discernment work, communal learning, and reflection on the “open questions” that sit just past the horizon. The staff must learn to make decisions despite years of experience almost making a decision, and then arguing the case to one or more boards and committees. When clear boundaries take the place of fuzzy ones, everyone must learn to practice a new kind of partnership.

Bumps in the road

Clarifying governance and ministry authority is quite an achievement; I have been awed by the persistence and inventiveness of leaders using Governance and Ministry. At this point, two years publication, I have tracked a number of congregations through the process. Increasingly, I’m working now with congregations that have changed their governance model and are learning to live under the new regime. I’m learning about common “bumps in the road” that follow governance change. Every congregation finds its own points of challenge, but I can point to some friction points to watch for:

Volunteers and paid staff members feel increased accountability and don’t always like it. Many congregations are accustomed to a crisscross system of accountability, with one hierarchy of councils and committees reporting to a board and another hierarchy of paid staff, reporting to the head of staff. This worked well in the 1950s, when informal deference hierarchies (rich and poor, clergy and laity, men and women) held more sway, and when churches relied less on paid staff. It still works moderately well in smaller churches. But it was never realistic to expect that a board, meeting once a month for a few hours, could supervise scores of complex program units effectively.

It can be a challenge for volunteers to learn to function under the authority of staff; they may ask, “Shouldn’t staff be here to serve the members?” It can be helpful to remember that both volunteers and staff are here to serve the mission. There is nothing democratic about handing control of important pieces of the congregation’s work to essentially autonomous committees. Democracy is better served by letting the whole congregation be in conversation with its board about major questions of purpose and direction. When the direction is established, congregants can serve as an empowered workforce under the leadership of an accountable staff team.

A sad fact about life in the nonprofit sector is that many people choose to work there (whether in paid or unpaid roles) because they like not being held accountable. When the board quits trying to “run” the church (a notion that is largely fiction anyway in congregations larger than about 150), some volunteers may chafe when the staff begins to hold them accountable for the results they are expected to produce. Some paid staff may have the same reaction! When this happens it may help to know that it is a normal and predictable result of better governance, and the temporary discomfort is a fair price for an institution capable of setting its own course and sailing true.

Long-standing problems will become more obvious before they are corrected. When authority is parceled out informally, problems can persist for a long time without attracting much attention. Those who try to address chronic problems often will be scoffed at or pushed to the periphery, making it much more pleasant for leaders to accept the status quo.

Effective governance design highlights familiar problems and puts an uncomfortable spotlight on the person responsible for correcting them. Examples of the kind of problem I have in mind include:

  • Activities that use church resources simply because they are of long standing, but whose connection to the church’s mission is unclear.
  • Paid or unpaid workers who perform poorly but remain in place because no one is clearly responsible for addressing the situation.
  • Conflicts that simmer because there is no effective forum for deciding issues.

A first step in solving any problem often is to make it feel more pressing and therefore more painful. An effective governance model does this almost automatically. This works, but usually makes long-standing staff and lay leaders sad before it makes them happy.

Volunteer leaders may feel “demoted.” In most congregations, the career track for a volunteer runs through practical church work onto the board. Under more effective governance, the board has its own career track. A board that focuses on longer-term work like discernment, strategy, and oversight still needs to know and care about practical work, but some board members will not like the new, more abstract focus of board meetings. It is important to move them from the board into important ministry roles without suggesting that they have failed as board members. Unpaid roles within the staff structure need to be designed with plenty of authority and scope of action, and with titles to match. There is no rule I know of against calling a lay volunteer “Director of”, and more congregations should consider doing it.

Beyond the horizon

Having warned about so many bumps in the road to better governance, I must add that I’ve heard more joy than pain from congregations that have completed their own governance change processes. Congregations have been around for a long time, and have remade and refashioned themselves over and over again. At a certain point, the awkwardness of future-oriented board meetings gives way to a real excitement about shaping the congregation’s work through big decisions rather than small ones. The grudging loss of power by program units that have enjoyed de facto autonomy is far outweighed by the net gain in power by the congregation as a whole when it aligns its efforts in support of a shared vision.

As usual when you solve one set of issues, another set comes to the fore. When the governing board and clergy leader’s roles are clarified, the spotlight shifts to the congregation itself. Most American congregations give the congregation an important role in governance—with less variation than you might expect from differences in historic polity traditions. But in congregations with attendance larger than about 150 (or adult membership above 250), congregational business meetings make very few significant decisions. In large congregations with attendance of 400 or more (membership 600+), membership meetings are routinized and scripted to the point where it is rare that any real decision-making happens there.

