Effective Church Boards & Governance Models (Part 1)
We’re kicking off a brand new series focused on practical ways that churches can create better governance models that help the church sustain health.
Why are we spending the next four weeks talking about boards and church polity? Because church governance seems to be one of the most common and difficult to solve issues for leaders.
In our work with churches, we’ve found that time and time again, poor governance structures lead to stuck churches. In fact, our research has shown that stuck churches have 40% larger boards and twice as many additional committees.
GOVERNANCE SHIFTS TO PRODUCE HEALTH & UNITY
The good news is, if you’re experiencing difficulties around your church governance and board structures, you aren’t alone. We tend to see the same frustrations and mistakes repeated in churches across the country.
That’s why, in part one of this new series, Amy and I will be unpacking four common church board mistakes—and explaining how boards and governance models can instead be designed to encourage unity rather than division. Listen in for:
- Four common church board mistakes
- How to select board members & church leaders
- How many boards & committees a church should have
- Why only one staff member should report to the board
How to Get Your Church Governance Unstuck
Church boards don’t have to be dysfunctional, but more often than not, pastors reach out to us because they are...
At this free webinar, Tony Morgan, Amy Anderson, and special guests help you identify the governance issues that may be holding your church back.
This Episode is Sponsored by ServeHQ:
Every church leader knows that having trained and engaged volunteers is essential to successfully accomplishing your mission. But if you’re like most leaders, you also know how tricky it can be to onboard and equip people for your team.
What if there were a resource that made it easier? ServeHQ has simple video training courses that help you equip volunteers and develop leaders. You can create your own training or use their video library. You can even automate next steps to onboard new people. Check it out at ServeHQ.church.
Other Episodes in this Series
- Church Governance: The Role of the Board vs. the Staff – Episode 270
- Church Governance: Moving from Meetings to Ministry – Episode 271
- Church Governance: Improving Church Bylaws & Board Policies (Interview with David Middlebrook, The Church Lawyers) – Episode 272
Leader Conversation Guide
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Opt-in here and get the Leader Conversation Guide for this episode, as well as access to the archive.
Share Your Thoughts and Questions on Social Media
We use #unstuckchurch on Twitter, and we start a real-time conversation each Wednesday morning when the episode drops. You can follow me @tonymorganlive and The Unstuck Group @unstuckgroup. If Facebook is where you spend your time, I’m there, too.
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we are exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. Of all the reasons churches can get stuck, church governance seems to be one of the most common and difficult to solve issues for leaders. On today’s podcast, Tony and Amy start a four week series focused on practical steps churches can take you to create a governance model that develops leaders and sustains health in the church. Before we go there, though, if you’re new to the podcast, head over to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe to get the show notes in your email. When you do, you’re gonna get resources to go along with each week’s episode, including our leader conversation guide, bonus resources, and access to our podcast resource archive. Again, that’s theunstuckgroup.com/podcast to subscribe. Before we get to this week’s conversation, here’s a word from Tony.
Onboarding new people to volunteer is tough. A confusing or complicated process can lead to people slipping through the cracks, and you don’t want that. A clear and simple onboarding process will make sure new people are prepared and motivated to serve. To do that, you’ll need a good, reliable system. Well, let me recommend Serve HQ. Serve HQ offers simple video training courses that help you equip volunteers and develop leaders. You can create your own training or use their video library. You can even automate next steps to onboard new people. Check it out at servehq.church.
We’re launching a new podcast series today that’s focused on church boards and governance. And Tony, these seem like a bit of a departure from our typical content, which is geared more towards pastors and church staff leaders. But why are we spending the next four weeks talking about boards and church polity?
