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Taking the lead on good governance

Are there better ways to run congregational boards? One consultant offers up best practices.

Growing congregations should expand their governing boards regularly to correspond with the larger membership rolls. Those boards should keep a tight rein on programs and activities and create enough committees to oversee the day-to-day doings of the church or synagogue. Right?

Not according to consultant Dan Hotchkiss’ gospel of governance, outlined in his book, "Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership."

A key point that Hotchkiss emphasizes to congregational leaders – whether they’re called the board of trustees, church council, vestry or some other name – is that the congregation’s mission is paramount, not the church building, staff or members. Just as a corporate board is the fiduciary for stockholders, he says, a congregational board ought “to own the place on behalf of the mission.”

A small board is best able to do that, says Hotchkiss. Instead, many are “ridiculously large,” sometimes swelling to 20 or 25 members to correspond with church growth. In Hotchkiss’ view, seven is the optimal size.

“There may be valid political reasons to go to eight or nine or 10, but you pay a price for every extra person that’s in the room.”

That’s because a smaller board tends to stay more focused and “resist the temptation to talk about everything that might be interesting to talk about,” he says. “And it’s much easier for it to maintain discipline, so that every one of those seven people feels 100 percent responsible for the board and its work product.”

Though it might seem counterintuitive, a good smaller board can also be more democratic. “A board of 25 is prone to believe that it is representative of the congregation as a whole. And for a variety of reasons it hardly ever is,” Hotchkiss says.

“A small board has the advantage that it’s so obvious that it can’t be democratic in itself; it needs to be in conversation all the time with the wider congregation.”

A clear job description – distinct from the staff’s – is also vital for board success.

“Many congregation boards slip into a tacit idea that their job is to help the clergy and staff to run the church,” Hotchkiss says. “And what that means is that their agenda fills up with a lot of management decision-making and they don’t spend much time talking about the future or about the vision or the mission.”

Boards that micromanage and have numerous standing committees stifle innovation, the consultant says.

“If you have a new idea, you have to go to the committee that owns that program area, the committee that owns the money, the committee that owns the building, the committee that owns the staff, and then the staff themselves, to say nothing of the titular board. And by that time most volunteers are just exhausted.”

Instead of hearing an endless series of routine oral reports at meetings, as too often happens, boards ought to have deep discussions about what’s really important to the congregation’s mission. Typically, that’s worship, education and social action.

Yet “when you ask when was the last time the governing board actually had a conversation about one of those things, that never happens,” says Hotchkiss, whose writings on governance and more can be found at his website, DanHotchkiss.com. “They’ll have a conversation about a problem that arises out of one of those things, but not about the thing itself.

“They’ll never spend an evening, for example, talking about how we want children’s lives to be different as a result of growing up in our Sunday school. What does it mean to be a committed and educated Jew? What is our ministry in the community? How do we want to make our community different or better? … Those are the important questions if you’re really representing the mission.”

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