Research:What Makes Church Boards Work?

Charles M. Olsen

I. Why Do Church Board Members Burn Out?

In the sixties some people questioned the viability of congregations. Those were "movement" days when alternative forms of Christian community were objects of experimentation. Then came the seventies and new hope for congregations. The learnings from the movements of the sixties were sorted through and appropriated for the development of congregational life. The eighties presented studies of congregations as social, organizational, and behavioral entities. Efforts were made to understand them as they stood on their own—not as they were typed by denominational categories.

Those efforts produced insights about congregations through their stories, revealed the inner dynamics of conflict and healing, drew implications about potential limitations for church growth, and identified the unique dynamics of congregations according to their size. The work of James Hopewell, James P. Wind, Carl Dudley, Speed Leas, and Ellis Nelson, among others, is significant in the field of congregational studies. We came to see each congregation as a unique entity, with its own story, character, ethos, and set of wisdom figures.

Now in the nineties the issue before congregations is spiritual vitality. The Lilly Endowment funded studies of six mainline denominations by the Search Institute in Minneapolis, documenting undeveloped, dormant, and lethargic faith in congregations. The study concludes that unless faith becomes vital and mature for members of congregations, the church will continue to decline.

Church growth and evangelism efforts identify the same concerns—the need for a vital, contagious faith at the heart of the congregation as a platform from which to witness.

New interest in spirituality has affected many aspects of church life. Its first impact was on Christian education, then on worship, then on pastoral care. Now we find a new arena for spirituality in the church board or council.

In the process of preparing for a major ecumenical project aimed at enabling boards and councils of local congregations to function as communities of spiritual leaders, I have taken a year to "reconnoiter" the land of church governance to see what was and was not happening. The inquiry was made possible through a Lilly planning grant. Nearly 200 interviews were conducted with lay church officers, pastors, denominational and judicatory staff persons, seminary administrators and faculty, church resource and consulting organizations, leadership development specialists, and trusteeship projects in the private sector.

From these interviews learnings have been drawn, models developed, and strategies outlined to assist church boards and councils to conduct governance in congregations based on the best understandings from the social sciences along with what is unique to the faith community.

From lay persons we learned that there is a high level of disillusionment with their experience on boards. We have tended to overlook this because we have not asked them to reflect upon their experience. As a pastor in a Presbyterian church, I was so preoccupied with the selection, preparation. and assimilation of new board members that I had little time and energy for those who were rotating off. One third of the board was new every year and the press of a new year’s agenda put the exiting elders out of mind. How many churches conduct some kind of new officer training? How many of those same churches conduct exit interviews at the end? Perhaps we fear what we will hear!

The disillusionment was expressed in words like, "I’m glad it’s about over." "I can’t wait to get off." "Never again." One observer said that he could predict when disillusionment would hit—at year two, month three of a three-year term! But most disturbing were the patterns of apathy, criticism, inactivity, and even dropout. In one church the last three presidents of the church council dropped out of activity in the church following the completion of their terms!

What’s behind the disillusionment? What are we doing to some of our best people? One explanation is burnout. Roy Oswald of The Alban Institute documents the malady and suggests ways to overcome it. Another explanation is overwork or assignments for which one is ill-prepared. We have bonowed a corporate model, making managers out of board members and CEOs out of pastors. Many officers are not prepared to be program managers. The responses that kept recurring were "it’s run just like a business" and "something was missing." We found that new board members bring a hope or expectation that this experience will deepen and grow their own faith. Working at the heartbeat center of the church and close to the pastor and other lay leaders in the church, they expected that church governance would have a qualitatively different slant. When it was business as usual with little to no attention paid to theological or spiritual process, they felt that they asked for bread but were given stone. What was missing was the integration of spirituality and administration in the conduct of the meetings.

From pastors we learned that church boards look to them for their own development as leaders and for know-how in creating an agenda and processing it in a meeting. Just as the pastor has a high calling and special place at the table, baptismal font, and pulpit, the same high calling and role at the administrative table is needed. This does not give license for an authoritarian leadership or inappropriate charismatic personality influence. It does mean that in the sharing of power and ministry with laity, the pastor has a special role in enabling and processing the agenda of meetings.