Yeah, you’re right, Amy. This is not the typical way we would approach the content for this podcast because usually we are so focused on the pastors and the staff church leaders, but we wouldn’t be talking about this, especially for the next four weeks, if this wasn’t such a huge issue that we commonly see in churches. And honestly, it really is one of the key differences that we see between healthy churches and stuck churches. And it’s not just from the stories that we’re hearing from the churches that we’re serving. It’s actually reflected in the data that we’ve collected through the years. And the percentages may be just a little bit different every time we look at the data, but it’s very similar if you look at this through the years. Believe it or not, stuck churches have much larger boards leading the church. And it doesn’t matter the size, by the way, of the church. Stuck churches, no matter what size church they are, their boards are 40% larger than healthy thriving churches. And related to that, stuck churches also have twice as many additional committees at the church. And so, all of this obviously points to some differences in governance and what that church polity looks like in healthy churches compared to stuck churches. And it’s not a surprise to me, really, that we would start to see some of these differences related to governance, because through the years, a few of the common factors that we have seen that lead to stuckness in churches include a lack of unity. And there’s no doubt about it, bad governance does not encourage unity. We’ve also seen churches fall into bad patterns and get stuck because of complexity. And there’s no doubt about it, poor governance is going to lead to more complexity in churches. And then lastly, one of the common factors we see in stuck churches is that there’s a lack of strong, empowered leadership. And this is where every pastor and staff person that’s listening is probably saying amen with both hands in the air right now, Amy. But again, poor governance doesn’t empower strong leaders. And just to give you some specific examples. One church, and this is just within recent months that we’ve engaged with, had 34 different committees.
Oh my goodness.
And this was not a very big church, Amy. And so they had so many committees that that really took a large chunk of their time and focus was just figuring out who is going to serve on all these different committees. And so there just wasn’t a lot of time to focus on the ministry that the church was actually doing. Another church that I’ve worked with in the past. You’re not gonna believe this, Amy. They had 200 deacons. And those 200 deacons were involved in all of the decisions about ministry, about strategy, about finances. Needless to say, I mean, lack of unity, complexity, lack of empowered leadership. Those were challenges. Another church required a congregational vote every year to approve the hundreds of volunteers that were serving on ministry teams in the church. They had to vote on people that wanted to actually volunteer their time at the church. So, these are, I mean, we wouldn’t be talking about this for the next four weeks if these weren’t the actual stories that we were seeing in the churches that we were working with. And it just points to the fact that many times broken governance structures, they’re carried forward year after year after year. Many times they begin when the church was smaller. But as the church grows, they continue to hold on to those same governance structures. And many times, what those structures are doing are kind of promising that everybody at the church will have a voice and a vote in every decision. And needless to say, giving more people a voice in decisions doesn’t help churches get unstuck. Instead, the data would suggest it does the exact opposite. And, Amy, with that said, may I be a realist, or if you will, a pessimist Tony for a moment?
I don’t think I have a choice. And I can see you’re getting amped up anyways. So go right ahead.
Yeah. See, now, you’re the one that’s sounding like the pessimist when you respond like that. Come on, Amy. Here’s what we know. We know that poor governance structures lead to stuck churches. Our data shows that. The stories that we hear show that. I mean, through the years we’ve seen this time and time again. Poor governance leads to stuck churches. And for the next four weeks, we’re gonna be talking about what healthy governance looks like and how when we get this right, it actually helps churches get unstuck. But here’s my concern. Stuck churches tend to want to try everything else first before they fix their stuckness around governance. They’re gonna hold on to the way that they’ve made decisions, and they’ll try to change other things well before they try to change their governance models. And so that’s why coming into this podcast, I’m like, we’re gonna spend four weeks. We’re gonna give you some practical next steps that you can take to get to a healthier place when it comes to your church polity. We’re gonna help you overcome those challenges around division in your church, complexity. We’re gonna help you empower leaders. But I’m just wondering if the churches that really need the most help here are going to be willing to lean in and actually make the changes. And so here’s, as strongly as possible, this is my encouragement to you. If you sense that governance is one of the challenges that’s holding your church back, I would encourage you don’t just listen to this series by yourself. Actually include your board, include some of those committee members in this podcast series. Listen together. And then if after hearing this content, you agree we are stuck enough that we’re open to doing something about it, then I hope you will be willing to commit together to take some of the next steps that we’re gonna be talking about over these next four weeks.
