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Ends and Means: Nurturing the Relationship Between a Congregation and its Governing Body

by John Carver, February, 1995

All congregations have some kind of governing body. In some denominations, it is called a Board, in some a council, in some a session. For simplicity, I shall call it a Board, because the term parallels the Board that governs a corporation.

The relationship between a church congregation and its Board may be the most unexplored relationship in church life. At the same time, it is one bursting with possibilities for enrichment.

That may be because it involves a group-to-group relationship, something for which few of us have developed skills. Or it may be because the Board role—in churches or any other institution—has lagged far behind other under-standings we have about organizations.

Because I have worked and published on the topic of Board governance for almost two decades, I've developed some ideas that may be of use as a church and its Board consider the conduct and nurture of the Boards governance role. Effective concepts of governance will help a congregation know what to expect of its Board, as well as help the Board know what to expect of itself.

We have all seen a Board, driven by a conscientious desire to serve, getting so entangled in details that the big picture and purpose are obscured. We may have seen a Board second-guessing its minister about inconsequential aspects of liturgy for a given Sunday. And we have all seen a Board involve itself in purchasing decisions or small items of budgeting that any competent adult could handle without the assistance of a Board. The list goes on, for there is an endless supply of interesting activities to draw a Board's attention away from mission and vision.

I recall the Board of a large church—one blessed with the resources to have an extensive staff—spending hours discussing fine points of the maintenance of buildings and grounds, far more than it spent on the purpose for which the church existed.

The effect of Policy Governance is to remove much of the caprice from Board actions, to define roles clearly, and to empower the minister and staff without "giving away the shop."

Distinguishing Between Ends and Means

Some years ago I developed a radically new framework for any Board's job, an approach I call the Policy Governance model. The model calls upon Boards to make a simple but unaccustomed distinction between two kinds of decisions, ones I refer to as "ends" and "means."

Ends decisions address what benefit will come to pass for whom, and the worth or cost of that benefit. For example, an ends issue might be the relative cost or value of shelter for the homeless, reduction in teen pregnancy, or effects on the religious life of the community. Ends relate not to what we will be doing, but to the difference we intend to make in people's lives. Ends get right to the heart of why a congregation exists. Their broadest expression might be in a mission statement. Means, on the other hand, include practices, methods, conduct, and other activities done as people pursue those all-important ends. Just as the congregation entrusts an important task to the Board, so the Board then delegates to the minister and perhaps to others.

The ends/means distinction is a powerful tool in defining delegation that is encouraging and empowering, yet safe.

The distinction is used this way. The Board decides the ends and it decides its own means (such as how often to meet, what committees to have, or how to deal with controversial topics), but it would not decide, say, the minister's means of dispensing a fund for benevolences to indigents. Instead, the Board tells the minister what means are not acceptable. That is, the Board does not tell the minister how to do his or her job, but what limits must be observed as the minister determines the best way to get the job done.

These limits on means can be stated very briefly; they ordinarily relate to what the Board feels would be an improper use of people or assets. Commonly, the limits imposed describe what would be unacceptable in treatment and compensation of staff, in handling finances, in protecting property, and even in budgeting. Although the boundary-setting approach sounds negative, the effect is to free the competence, creativity, and inspiration of the minister and staff within bounds. In other words, the minister (or any other delegatee) is charged to achieve certain ends, but may use any method or practice that the Board has not ruled off-limits.

The effect of Policy Governance is to remove much of the caprice from Board actions, to define roles clearly, and to empower the minister and staff without "giving away the shop."

For the Board, dealing in wisdom leaves little time for endless jots and tittles that can safely be left to others. The Board sees itself not as there to look over everyone's shoulders about small management issues, but to lead in expressing the congregation's values and vision. These qualities are the chief ingredients in determining ends. The new governance model helps Boards understand that their calling of stewardship is not answered by micromanaging or meddling, but in the inspiration and collection of congregational wisdom.

Who Owns a Congregation?

Relevant to this special relationship between congregation and Board is the concept of ownership. In an equity corporation, clearly, the stockholders ultimately own the business. Corporate Boards don't always act that way, but in theory at least no one seriously questions the direct line of ownership. In the same way, a public school Board has a responsibility to the general public; the members of the public are tantamount to stockholders. For non-profit and public Boards, the matter is a bit more cloudy. The family counseling center, the social service agency, or other quasi-public service might be said to have the same kind of broad-based ownership too, but that ownership is rarely well-defined. In the absence of defining ownership clearly and then acting conscientiously on its behalf, Boards often give to splinter groups the homage that rightfully belongs to owners. In this way, either the staff or a particularly vocal consumer group can come, for all practical purposes, to "own" the organization. Consequently, any model of governance must repair this rift, putting in its place a strong linkage between the Board and the persons for whom the Board serves as representative or agent.

The Board's allegiance must be to the "owners" as a total body, not to vocal subsets of the ownership. I once watched with awe a church Board that understood this touchy matter. Board members carefully crafted an interviewing scheme so that the Board could hear from quiet members of the congregation just as clearly as from the louder ones, who otherwise would have had disproportionate influence.

Of Trust and Trusteeship

The foundation of governance rests on a sound trusteeship relationship between the Board and the owners…which brings me, of course, to the care a church Board must exercise about its service to the congregation. Proper stewardship of this critical linkage requires more than happen-stance nurturing of the relationship.

