When I speak or teach about my book Governance and Ministry, someone almost always says, “That’s all well and good for large congregations with a lot of staff. But we are small. Our board would love to delegate, but there is no one they can delegate to.”
It’s a fair point. I encourage boards to focus on the future and delegate authority for day-to-day management to others. It’s not surprising that to many people, this sounds like the way big organizations with a lot of layers work. It might be possible for a few big congregations, but small ones can’t afford it.
I understand the sentiment, but the truth is just the opposite, or so it seems to me. Congregations that are big enough to afford staff also can afford to waste time in meetings, chewing on day-to-day decisions that could easily be made by a well-chosen and empowered leader who has been given a clear mandate by the board.
Bigger is Not Smarter
But small congregations can’t afford this luxury. Scarce resources force them to accept facts many bigger ones deny, for instance:
- Boards and committees don’t lead programs or projects—people do. Committees often think they’re getting something done—but watch carefully: at some point a person leaves the meeting to recruit some workers and start working. Between deliberating about what to do and doing it, there is a shift. Effectively, the group has delegated management authority.
- Small congregations need almost as many “staff” as big ones do—but they are volunteers. If your church holds Sunday worship, it needs someone to plan it. If your synagogue owns a building, it needs someone to manage it. If you depend on volunteers, you need someone to recruit, train, and encourage them.
- Supervising volunteers is harder than supervising paid staff. Good volunteer coordinators—fat or thin—are worth their weight in gold. They get to know each volunteer—their skills, the work cultures that have formed them,
- Some people have the gift of supervising many workers—boards have trouble supervising even one. Every industry has benchmarks about how many “direct reports” a supervisor ought to have, ranging from 3 to 12 or even more. Those benchmarks assume that the supervisor works full-time, but your governing board works—actually, exists—only two or three hours a month. How can it supervise a paid or unpaid “staff” of two, or three, or 12?
It’s true: a large church or synagogue that wants to streamline itself can hire staff, appoint a head of staff, and require them to function as a unit. This approach makes it much easier to align everyone in support of democratically selected goals. Most big congregations do this—others, to my bafflement, do not.
Once, in a church with 3,000 members, I sat through a governing board meeting that consisted of reports from each of 35 committee-chairs! In private interviews, the senior pastor and some lay leaders understood how impotent this made the board. The pastor kind of liked it that way.
Small churches can’t afford this kind of waste!
In fact, much of what is written about small or family-size congregations—matriarchs and patriarchs, informal structures of decision making, etc.—could be restated as an adaptation to reality. Lyle Schaller called small churches “cats,” because they are no one’s property (including the denomination where they choose to make their home) and because they have nine lives. If you doubt it, just suggest to one that they shut down!
Despite the recent increase in church closures, small congregations remain one of the most durable institutional life-forms on the planet, while large congregations—especially those that cling to outdated modes of governance—turn out to be relatively fragile.
Give me an example
So when people say, at workshops about governance, “That’s all well and good for large congregations with a lot of staff. But we are small. Our board would love to delegate, but there is no one they can delegate to,” I say, “Give me an example of something your board manages and cannot delegate.”
The person might say something like, “We would love our minister to supervise the sexton. But the minister is part time and is not interested in buildings.”
I say, “Who supervises the sexton now?”
“The chair of Building and Grounds—and it is going very well. She knows more about our building than anyone else and has a good eye for what parts of it need attention. And like all our committee chairs, she sits on the board and reports each month on what is happening.”
“Let me see if I understand you. In your small church, the Board has delegated management responsibility to committee chairs, and it supervises the committee chairs by hearing them report at board meetings. Is that right?”
“How do you ensure that your sexton’s work supports what the minister, the educator, and the lay worship leader are doing?”
“Um…. I mean… Well…”
In practice, small congregations generally do trust individuals to manage programs, projects, and other work. What they generally do not do is to organize those individuals into a structure headed by a person, rather than the board itself. It does take some ingenuity to build a “staff team” when most of the staff are unpaid. But it can be done, and many smaller congregations do it—either by formally vesting staff leadership in one person or a small team, or by formally a volunteer to manage day-to-day program and administrative work.
In small congregations that are growing—in numbers or vitality, diversity or innovation—governing boards do delegate authority to manage. The board stays focused mostly on the future—counting on a unified team of leaders to get work done every week.
Streamlining governance and ministry can liberate a lot of wasted time and energy to help fulfil the congregation’s purpose. This is just as true in family size congregations as it is in large ones.
Many congregations dutifully try to fill the seats required by its formal structure. Others organize themselves to dream new dreams and make them happen.
Which group would your congregation like to join?
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.