That wasn’t too pessimistic, Tony.
That was just kind of straightforward. Love the encouragement.
Good. I’m glad to hear that.
With that as an introduction to our conversation, we’re gonna begin this week by talking about how boards and governance models can be designed to encourage unity rather than division. And with that in mind, Tony, maybe it would be good to start with some examples of mistakes that you’ve seen with governance models that have led to division within the church.
Yeah. So I gave you some specific examples earlier, but let me broaden this a little bit. And the mistakes I’m gonna share are pretty common. And we see them happen pretty often in churches. And so some of these are probably, when you hear these, you’re gonna think, Oh, he’s been reading our mail a little bit. So here’s the first common mistake. It’s when church leaders are elected based on popularity. In other words, there’s a vote that’s happening, that the church as a whole is voting on specific people to sit on boards or to sit on committees. And, Amy, there’s just no doubt about it. Every time we see churches voting, it creates division within the churches. I mean, really, it’s no different than when we see voting happening in our national politics or state or local politics, it creates division in churches as well. So that’s the first common mistake. The second one, the second mistake we see happening pretty frequently is when the whole church is given a voice in decision making. And what we’ve seen is if everyone expects to have a voice and a vote, there will never be unity within your church. And you would think it’s the direct opposite. But when you give people a chance to kind of give their voice, give their perspective, on a decision that you’re making, and then you don’t follow their recommendations, again, it creates this wedge in churches. And it starts to create division in churches. But here’s the other side of that. When you allow everybody in your church to have a voice, essentially what that means is not only are you giving mature Christians an opportunity to speak into spiritual decisions, but you’re also allowing probably non-believers, at least some spiritually immature believers, and equal say in the spiritual direction of the church. And needless to say, when you do that, it does not end well. So that’s the second common mistake we see. The third is that churches have multiple boards, multiple committees, and then subcommittees within those boards and committees that are overseeing everything that’s happening at the church. I mentioned the example earlier, the church, and again, not a large church, but they had 34 different committees. And here’s what happens. Every different committee feels like they have some bit of control in what’s happening in the ministry, and that lack of unity and alignment and decision making, because of all of the different groups that feel like they have a voice and a vote, that creates an additional layer of complexity in churches too. And what we’ve seen is even simple ministry decisions become challenging decisions because they involve a lot of people and they take an inordinate amount of time. And then lastly, another common mistake that we’ve seen is when the board or a committee is overseeing multiple different staff members, in fact, there are situations where staff are being led or cared for by a team of board members, or it’s like each board member is assigned to leading care for a different staff person. We’ve seen that many times. In either case, it becomes almost impossible to create unity and alignment among the staff. I mean, you end up with different leadership direction, different development priorities, um, different approaches to clarity around creating wins and goals for the different ministry areas. And you end up with distinctive approaches to performance management and culture alignment. And again, none of that creates unity and alignment on the team.
Yeah. I’ve seen all of those things you just mentioned. Well, if those are the mistakes, let’s get to the solution side of the topic. What changes do churches need to make with their board and governance, Tony, to produce more unity and health?