Pastors have not been adequately prepared for their role in enabling boards to order the life of a congregation within an integrated approach to spirituality and administration. Considering the amount of time and energy that a pastor will give over the course of a year to preparing for meetings, processing the meeting, and implementing the outcomes of a meeting, surprisingly little attention is given in seminary preparation for the task. So most pastors have borrowed from the world of business management. The management model, with characteristics of hierarchy and efficiency, may not always be appropriate for the church. The parliamentary method may even become one more controlling device which inhibits lay empowerment and leadership.

Any intervention or implementation of creative renewal dynamics for boards and councils will take place through the pastor. A number of pastors are wrestling and experimenting with models where spirituality and governance are integral to each other. These efforts are like the tip of an iceberg— evidence that a broader movement is about to emerge.

Movements are characterized by giving voice to people’s pain and frustration, articulating a new vision, reflecting on meanings within a larger tradition’s values, building workable models, and the presence of solidarity and celebration events for the people involved. A movement for the renewal and revitalization of boards will not be accomplished with frosting and window dressing, but with the construction of a new paradigm for councils—a new and different way of "doing board."

From the seminaries we learned that "not much is being done" in a focused and concentrated way toward preparing pastors to lead church boards. Yes, there are many strands that can be applied, but they are located in different courses and departments. Church polity, leadership development, congregational development, Christian education, theological reflection, spiritual formation, and church administration courses are possible locations for work with boards. But what is needed is an intensive and concentrated centering on the uniqueness of the church board and council as a locus for pastoral leadership. Let the board table be elevated alongside the pulpit, bedside, and counseling room.

From denominational and judicatory staff persons we learned that cutbacks in funding have depleted large staffs that can specialize in board development. Most have placed this portfolio with lay leadership development offices. Only a limited number of materials are being produced. Some have entered into more active partnership with judicatories, where designs for lay leadership development on boards are being created. When the denominational office sees good designs and effective work being done at a judicatory level, it may assist in publishing them for the wider denomination.

Of particular note is the work that is being done in Roman Catholic parish pastoral councils. The councils were a creation of Vatican II, so they have only a twenty-five year history. At first they were advisory groups for the priests. The next generation tended to be political—representing various constituent groups in the parish. Now a new generation is emerging based on prayerful discernment—both in the selection of council members and in the process of meetings. In many dioceses the persons responsible for council development are women who have experience in shared and collaborative decision making. Sister Mary Benet McKinney has been particularly influential. Her book, Sharing Wisdom, suggests that every person has a piece of wisdom and the process of meeting should allow that to surface. Lay pastoral administrators who are investing deeply in councils are bound to have a profound effect on the church.

A forum for ecumenical dialogue could provide an important contribution to the churches today. Traditions with a four-hundred-year history with boards need to be in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church and with the new independent "mega churches" that are finding a role for elders. The Quaker "sense of the meeting" process needs to be discovered by boards that are trying to move toward consensus in the way they make decisions.

From training, resourcing, and consulting entities we learned that churches look beyond their own denominational resourcing structures to ecumenical and parachurch organizations. Pastors roam far and wide for continuing education events. Often successful program churches sponsor seminars for other churches and teach from their own model and experience.

Although these resource organizations often work with church boards in conflict resolution, strategic planning, or program development, their focus has not been on the board as such. If we apply the analogy of looking through binoculars, they set the focus in the distance. The focus needs to be pulled back to examine the health and vitality of the board itself

From trusteeship projects in the not for profit sector we learned the science of board development. The emphasis on servant leadership that Robert Greenleaf espoused was picked up by the Lilly Endowment. The Endowment wanted to make a difference in the private sector. When they identified the proliferation of not-for-profit organizations in the private sector they set about to fund a cluster of projects in universities and leadership organizations that would upgrade the capacity of boards and their member trustees. From these projects a set of themes emerged, sometimes called "depth education." Using the example of the tree, we were invited to look below the ground level to see what factors influence the growth and health of the tree Those factors relate to familiarity with the history of the organization, unified understanding of its purpose, recognition of the publics it serves and influences, and a vision for the future. Research on exemplary boards and trustee members is producing a reservoir of knowledge that can inform the not-for-profit sector and also the church.

