November 21, 2022

How to Create an Effective Church Board: Q&A with Tony Morgan

effective church board q&a

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A few suggestions on how to have a healthy, thriving board

Creating an effective board can be the difference between church growth or church decline. I’ve had many ministry leaders ask specific questions about how to do so—and I’m answering those questions here:

Chris asked… What is the role of staff and board as it relates to vision? Does it come from the pastor who casts it to the board or does the board and staff work together to discover the vision?

Ultimately, I think the board should own and protect the mission and vision. (The staff, on the other hand, should drive the ministry strategies and the execution of day-to-day ministries.) And, certainly if there are any changes to mission and vision, the board needs to pray through those and confirm them together. 

However, it’s not unusual for boards to lean on the senior pastor and senior staff leaders for initiating vision development. It’s similar to how boards often let staff leaders develop annual budget plans and then the board processes and then confirms the budget before it’s implemented. In the same way, boards often want the staff leadership, especially the senior pastor, to have a strong voice into the future vision of the ministry.

Sarah asked… You seem to prioritize streamlined boards with contact only through the senior pastor.  If you are a small church with only one pastor and several part-time staff, how do you prevent this model from INCREASING the burden on the pastor?  And how do you empower other lay people to lead ministries if you are consolidating authority solely in the lead pastor?

We have found that when boards have direct responsibility for leading and directing additional staff, it actually creates more complexity–especially around decision-making–for everyone including the senior pastor. 

When the board has only one direct report, it streamlines the lines of authority and responsibility. Part of the role of the pastor and any additional paid staff, though, is to build teams and empower leaders. That’s a call to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12, NLT).

Ken asked… Is it better to create an agile “super board” and leave in place the existing committees, or blow up the whole structure and create a more agile governance structure?

Our data shows that churches in decline have bigger boards and more committees than healthy, growing churches. Rather than leaving a structure that works against health and growth, I’d suggest you try to find a compromise. How could the committees become ministry teams instead? Rather than talking about ministry, what would it look like for those committees to actually do the ministry?

Phil asked… What are your thoughts on the lead pastor being the chairman of the board?

In the healthiest models I’ve seen, a lay leader has always been the board chair and that role has rotated. But also, in the healthiest models I’ve seen, the chair’s responsibilities are really just to facilitate the conversations. When you get the right people fulfilling the right roles, it’s a lot easier to find unity of mind and purpose. In other words, the chair’s voice is no different than that of the entire board. And, when that happens, it kind of doesn’t matter who facilitates the conversations as long as that person is good at facilitating conversations. Personally, I’d rather have someone else facilitate so that I’m freed up to fully engage the conversation. But that’s just me.

Jerome asked… The Church Boards in large churches can get buried with operational decisions. They see the trees and not the forest. How does the senior pastor provide leadership to make sure we are focusing on the right things?

I’ve been in meetings that get consumed with operational decisions. Those aren’t fun meetings. My guess is that the board really doesn’t want to be bogged down in meetings like that either. Many times, though, boards gravitate in that direction over time because they think that’s what boards are supposed to do. 

If that’s your situation, the best place to start will be to clarify the roles and responsibilities of board members. Then, the senior pastor and the board, together, need to hold each other accountable to making sure the agenda reflects the right focus.

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Jackie asked… What is best practice for larger churches which have a senior pastor and a COO?  How do you see these 2 roles split, work with the various ministries and board?  Also I see pastors leading large ministries – super pastors but not so great leaders.  Thoughts on org structure to manage?

In larger churches, it’s not uncommon for the senior pastor to have the primary connection to the board and the COO or executive pastor have the primary connection to the staff team. However, in larger churches, the COO usually sits in the board meetings even though they may be a non-voting member. 

Regarding the specific roles of senior pastors and COOs, that really depends on the church and the strengths and giftedness of the pastors. In other words, there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for every large church. That’s why we incorporate a staffing and structure review into every strategic planning engagement we have with churches.

Paul asked… Our church just transitioned from congregationally governed to elder-led. Tips on helping our people understand the implications of that in the longer term?

Congratulations! That’s huge. I know transitions like that can be bumpy at first, but your church will be healthier in the long run because of that shift. If you’ve already made that change, continuing to talk about why you made the change probably isn’t going to provide much benefit. 

Instead, you need to start talking about mission and vision for the future. What’s God calling your ministry to next? It’s time to rally your congregation around future Kingdom impact. Then, as you experience wins, you need to share those stories and celebrate the wins! I can tell you from personal experience, when the church is winning, no one cares how the church is governed.

Patrick asked… What are the most important considerations when transitioning from a checks and balances board setup to a more staff/pastor empowering setup? How do you present it without it looking like a power grab?

Certainly it will be easier to make that transition if the pastor and the board arrive at that together. The best way to do that is to go through a prayer and discovery journey together. This is where bringing in an outside voice might be beneficial as well. Rather than the senior pastor initiating the change, someone from the outside could help you navigate that journey so that you’re arriving at a better solution together. As with all significant changes, it’s best to find agreement on “why” the change is needed before you consider the change itself. 

Travis asked… How do you help elders/board members remain committed to your church after their term on the board has ended? Our church has really struggled to retain elders after they are done serving. They seem to be worn out and have trouble moving forward even with the decisions that they made as an elder team.

Hmmm… I don’t think you’re looking for a strategy or system to solve that challenge. It sounds more like a culture opportunity to me. 

In churches that have a strong culture of generosity to encourage people to give both their time and their money, it’s going to be a natural next step for former board members to stay invested in the mission. In churches that have a strong culture of empowering leaders, it’s going to be a natural next step for former board members to use their leadership gift someplace in the ministry. And, when these aspects of your culture are healthy, you’ll also have plenty of leaders to choose from to fill new board opportunities in the future.

For more church board best practices, read our Ultimate Guide to Effective Church Boards.

Tony Morgan

Tony is the Founder and Lead Strategist of The Unstuck Group. Started in 2009, The Unstuck Group has served 500 churches throughout the United States and several countries around the world. Previously, Tony served on the senior leadership teams of three rapidly growing churches including NewSpring Church in South Carolina. He has five published books including, The Unstuck Church, and, with Amy Anderson, he hosts The Unstuck Church Podcast which has thousands of listeners each month.

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