Yeah, so let me try to tackle each of the four common mistakes that I mentioned with some best practices that we see in healthy churches. So, related to that first common mistake, which is church leaders are elected based on popularity. What we’ve seen in healthy churches as they look at biblical qualifications, gifting, alignment with mission, vision, doctrine, and they identify people within their church, within their congregation and essentially appoint them to leadership roles. And so one way that we’ve seen this in healthy churches play out is that the lead pastor and/or the senior level staff will recommend new board members based on their gifting, and if they meet these qualifications in just kind of how they’ve seen these potential leaders kind of live out ministry and leadership at the church, they’ll ask those people that they think may be qualified to go through a screening process, where they’re asking questions and looking for clarity and confirmation around whether or not this person actually can step into spiritual leadership responsibilities in the church. And then once they’ve gone through that process, they ask the existing board then to kind of affirm whether or not this person should be added to that leadership team. And in these instances when churches have this model, it really doesn’t even involve the congregation in a vote at all. Now, I do know some of your churches are in denominations where a congregation vote is required. And if that’s your church, I would encourage you to follow that same model where the pastor and senior staff are recommending board members. They go through a screening process. They get an affirmation from the board. And rather than asking people from within your church to run against each other, essentially what you would be doing is presenting a slate of already approved candidates for these spiritual leadership roles in your church and just asking your congregation to vote to affirm these people to step into these leadership positions. If you do that, what’ll end up happening then is you’ll get people that are better qualified to lead in these important roles in our church. And when you vote, it’ll be a vote of affirmation rather than a situation where you have winners and losers, which again, will always foster division in churches. And related to this, what we’ve seen is healthy churches follow through with rotations of leaders that are probably in most instances already established in your bylaws. And in a few weeks we’re going to come back and specifically talk about church bylaws, because I think that is a key part of this conversation as well. But what I wanna encourage you to do is if you have rotations set up for people on your board, people on your committees, actually follow through with those rotations. And when you do that, what it’ll do is it’ll force you to be more intentional about raising up future leaders. You’ll create more opportunities to expand the diversity of your leadership. You’ll be creating opportunities to bring fresh perspective to conversations about the direction of where your church is heading. And what I would say is, even your best leaders, they need some time off from some of these leadership responsibilities. And even if at some point in the future you’re inviting them back into leadership, it will be good for them to step away for a time to get refreshed and renewed and allow others to have a voice into the future direction of the ministry.
Tony, that’s really good encouragement. You know, too many times I see churches are stuck because they’re lacking an infusion of new leaders with fresh perspectives, fresh experiences. You mentioned that one of common mistakes is that everyone in the church expects to have a voice and a vote back when we were talking about the mistakes. What are the best practices to address that challenge?
Well, this is easy. Don’t do that. Yeah. I mean, giving everyone a voice in decisions, it’s a very American thing to do, but it’s not a very biblical approach to decisions. I mean, think about it. I mean, who votes? You have biblically qualified leaders that are voting. And you have people who may not be spiritually mature. They may not be qualified to lead. They may not be aligned with your church’s mission and vision. They may not even be believers, but you’re still allowing them to vote on the spiritual direction of your church. And again, if your denomination requires it, there’s instances, I know for some of the denominations that I’ve been a part of in the past, there were certain times when a congregational vote was required. But if that’s your church, I would just encourage you at least vote as little as possible just so that you meet your denominations requirements. And if you have flexibility, try to avoid congregational votes completely. The fewer the congregational votes, the better. And let me just say, things always go better when we just let God’s anointed leaders do what God called them to do. And there’s probably no better example from scripture than the story of Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt. You know, 40 year journey through the wilderness. Moses had more tenacity than I think I would’ve had, Amy. 40 years trying to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness, and as they’re approaching the promised land, the land of Canaan, they sent out 12 scouts. There was one person representing each of the 12 tribes. They explored the promised land for 40 days. Joshua and Caleb, who were two of those 12 scouts, came back and reported, Hey folks, the land is wonderful. Specifically it is bountiful country. It’s a land flowing with milk and honey. On the other hand, 10 of those 12 scouts came back with very negative reports of giants in the Promised Land. And they started to spread the news about how the people in Canaan were so strong and powerful, and it would be detrimental for anybody to try to actually move into the Promised Land because of that. So if they would’ve taken a vote, it would’ve been 10 to two. I mean, this would not be a good idea if they took a vote at that time. And essentially it would be, I don’t care what God promised us as a 10 to two vote, we’re not going in. And you can only imagine, it’s right there in scripture, when the people of Israel heard these reports, they started to complain. They started to cry. They started to weep. They started to protest against their current leaders, who were Moses and Aaron. And it’s as clear as day. In Numbers 14, it says the people of Israel were complaining and protesting so much they said, let’s choose a new leader and then go back to Egypt. They wanted to vote on a new leader. So can you imagine, what if God would’ve let the people of Israel vote on their leaders in that moment? What if God would have said, I don’t care what, what my will is. Let’s just go with majority rule here. So rather than voting, what we see in healthy churches is they create systems for appointing people who meet the biblical qualifications of leadership. And then healthy churches let those people provide spiritual leadership and direction for the ministry. And we’re gonna talk more about empowering leaders next week, Amy. But again, what we’re just trying to encourage churches to do is approach appointing leadership in a more Biblical way rather than the American way.