Congregations must vote on some important matters, which may include electing members of the board, approving budgets, calling and discharging clergy, buying and selling real estate, bylaw amendments. But regardless of the congregation’s size attendance at congregational meetings rarely exceeds 100. Participation typically is skewed toward current officeholders and long-term, older members. Business items typically are complex packages reflecting hours of preparation by boards and committees.

The budget, for example, may consist of pages of small items carefully prepared by the finance committee and approved by the board. The treasurer explains it all, making it clear, for instance, that no one unfamiliar with the subtle details of the Metzger Trust could possibly intelligently question the “bridge loan from the temporarily-restricted missions holding fund.

“In laymen’s terms,” he adds, “we’re borrowing (ha-ha) from ourselves.”

After such an explanation comes lengthy debate over the decline in the postage budget when first-class stamps are rising—is this thrift? A shift to email? A mistake? Nobody knows, but this does not stop members from expressing their opinions. To be prudent, someone moves to add $200 to the postage budget, with directions to the finance committee to find a way to rebalance the budget. The motion passes; so does the budget. It is a most unsatisfactorily shallow exercise in pseudo-democracy.

Perhaps the second most important action of the congregation (after approving the selection of the clergy leader) is the choice of board members. For this, the process is not much better. The nominating committee offers either a single slate or a competitive one. The single slate approach suggests that unless someone is angry enough to mount an insurrection, the nominating committee’s wisdom is to be preferred to the congregation’s. A competitive slate produces an annual crop of losing candidates who swear they never will subject themselves to this embarrassment again. It also makes for the appearance of democracy, but in the absence of real platforms or campaigning, the appearance rings false.

Can congregational meetings become more than empty pantomimes? Many larger congregations, in action if not words, have said no. Accepting that there is no way to make democracy effective in a congregation of 1000 or 2000, it is frankly or covertly dropped. This is a comfortable choice for many people; it reflects the life of larger business corporations, where stockholders’ meetings are held largely by proxy, with most of the proxies held by management. This practice frees management to pursue the policies it thinks best, while stockholders vote with their feet, if necessary finding other companies whose plans they think more promising. It works in business (so the thinking goes); why not in church?

But if democracy is hopeless for 2000 people, many of whom meet for worship weekly, what does that say about democracy in city hall or on Capitol Hill? Once upon a time, churches tried to be models for the larger society. I would like to work with some larger congregations interested in experimenting with new modes of congregational democracy that might be useful to our wider civic life.

Readers of Governance and Ministry know I urge boards to identify, each year, a short list of “open questions” it plans to reflect on, on its own and with the congregation in town meetings and small groups. This is a good idea, but we need to go farther to find ways large numbers of people can work together on their most important issues. No one knows the answer, which only redoubles the importance of the question.

Take elections, for example. How can a large congregation elect a small board so that the resulting board truly represents the congregation, both as a group of varied individuals and as a covenanted body? Such a board would feel

  • accountable both to the congregation and to its mission,
  • accountable also to the sub-groups of the congregation who voted for particular board members, so the board hears and includes distinctly different understandings of the mission,
  • motivated to bring different visions of the congregation’s ministry to the board table, and then to achieve results through dialog and compromise.

This vision of the board would mean, in many churches, making board elections more “political,” which many people would regard as negative. But as boards’ roles become clearer they will exercise more power and elections should be more political. When congregation members see that board elections are important points of influence for them, they will enter into the election process more enthusiastically.

For congregations that have reformed governance successfully at the level of the board and staff, the congregation is the next frontier. No one knows all of the answers, but I look forward to working with some congregations that are not willing to give up on democracy. Give me a call!

Means for the sake of ends

Lyle Schaller once observed that liberal churches, which are so often ready to tell the world how it should change, especially resist changes to their own internal workings. Liberals, so this thinking goes, are so open-minded they are not always quite sure what they believe or where they are headed, and so they come to treat “the way we do things here” as if it were the end-all of the church. By contrast, a church with a clear, focused purpose like “bring souls to Christ” will try new worship styles, change its committee structure, or rebalance its staff–whatever works-because the end is more important than the means.

Many of my governance-change clients are comparatively liberal congregations, and I must say that they belie this generalization. If some liberal congregations have been slower to reform their structures of decision-making, One reason may be that they care so much about what Luther called the priesthood of all believers, which makes governance a more complex challenge than it is for congregation that more easily hand power to one person. Building a structure that is serious both about congregational participation in decision-making and enlisting every person in discerning God’s will for the congregation’s makes governance a complicated business. I’m glad congregations of all stripes are now thinking more creatively about their own decision-making practices.

No structure guarantees success or promises a life free of problems. T.S. Eliot wrote that “It is impossible to design a system so perfect no one has to be good.” Luckily congregations are full of people who are good already. The work of governance change can be simply a matter of enabling the congregation to be as good as they are.

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