The task in church circles is to glean the learnings from leadership and trusteeship research, bring to it what is unique about congregations as faith communities, and draw upon the resources of faith to create a new model for the transformation of church boards. The church tends to jump on the bandwagon of the latest popular wisdom that is in vogue in the culture and not do its own theological homework. It did this with the human potential movement in the late sixties. It did it again with management theories in the seventies and with strategic planning in the eighties. Please understand that the wealth of insight from the social and behavioral sciences is most valuable. But the congregation must know its own history, ethos, traditions, theology, and spirituality. Out of that identity and its accompanying reservoir of unique gifts, the church can develop the structures and processes for governance that generate power and vitality.

II. Church Boards as Spiritual Leaders

1. Telling Our Stories

Knowing the institution’s history is important to the trustee, but there is more. The congregation has its own narrative story which gets played out in so many ways. James Hopewell’s work (Congregations) identifies the ways these stories provide a kind of script for each church.

Particular events, the roles of wisdom figures in those events, and the individual church officer’s own faith journey together weave a story. The effective trustee knows the founding stories, story patterns, and his/her own faith story so well that he/she can freely relate and reflect upon them. This weaving of stories often reveals an affective dimension— a real love for the organization and enthusiasm for its mission.

History giving and storytelling generate something—an identity for the individual and the organization, a commitment to it, and a new energy and spirit. In observing a five-hour segment of a presbytery meeting recently, I was struck with an unusual amount of energy and enthusiasm in this deliberative body. It happened toward the end of the afternoon when most are tired and some start to drift away. Within a fifteen-minute time period I observed laughter, tears, and applause. Then I recalled that we had moved out of an announcement and "look to the future" mode and into a storytelling mode. Within those fifteen minutes three stories were told (that were not listed on the docket as such). The stories were energy generators. They produced something for the body politic.

When stories move from the new officer’s training seminar or annual organizing retreat to the board room they can become an important part of the agenda. Some boards become more intentional about listening to and loving the people in their church whose stories can be relayed to the council. Often boards are so preoccupied with planning the future and figuring how to get people to attend special events that they do not take time to tell stories about what has happened in the past. Personal faith stories of the members of the council can also be shared, thereby building the community which is foundational to the working of the board. Following a period of storytelling let prayers flow from the sources of thanksgiving or confession which the stories have surfaced. The discipline of prayer does not need to be limited to a perfunctory opening or closing of the meeting. Prayer can lace the whole meeting as it moves in and out of the agenda.

2. Knowing Our Purpose

Theological reflection is too often relegated to the professional clergy who take the responsibility for reminding the board of its theological heritage and mandate. But theological reflection should be part and parcel of our gathering—allowing the master stories from the tradition to interact with the stories of the church.

The news commentator listens to twenty-five minutes of the evening news, then draws upon memories of past events and their interpretation and lets them interact with today’s happenings until meanings or values emerge. This same process takes place as Latin American base communities read the Bible in light of their own life experiences, as preachers prepare with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, and as a governing board or council weaves institutional stories and personal faith stories with the master stories from the tradition.

Moral valuing is always tied to deep traditions. Theological reflection as a process in boards combines the enabling of a skilled pastor and the sensitivity of participating lay persons to produce a core of values and beliefs that define the purpose of the organization. The church’s unique contribution to the themes of governance is the place and role of tradition. The biblical stories are at the heart of it, surrounded by the history of the church, its creeds, music, and exemplary spiritual wisdom figures.

Theological reflection in meetings may be related to a single issue, may occupy a stated time in each meeting, or may be connected to issues, problems, or opportunities as they arise. The master story may stand over against the issue, may bless or affirm it, may tease and slightly alter it, or may transform and convert it.

3. Listening for God’s Call Now

Prayerful discernment relates most closely to the "publics served" by not-for-profit boards. Here goals, objectives, and specific action plans relate to concrete persons or groups in specific settings. But the church board has to go beyond the "bottom line" or most reasonable thing to do. The board must discern the will of God. "What is God calling us to be or do in this specific time and setting?"