Well, you’ve addressed the first two common mistakes related to governance that leads to division in churches. Now, how can churches address the final two mistakes related to multiple boards and committees and boards leading multiple staff people?
Yeah. So related to the first mistake that you mentioned, I would encourage every church to move towards a model of governance where there’s only one unified board that combines all of the responsibilities of all your previous boards and committees. So think about, many churches we go into, there’s a finance committee, a personnel committee, a building or trustees committee, and usually a number of other committees over different ministries within the church. Kind of pool all of the responsibilities of all those committees together into one unified board. And what I’ve seen, and I’ve worked with a number of denominations, is many denominations actually include these requirements for specific committees, but also most denominations provide some flexibility so that the functions of these different committees can be combined under one unified board. And the United Methodist Church, we do a lot of work with Methodist churches. This is an example the denomination includes in their book of discipline, all of these functions of different committees. But it also includes some flexibility to bring all those functions under one unified board. But Amy, let me just give you a practical example of what I’ve seen occur when we have too many committees making even the simplest of decisions. I was working with a church a number of years ago, and great church, I mean, relatively small church compared to the churches that we work with. But they had an older building, and unfortunately, like is the case in many older churches, the student ministry room was in the basement. And so, at one point, they just decided, I mean, this is the student space, but we need to make some improvements. We need to dress up that room a little bit for the students in our ministry. And so the youth pastor, the student pastor, was all on board with that and had made a decision, I want to paint the room. We’re gonna get some new furniture, but I want to paint the room. Picked out the color. All of that. But what had to happen is they had a youth ministry committee that had to approve that decision. They had a building committee that had to approve that decision. They had a finance committee that had to approve the purchase of the paint. And then once all of those committees gave their approval, it would’ve had to gone to the church board to make the final decision. Well, after all of that, the youth pastor just decided, I can’t deal with this. And he just went down to the local Home Depot, bought some paint, and painted the room out of his own pocket, by the way, he purchased the paint. And Amy, again, this is just one example of common stories that we hear in churches, and I think it mainly centers around the way the structure that we’ve created to make decisions and to get ministry done is preventing us from accomplishing the mission that God’s called our churches to. And so trying to unify all of those decision making groups into one unified board board is gonna help you, not only create more unity, but it’s also gonna help you make better decisions in a more timely fashion so that more people can just be focused on doing ministry.
I thought what you were gonna say is that the pastor went out and he painted it all, and then eight months later he got approval to actually do it.
Well, that may have happened too. I didn’t hear the end of the story. As far as I know, the pastor didn’t get fired, so that was a good thing.
Oh, goodness. All right. Well, what about the common mistake of the board trying to lead multiple staff people?
