This Week’s Reading – June 2, 2017
This Week’s Reading
With Richard Bass
June 2, 2017
This week, we continue to look at how who we are as a congregation, and how we structure ourselves, has an impact on what we do. The reading is adapted from Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Membership by Dan Hotchkiss. Dan is a church consultant and a leading thinker on church governance.
We Know Good Governance When We See It
For all the variety of workable ways to organize a congregation, certain patterns consistently appear when governance goes well. My own list of criteria for measuring the effectiveness of governance in congregations includes the following signs of health:
A unified structure for making governance decisions. The governing board represents the membership by articulating mission and vision, evaluating programs, and ensuring responsible stewardship of resources. Boards go under various names, including vestry, session, council, trustees, and directors (here I simply call them boards). Boards are usually accountable to the congregation, and sometimes also to a regional or national authority as well. Most well-run congregations have a single board with primary responsibility for governance, with clearly defined relationships with other boards, committees, staff, the congregation, and denominational bodies.
A unified structure for making operational decisions. Program leaders (paid and unpaid) work harmoniously to create effective programs with the support of a structure that delegates authority and requires accountability. Anyone who works successfully in a congregation soon learns that multiple accountabilities are unavoidable. Every staff position has a natural constituency whose wishes sometimes conflict with the expectations of the staff leader or the board. Effective congregational systems do not eliminate those tensions but give clear guidance about how to manage them. Full-time senior staff members are expected to manage the politics of their positions, while part-time and lower-level staff members have supervisors to do that for them. Above all, delegation and accountability are matched. When a program’s goals are set, responsibility is assigned to its leader, and sufficient power is delegated so that it will be fair to hold the leader accountable for the fulfillment of the stated goals.
A creative, open atmosphere for ministry. Members take advantage of many opportunities to share their talents and interests in an atmosphere of trust and creativity in which structure, goals, and purposes are clear. One of the most helpful findings from research on corporate effectiveness is that the command-command-and-control approach works for only a narrow range of tasks. Even the military, which highly values obedience, has learned that delegating as many decisions as possible to lower-level people, while giving clear guidance, reduces errors and improves adaptability to changing circumstances. Likewise, no congregation can succeed by relying on its board or staff to come up with all of the ideas. In the most effective congregations, programs and ministries “bubble up” continually from outside the formal leadership.
No list will capture every variation, but where these three criteria are met, I have learned to expect high morale among lay and professional leaders and enthusiastic ownership among the members of the congregation.
Leaders of communities of faith are never simply managers of institutions, nor do they have the luxury of being purely spiritual leaders. Congregations are vessels of religious growth and transformation–but to be vessels, they need firmness and stability. A congregation easily becomes an end in its own mind–recruiting people to an empty discipleship of committee service, finance, and building maintenance. Institutional maintenance is a necessary, but ultimately secondary, function of a congregation. If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the congregation fails no matter what the treasurer reports. Paul of Tarsus put his finger on this tension when he said, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (2 Cor. 3:6 KJV).
That is why governance in congregations is not a science but an art. Leaders must continually balance the conserving function of an institution with the expectation of disruptive, change-inducing creativity that comes when individuals peek past the temple veil and catch fresh visions of the Holy.
Adapted from “The Art of Governance,” copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. This material also appeared in the book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Membership by Dan Hotchkiss.
This Week’s Reading will share insights that help us understand the mission and ministry of Aldersgate Church, collected and compiled by Director of Communications Richard Bass.