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What to Say When Your Side Loses

by Dan Hotchkiss

LOSER !!!! from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Craig Sunter, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
“The ayes have it.” Curt put down his hand and looked across the table at Priscilla, who had also voted “no.” Priscilla smiled, shrugged, and joined the chatter about how to ask the membership to ratify the board’s decision.

Curt was not smiling. By five to two, the board had voted to tear down the ladies’ parlor to make room for a new classroom wing. Curt understood the need, but he felt strongly this was the wrong project at the wrong time. He had said so several times.

Luckily, the congregation also needed to approve the project. Curt was thinking about how to make his arguments again. Surely in the congregation as a whole there were enough who loved that parlor, enough who were unhappy about all the excess spending lately, to put a stop to this new folly.

Priscilla interrupted Curt’s reflections, speaking toward him from across the table: “I am frankly disappointed by this vote,” she said. “But now that the board’s decision has been made, it is our duty as board members to support it whether we agree or not.”

There was a long pause as everybody waited for Curt’s answer. And we will leave them there for now: Curt and Priscilla, marking the two sides of a dilemma that confounds many boards.

A useful way to approach questions of this kind is for the board to make a covenant—a well-known procedure popular since the publication in 2001 of Gil Rendle’s Behavioral Covenants in Congregations. A board’s covenant spells out its expectations of board members. It might require such things as regular attendance and respectful dialog at the board table. It might ask board members to attend worship regularly, to contribute generously, and to be available for special duties outside board meetings.

But the toughest issue, often, is the one Priscilla raised with Curt: What should you do when your side loses?

Priscilla speaks for unity: “The board should speak with one voice. Our duty is to advocate for the decision, whether we agree with it or not.” This rule effectively requires the losing members to switch sides after the vote. The reasoning goes like this: however strongly I may feel, our shared concern is for the success of the congregation. Division threatens that success, so leaders need to pull together. If you can’t accept that, you should resign your board position, and then speak as a free, unfettered individual.

For Curt, freedom is the main point. Why should he have to resign to say what he believes? Don’t congregants who agree with him have a right to know he represented their views on the board? Is it even ethical for Curt to mislead the people who elected him? On small matters, switching sides may not be problematic, but when (as sometimes happens) the member’s opposition is grounded in morality, strong sentiment, or a conviction of superior knowledge, changing sides feels deceptive and wrong.

How can a board decide on a rule, with loyalty on one side of the issue and liberty on the other?

In talking with a lot of real-life Curts and Priscillas, I have made some observations that may help.

One is that Priscilla’s point of view is practiced frequently in business boards. It’s easy to see why. Disagreements in a business are often about strategies and methods, but rarely about purpose. The purpose of most businesses is comparatively simple: to make money for the owners. Boards argue about product strategy, the choice of CEO, or whether to acquire another company—but once a decision has been made, it is in no one’s interest to prolong the struggle. Unity of leadership is a prime value if you think of your congregation as an enterprise whose leaders want success.

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Curt’s attitude is more at home in politics. Opinions are the currency of politics. It would be shocking if a member of Congress pretended he or she had voted on the winning side. Constituents expect to know—and expect their representatives to keep on fighting when they lose a vote. If, for you, your congregation is a “little commonwealth,” you’re apt to want to keep its marketplace of opinions open and transparent.

Is a congregation more like a business or a public body? This question is best framed not as an either-or, but as a dilemma or polarity, a balance of two values both of which have relevance.

Like Priscilla, most leaders value the success of their congregations, and know that it depends on people to support it even when it makes decisions they don’t like. As leaders, we want to set a good example—contributing our strong opinions when that is appropriate, and then setting them aside.

We also admire, to some degree, Curt’s passion for what he thinks is right. We want to know, as members of the congregation, that the board at least considered contrary opinions before making a decision. If we are honest, there are some decisions that would make each of us consider leaving, sad though that would make us.

After much discussion, both Curt and Priscilla moved away from their original positions to embrace the board’s new rule, permitting members to express dissent about board actions, but only after first affirming the board’s leadership and the legitimacy of its process.

At the members’ meeting, Curt asked to be recognized. He said, “I want everyone to know that as a member of the board, I voted against this and I lost, fair and square. That is how we do things. If this passes, I’ll contribute to the classroom project. But I can’t in conscience vote to tear down that old parlor. That is how I voted on the board, and that is how I’m going to vote today as well.”

Great Committees

by Dan Hotchkiss

In an old cartoon by Charles Addams, a man and his son walk through a park and look at statues, each of which depicts a little clutch of people. “There are no great men, my boy,” the father says, “only great committees.” (The New Yorker, May 5, 1975)

We laugh. A great committee—how absurd! For quite a while, the venerable committee has been out of style. Books on how to jazz up congregations—from Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church to my own Governance and Ministry—scorn the committee as a time-wasting fossil of the pre-postmodern era.