Yeah. So our encouragement and strong recommendation here is that there should only be one staff member that the board oversees and directs, and that should be the senior pastor. And by the way, this is an example though of where senior pastors in some settings, you actually need to give up a little bit of control here. I do think the senior pastor, the lead pastor, in every local church, once the church is established, you should be answering to a lay leadership team at your church. And I know for new churches, church plants, that many times boards are formed by taking leaders from other churches, other pastors, to serve on a board until the church is established. But at some point, I really think it’s helpful for the pastor to have the encouragement and accountability of a local leadership team. But once you have that board in place, the board should only be overseeing the senior pastor. And what that may mean is from time to time, the senior pastor might invite other staff leaders to join in conversations, especially when those board conversations are connected to some of the specific ministry areas of the church. But you don’t want a situation where the staff are being supervised by the senior pastor, but really they’re having to answer to specific members on the board. You want that clear line of communication through the senior pastor, and you want that clear line of accountability through the senior pastor as well. And we’ve just seen things can get dysfunctional really fast if the board’s involved in salary decisions, hiring, firing, and other personnel decisions related to other staff beyond the senior pastor. And frankly, if you don’t have confidence in the senior pastor to be able to handle all of those personnel decisions, you probably need to be talking to the senior pastor rather than trying to fix the challenges with the rest of the staff team.
Yeah, Tony, I see that all the time, by the way. Yeah. It’s also, it’s sometimes it’s done out of goodness. Like the board wants to help encourage and direct the staff and all of this, you know, like just in a serving way. But it gets so confusing for the staff people. They start to really wonder like, Well, do I have to follow what she said or am I supposed to do what my supervisor says? And it just gets muddled so very, very quickly. So just trying to put an exclamation on that.
Yeah. And just to give a story from my past life in local government, you know, it wasn’t a church board, but it was the city council, and I was responsible to answering to the entire city council, not just individuals on the city council, but Bob was his name. Bob, again, great guy, but he had ideas of how the city should be run. And so periodically I would just have to go have coffee with Bob and let him kind of spew and let him think like he was influencing me. But then I would have to remind Bob. Bob, I can’t just respond to your direction. I have to wait for the direction from the entire city council. And that actually may be good advice for some church staff members too. I mean, my guess is, especially in smaller churches, you have good friendships with people that are serving on church boards, but you just need to remember, your pastor is the person that you’re reporting to. You’re not reporting to your friend on the board. And even if you do hear a perspective from one of the church board members, if you just follow that direction, you’re gonna create that opportunity for division to occur in your church because you’re not listening to the voice of the board as a whole. So related to all this too, I mean, this should be obvious, but you can’t have family members of staff supervising the senior pastor. That doesn’t end well. And I know that sounds obvious, but we wouldn’t be talking about these best practices today if we weren’t seeing some of these real life examples in the churches that we’re working with. And then lastly, related to this, the only person who should be accountable to the board is the senior pastor. And so all other staff leadership, including hiring and firing for those positions, should be going through the senior pastor. That should be his or her responsibility. And what I mean by that then is it should be the senior pastor that’s responsible for selecting staff, leading staff, developing, clarifying wins, managing performance, and if needed, terminating anybody because they’re not aligning with the team culture or they’re not performing like they need to be. Amy, I know we’ve seen many examples where board members and personnel committees have tried to take on some of these responsibilities. That should be the senior pastor’s responsibility. Again, it just, it leads to all kinds of dysfunction. It’s one of the reasons why governance, if it’s not done right, can lead to stuckness in churches.
Well, this was a great kickoff to this new series, Tony. Glad we’re going through it. Do you have any final thoughts before we wrap up today’s conversation?
Well, let me just preview. Next week we’re gonna be coming back and talking about how to empower strong leadership in our churches. And that’s not just the senior pastor. That’s not just the staff. It’s also going to be about empowering the lay leaders in our church as well. And believe it or not, there are governance structures that can help us empower strong leadership, strong healthy leadership in our churches. So I hope you’ll come back next week for that conversation.
Well, thanks for joining us on this week’s podcast. If the governance issues that Tony and Amy discussed today resonated with you, I want to invite you to a free webinar event coming up on “How to Get Your Church Governance Unstuck” on December 1st. Tony and Amy and special guests will be diving even deeper into governance issues and how you can solve them. So register for free now through the link in the episode’s show notes. Next week we’re back with another brand new episode. So until then, have a great week.