Governance and Ministry: Why Worry?

by Dan Hotchkiss

Why should congregations worry about governance? When there’s so much important work to do, why spend precious time defining boundaries, tinkering with bylaws and policies, delegating power, assigning duties, setting goals, and holding one other to account?

There are some very practical reasons: Dull board meetings, for example. Programs bunkered into silos. Chronic conflict between clergy and lay leaders. An aimless budget process. Such motivations are important, but as I work with leaders who believe effective governance is crucial, I hear a deeper, more existential yearning.

Each of us lives, from our first day, in at least two worlds: One is the world of desire and satisfaction. We cry, and whether someone gives us what we need determines a great deal about the temper of our spirit. From early childhood we pursue comfort and stability. Later on, we seek money—and the comfort and stability money brings, temporarily at least.

At the same time, we live in a second world, a world we first experience through what a Pierpoint hymn calls “the love, which from our birth, over and around us lies.” The baby smiles—does somebody smile back? She cries—does anybody care? The answers make a lot of difference to the temper of her spirit.

Love is more than an object of desire, like food and warmth and money. Love satisfies and warms us, but it also calls us out of ourselves, enabling us to live—at least in part—for others.

For some of us, baptism was an invitation to that second world. Dying to the flesh, as Paul would say—flipping from the Desire-and-Satisfaction Network to the Love-of-God-and-Neighbor Channel. Assured that we are loved, we are at the same time called to serve.

Our congregations also live in the same two worlds. They are both corporations and communities. They bring comfort to the comfortable and deepen the anxiety of those who are already broken-hearted for our world and its wounds. And yet they also get it right: shaking the foundations of the smug, and healing people who by all odds ought to be unhealable.

To get it right, a congregation has to organize to make its big decisions in its best and deepest frame of mind: that’s governance. It needs to organize to focus limited resources on its most important goals: that’s ministry. It needs to work when it’s tired, persist when it’s sabotaged, recover when it fails, and—when its plans fall short—it needs to improvise.

In part, of course, all this depends on the condition—physical, emotional, and spiritual—of leaders. But it depends as well on systems. Like people, systems carry their condition from the past into the future, a condition coded partly into bylaws, policies, and practices. So when I work with leaders to address governance, I hear about dilemmas that reflect the dual worlds in which they and their institutions live:

  • Why do we exist—to please our customers, or to achieve a larger mission?
  • Who should benefit—the current voting members, the denomination, God, our neighbors, or our bank account?
  • Who should make decisions—the whole group or an elite?
  • Whose voice should weigh the most—the hard workers, the high givers, the religiously informed, or those who have been here longest?
  • How should we measure our success—by counting heads, activity, money, membership—or is there a better metric?

Pragmatically, of course, none of these dilemmas has a satisfying single answer. Congregations live in two worlds, just as we all do—we count the money while rejoicing in the presence of those who give little or nothing. What we can do, and what a governance change process tries to do, is to define clear spaces for discernment, for strategic planning and goal setting, for energetic, innovative programming and service, and for celebrating what is going well and shoring up what needs improvement.

The hoped-for results?

  • A Board that articulates mission and vision, evaluates results, and ensures responsible stewardship of resources.
  • Ministry leaders, paid and unpaid, who create effective programs with the support of a structure that delegates authority and requires accountability.
  • Members and others who enjoy many opportunities to learn and grow and serve in an atmosphere of trust and creativity where structure, goals, and purposes are clear.

If this sounds idealistic, I make no apology. I will say that it can only be accomplished by addressing the flow of power through the organization. The arts of delegation, guidance, and accountability are crucial. Understandings must be written down, then reinforced by the development of practices and habits of behavior. Leaders need to step up, make decisions, and accept accountability for the results.

At times all this may feel a little harsh. But a little harshness isn’t bad, so long as it comes tempered with forgiveness and a sense of humor at one’s own expense. And anyway, the goal is worth it.

We all have different ways of talking about what the goal is, and I value that diversity too much to try and smooth it over. I ask simply whether you believe that your community would be a better place if your congregation did a better job of being what it ought to be and doing what it ought to do? If so, then it makes sense to spend some time designing a governance plan that lets you spend less time worrying about who wants what and whether they are satisfied, and more time in the world that love has called us into.

Dan Hotchkiss is a congregational consultant and the author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, available from Alban Books, Amazon, and other booksellers.

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