And yet some committees accomplish a great deal—managing existing programs, generating and evaluating new ideas, and making it possible for their parent body—the governing board or congregation—to make decisions more wisely. What makes it possible for a committee to be good, or even great?

Most standing committees in churches and synagogues are really not committees at all. They have charge of an activity like education, worship, building maintenance, or social service. In effect, they function as department heads. If I ran the world, such committees would be called teams. In larger congregations, the paid staff would generally appoint their leaders, direct their work, and take responsibility for their performance.

But some committees really are committees: they don’t exist to manage operational work, but to support decision-making by a parent body like the governing board or congregation. The board, for instance, might be thinking about how to make more space for offices in the short run and for worship in the long run. After talking for a while, the board realizes that this is a complicated issue, so it “commits” the matter to a small group—a committee—to look into it and report back.

This is the original idea of a committee as defined in parliamentary manuals like Robert’s Rules of Order, and it’s not a bad idea. Small groups can do things large groups can’t. It is often more efficient to create a committee to address a complex matter than for the parent body to take it on alone. Unfortunately, “the committee” has become an all-purpose organizing tool. Like the person with a hammer who sees only nails, we assign every kind of task to a committee.

Lots of committees do good work; a few are truly great. Good committees do what they’re told: pre-process a decision, come up with a recommended action, and make a case for it before the board. The board often does as its committee recommends—either because it is persuaded, or perhaps simply because it thinks it should “trust its committees.”

Some boards refer business to committees in a more or less frank effort to evade responsibility. A board might, for example, create a committee to choose new carpet for the sanctuary. Such a committee’s job, of course, is mainly to take some of the heat for a decision that is guaranteed to be controversial. The board approves the recommended color (puce), and piously intones its gratitude to the committee, and moves on to something else.

One wonders, in such cases, why the board doesn’t simply delegate authority to choose a carpet color. But by going through these motions the board reassures itself that it is in the driver’s seat. Nothing is lost but a good chunk of everybody’s time, as each decision gets discussed three times or more.

Fine. But it’s not so fine when boards do the same thing with the annual budget, or the building plan—passing the buck to a committee on decisions that affect ministry priorities over months or years. Boards are especially keen to fob such matters off, not only because they are complex and time-consuming, but because to make them well, the board would have to understand and discuss subjects boards rarely talk about—like worship, education, music, social action, and other central facets of the congregation’s work.

A good committee accepts its charge, completes it, and relieves the board, as much as possible, from stress. But for critical decisions, the board needs a committee that is not just good, but great. A great committee scrutinizes its charge and demands more guidance if it needs it. Rather than relieving the board of its responsibilities, it sets the table for the board to face its most important questions and address them after full and open conversation.

Ideally, a board would never hand a matter to a committee without giving adequate guidance. This is not easy: it means saying up front everything the board has to say about the matter. What are the goals to be achieved and the criteria that must be met? Under what conditions would the board reject a course of action? This is a hard conversation, because it requires the board to rise above the particulars to be decided and address the matter more abstractly.

Great committees do not spare the board this work. Instead, they ask questions: What are the goals this budget must support? What are the principles that should underlie staff compensation? What difference do we mean to make in the lives of our young people through the behavior policies you want us to create? How many people and what kind of program does our new building need to accommodate? What is God calling us to do and be, and how should that affect our choices now?

These are hard conversations; they can feel like squeezing the last drop of water from a sponge. Board members may say, “We don’t know what we want. That’s why we appointed a committee.” Really? The board has nothing to say about its underlying values, vision, and goals? Good committees accept this; great ones press on till the board has given them a proper charge.

Great committees set the table for a wider conversation. Ronald Heifetz defines leadership as “influencing the community to face its problems.” (Leadership without Easy Answers 14) Good committees produce recommendations and get them adopted; great committees set the table for important conversations. Great committees lead, not by getting their way, but by clarifying issues, gathering data, and posing questions that enable the board and the entire community to make its most important choices.

Good committees relieve others of responsibility. That can be a useful service, especially when the decision to be made is small. Big decisions require great committees, committees brave enough to require others—board, staff, congregation—to reflect more deeply and intelligently before making the decisions that matter in the long run.

Pastor-centered churches

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?”

My reply:

“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.”


Putting staff in charge without losing volunteer commitment

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.

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.

Should a Staff Member Report to a Committee?

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 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.

Missouri Synod Lutheran review 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.


Green Eyeshades and Rose-Colored Glasses

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 Art of Governance (book excerpt)

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 (subscribe to its successor, Perspectives.)

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…