The Unique Dynamics of Church Boards
On Saturday, November 7, 63 leaders from 7 Fellowship Baptist churches met for training at the Best Practices for Church Boards workshop. Even though we have been providing this training since 2005, the latest workshop was unique. We are constantly seeking to improve the value of the training, and through careful evaluation and surveys, we decided to reshape the teaching portion of the workshop around two distinct elements.
The first was to create a distinct list of capacities, or competencies, that define the unique responsibility that Church Boards must develop. The fact is that the responsibility of a church board is different than that of other non-profit boards on a number of levels, not the least of which is that a church board is responsible for a Spiritual body as well as a human organization. Identifying the unique list of Church Board competencies helps target training objectives.
The second element was intended to help churches discover the unique dynamics that belong to their specific church culture. It’s a matter of context for leadership. In the past, some churches have felt that the board training didn’t apply to their specific situation. To some degree, they were right, and the fact is that there is probably no single variable that affects congregational life and leadership responsibility as size. As Tim Keller writes, “size has enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and how ministers, staff, and governing leaders relate.”
To help get a perspective on the relationship between church size and leadership demands, I developed a chart of four basic sizes of Church: Small (50-150), large-Small (200-350), small-Large (400-650), and Large (800-1,200). With each, the chart identified four general and unique characteristics related to: 1) The type of leadership structure (collective board, working/administrative board, traditional structural board, and a policy board); 2) The role of the Board; 3) The role of a Lead Pastor; 4) The role of a Staff or Ministry Team.
As the Church leaders matched the reality of their church size with their existing roles, they found that having a context helped them discover better ways to approach their work. Some of the comments from the day: Did we achieve clarity? Yes and we hope for a better chemistry and unity among board members … Our leadership team has needed to have a good discussion about our roles and clarifying who we are and what we are all about … the most beneficial thing from this workshop was defining the equally significant and complementary role of the board and the pastor … it has moved us forward.
While there is more work to be done and more applications to be made on the subject of size and an appropriate model of leadership relationships, there was one point that emerged from the discussion that transcended the presentation.
In an after-meeting discussion, one seasoned Board veteran made the comment: I’ve seen Church Boards with bad organizational models still work quite well. And, I’ve also seen Church Boards with great models stumble badly. When I asked him what made the difference, there was no hesitation in the answer: Spirit! Heart! A common Passion!
What a delightful discovery. A number of years ago, Jeffery Sonnenfeld wrote an article in the Harvard Business Journal, “What Makes a Great Board Great.” His conclusion was an echo of the same answer: “What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust effective social systems.” Let me express it in simpler terms: they are people who work well together, who trust one another, who empower each other, and who need each other.
Let me suggest that there are a number of elements that can be found in the Spirit of a Great Church Board:
- A common Spiritual passion for their shared mission: They see their work together as a higher calling, and their relationship as a band of disciples centered by a common commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are more attuned to serving Him than they are to promoting a personal agenda. They seem to embody Romans 12:4-5 where they are determined to relate as a Body and not a Business. This perspective is reflected toward a sense of purpose: that their service on a Church Board is a critical spiritual ministry … and reflected toward their relationship with each other: that they need each other to fulfill that ministry.
- A tangible agreement to obey and support their shared role: While they tend to be very careful in evaluating their effectiveness and sensitive to “doing things better,” they are deeply committed to honoring their shared commitments and are obedient to the boundaries of their role. And, with their obedience, they are able to express their respect for one another.
- A climate of trust and candor: This is one of the five elements related by Sonnenfeld’s study of exemplary boards, and one that relates to the spirit of honesty and confidentiality that defines the integrity of Godly service. Great church boards are able to share difficult information and challenge each other with respect. They are able to, as Sonnenfeld writes, “be strong enough to withstand clashing viewpoints.” Their relationships could be described as “Iron sharpening Iron” and often their ability to disagree serves to provide creative solutions.
There are certainly more elements to be found, and I’ve begun to collect them as I’ve been examining and asking Church Boards to describe their healthiest dynamics. It’s an important task, done with the realization that if a Church Board is to truly fulfill it’s calling, it must go beyond attention to the details of direction and governance and the boundaries of an organizational chart. It must go to the heart of a unique bond of fellowship crafted by the Spirit of God.