First, the critical relationship is between the Board and the congregation, not the Board members and the congregation. Although composed of individuals, the Board as such is a body, indivisible in its authority and its accountability. The Board as a body is empowered to act on behalf of the congregation, Board members as individuals are not.

Consequently, the Board should develop a strong sense of itself as a vehicle for defining, exhibiting, and sustaining group stewardship. This is not an easy task. Most of us are accustomed to getting jobs done by ourselves or through structural hierarchies. Many jobs, of course, are best done that way. But a Board is peculiar creature. Its task is to be a numerically workable microcosm of a numerically unworkable total congregation. This more agile group can then assure that the diversity of opinions are heard, weighed, and reduced to a coherent set of directions.

In other words, the church Board's first and most compelling challenge is to pull together an unbiased aggregate of congregational ideas, intentions, and aspirations.

Its second challenge is to resolutely, yet fairly, choose a course of action that does not constitute "riding off in all directions." This feat requires a great deal of listening, debating, and data gathering, not to mention conscientious study and courage.

The resulting message of ends to be attained—and means to be avoided—is largely an instruction to the congregation's "performance teams": minister, director of education, choir director, building and grounds committee, chief usher and anyone else charged with specific responsibilities. (If the minister is treated as a chief executive, giving directions is even simpler, for they need to be directed to only one person.) But giving the message and even evaluating achievement are the easy parts. Pulling the disparate views together in a caring way is the greater difficulty.

In other words, the biggest hurdle for church governance is not the Board's working relationship with its staff, but with its "boss", the congregation.

Responsible Stewards

Given that the relationship between the Board and the congregation is a critical and precious one, how can the Board be a responsible steward of this vital connection? And what of the congregation's role in nurturing this relationship? What does the congregation owe its Board—or, to borrow a concept from Robert Greenleaf, its servant-leaders?

As in any relationship, both congregation and Board have roles to play. The following list might stimulate a given congregation and Board to develop their own strategy for the care and feeding of this relationship. I believe all the points will apply somewhere, sometime, though not all will be relevant in the context of every congregation:

  • The congregation should expect good governance of the church's affairs, but should not expect miracles. (One such miracle would be that any Board would make decisions that everyone agrees with every time.) The Board deserves the support of the entire congregation when Board decisions are fraught with controversy even more than when they are not.
  • The congregation chose the Board members as leaders. Although the congregation need not condone arrogance, it is reasonable to give leaders some room to lead. While submission and deference are not required, tying the Board's hands or second-guessing every move cheats the congregation of the leadership the Board could provide.
  • The Board must be open and honest with the congregation. It is tempting to try to save the congregation from worries. But the information and the struggle integral to Board work are not proprietary information to which the congregation is not privileged.
  • The Board may lead the congregation, but it should not substitute for it. An overly aggressive or protective Board can make decisions that properly belong to the congregation as a whole. Although intended to be of service, this weakens the ability of the congregation to pull together, to face difficult choices, and to grow more committed because of having done so.
  • Church staff should have as much latitude as possible in doing their jobs. This is important so that they contribute as much of their creativity and intelligence to the work as possible. By implication, then, the church Board should not "meddle" in administration. By extension, the congregation should also refrain from doing so. If it is hard for Boards to be disciplined about such matters, it is extremely difficult for some members of the congregation. The congregation can support its relationship with the Board by doing its best to live by the same discipline.
  • Although operational means can largely be left, within stated bounds, to the judgment of delegates, those persons can involve other members as they work out the "how to" of their tasks. For example, the minister could call upon members of the congregation as advisors on aspects of the worship service. The director of education could involve qualified members on curriculum or learning materials.
  • The Board should involve all members of the congregation in the discussion and determination of the church's ends. Because telling ends from means is not something congregations have been trained in, the Board can help the congregation tap its natural wisdom about such matters. And it must do so without biasing the result. In focusing on ends, the Board does not seek congregational input on how to keep the roof repaired, but on, for example, the relative importance of producing "a safe place for teens to socialize" versus "24-hour public access to a setting of quiet contemplation."
  • The process of gathering congregational input should be never-ending. In the time it takes for a congregation to express itself and for the Board to draw conclusions from the varied points of view, it is time to begin the process again. The environment changes, new opportunities arise, congregational composition and mentality shift. The perpetuity of this task is really a blessing; it obliges the congregation to focus continually on its most important values—the ones that essentially answer and re-answer the question, "Why does this congregation exist?"
  • Practical strategies for engaging the congregation are required. Study groups, focus groups, and surveys can involve the congregation in conversations that act as tributaries in the input gathering. Education can connect daily church life back to the appropriate theological base. Speakers can acquaint the congregation with community needs, mission options, or what other congregations have been able to accomplish. This process can fit into an annual or biennial planning cycle.

Precious Elements

Each congregation, of course, will not only create, but will continually recreate the nature of its own Board-congregation relationship. Creativity and commitment, as in any relationship, can work wonders. For many, however, simply focusing on the components of this relationship and giving it the explicit attention it merits will be a new and exciting approach. In the relationship between the Board and congregation exist the precious elements of servant-leadership, trustee-ship, and commitment to service that deserve to be carefully defined, protected, and nurtured.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, June 20, 2011.

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