Can “Neighbors” Be Board Members?

Neighbor

Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

by Sarai Rice

I work with a lot of congregations that have an uneasy relationship with their “neighborhood.” Their buildings were often built decades ago when the neighborhood was very different, and now they can’t quite figure out how to relate.

In some cases, the neighborhood has declined. Homes are now owned by absentee landlords; the ethnic mix of the population keeps changing; residents worry about crime; and members who once lived nearby now drive some distance to get to church on Sunday.

In other cases, the neighborhood is being bought up by a university or medical center or commercial developer that sees the church building as a roadblock to future plans.

Sometimes a shabby neighborhood that has been home for many years to a church in slow-motion decline has now become trendy and chic.

To their credit, most congregations want to reach out. They realize they have become a little self-absorbed over time, first reveling in how well things were going (often in the 1950s and 1960s) and then, as the culture has changed, finding themselves fighting over things like music styles or ordination standards or staff issues rather than adapting to the change.

Living for others

For many congregations, though, the last few years have brought a renewal of their sense of ministry. Faced with the possibility that they may die despite their best efforts, they have embraced the missional understanding that the church’s best efforts should be focused not on its own survival but on the wellbeing of its neighbors.

One congregation I worked with, for example, devoted significant volunteer effort to keeping its grounds green and beautiful so low-income neighbors would feel welcome. They invited the whole community into the building for quarterly fish fries and fixed their carillon so the neighborhood would have something lovely to listen to. They did all this in the hope that people from the neighborhood would join them in worship, and some occasionally did.

Another congregation has a five-story educational wing, left over from a time when the congregation was much larger. In the past, it offered that space to a variety of sacred and secular ministries. Now, even as the space deteriorates due to the congregation’s reduced financial capacity, the congregation continues to rehabilitate the space and find ways to share it with those in need.

But here’s the rub. Most churches are not used to being in relationship with their neighbors. Jesus was good at it, of course. He walked around with folks, ate with them, told them stories, and prayed with them. But most churches are used to seeing their neighbors as targets of marketing campaigns or recipients of charity.

Sharing Governance

How can we stop seeing our neighbors as objects of our ministry and start seeing them as fellow subjects in ministry with us? One answer may be to invite them into our governance structures. I don’t just only mean occasionally asking someone from the neighborhood to be a guest at a board meeting. I am suggesting that congregations find ways to incorporate their neighbors into their decision-making structures so they are making decisions with their neighbors, rather than for or about them.

For generations, church membership has been a fundamental requirement for serving on a church’s board, session, or council. (In some congregations, male church membership is still required.) But some nonprofit groups have been experimenting for the last few years with an approach to governance called Community Engagement Governance™, whose principles include:

  • The practice of shared discernment and decision-making
  • A focus on the impact to the whole community
  • A preference for self-determination over dependency
  • The belief that there is no one right model of decision-making
  • A commitment to transparency and information flow

Under Community Engagement Governance, some decisions or functions are delegated to or shared with stakeholders, while others (involving legal or fiduciary functions, for example) are maintained by the primary board.

This is a complex model, in part because it’s different from the traditional membership-based governance model. It requires patience, mutual accountability, and shared leadership, which are not necessarily our best skills. It may also require cultural competence regarding groups of people about whom congregants know very little, be they 20-something hipsters or immigrants from Eritrea.

However, the impact on our ministry could be significant, especially if we have determined that our call is to be in ministry with our neighbors, not just to them.

A model like this could, among other things:

  • Help us to truly see and hear the lives of those in our neighborhoods, rather than assuming we already know all there is to know
  • Help us to respond to the changes in the neighborhood as they occur
  • Make us more accountable for our actions
  • Improve our creative and strategic thinking about what’s needed
  • Increase our visibility in the larger community
  • Create a sense that the community supports and values the congregation’s ministry

Inviting neighbors to serve on our boards may be unusual and even scary, but I believe this kind of ministry with our neighborhoods could be life-changing and life-giving to the mission-seeking church.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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