The corporate board model, with its emphasis on power, efficiency, and rationality, has limits for use in the church board. A new paradigm has been introduced, producing decisions which may not make much sense, which the little people have influenced, and which may have taken a long time to make. The corporate model, reinforced by Roberts’ rules of order, makes way for the Apostle Paul’s rules of the Spirit. Prayerful discernment does not lend itself to coming together, getting down to business, making the decisions, and getting home by 9:30. Prayerful discernment leads to consensus decision making, which takes much more time. Those who work actively in this arena say that the first thing you have to do is slow a board down. "Most boards’ says Dr. Tom Savage, President of Rockhurst College, "can only make one or two real decisions in a single meeting (perhaps in a year!). "If ‘everybody has a piece of the wisdom’ (according to Mary Benet McKinney) then domination by the loudest ones, or the most loquacious, or the most rational members will make way for silence, patience, prayer, and right brain knowledge. Decisions will take longer to make, but will have more ownership and will truly spring from the group’s willingness to discern God’s will. The classic text is Jesus’ promise that where two or three are gathered together he will be in the midst, and that when they agree on anything God will respond. Coming to agreement is a work of prayer and of grace. Many lay persons have said to me, "If only we had just stopped and prayed about it!" Discernment calls for petitions for open minds and hearts. A recent book on group discernment has as its title Listening Hearts (not listening ears, minds, etc.)

4. Holding Up the Vision

Creating and holding a vision for the church is the final mark of effective leadership and a component of the new paradigm for board meetings. If prayerful discernment is the application of the organization’s basic purpose and values to a particular time and setting, then visioning is the process of projecting basic core values into a new and future setting. The biblical "seers" were adept at visioning the future. Their pictures were laced with righteousness, justice, love, and mercy.

Dr. Lovett Weems, President of Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, points to vision as the key ingredient in a leader. But he says that identifying and holding up the vision is not enough. It must be embodied and worn by those espousing leadership. When vision is embodied it becomes character. Character generates trust and models basic values. If this is so crucial for pastors, what about boards and councils in congregations?

I often say to boards, "Do not expect the level of spirituality, commitment, or vitality and maturity of faith in the congregation to rise above that of the council!" The work of the board goes far beyond making month-to-month decisions. Their work is to become a community of faith, life, and hope which can serve as a model for the congregation. When John wrote the letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation, he addressed them to the "angel" of each church. That angel, I believe, was the community of Elders who embodied the ethos and personality of the church. Their task was to pay attention to "what the spirit" was saying to the church and to live it out.

Having identified four basic themes from the science of leadership development on boards and having suggested how these can be further developed for use by church boards when the faith dimension is incorporated, I will now suggest some ways they can be applied.

In the selection process for church officers, nominating committees need to look within the faith community to identify persons who have spiritual sensitivity, unique spiritual gifts, and commitment that will build up the church in its life and mission. Too often nominating committees use proven leadership in the community, business, education, or the professions as the sole basis for selecting persons to serve on the board. Such leadership expertise will not necessarily translate.

The preparation process will need to move beyond indoctrination with the "duties of the office" and orientation about the committees on which one serves to skill development in story sharing, theological reflection, prayerful discernment, and visioning. If "board" is to be done differently, lay people will need to be prepared for it not only in understanding its philosophy and process, but in being able to work it. Riding this two wheeler may take some practice. If people are rendered inadequate, they will become frustrated and angry.

Finally, the board meeting itself can be viewed as a "friendly environment" for depth education in the themes of history, purpose, publics, and visions. The model I have suggested takes seriously the integration of spirituality and administration. It attempts to address the problems that lead to disillusionment in church boards. When spirituality and administration "mesh" like the cogs on two gears rather than spinning separately from each other, certain outcomes are desired. They need to be tested.

1. Church officers will stay engaged in the life of the congregation when they rotate off of the board or council.

2. The meetings will be energized with new vitality.

3. Council members will grow in vitality and maturity of faith.

4. Lay members on boards will develop a new capacity to theologize.

5. Clergy will develop new enabling skills for board meetings.

6. The laity will be empowered as they share ministry with clergy.

7. The congregation will be affected by new ways of "doing board."

8. The potential for conflict will be reduced.

9. Corporate spirituality, as well as individual spirituality, will be recognized and valued.

10. Incentives to serve on boards will be heightened.

11. The climate for recruiting new board members will change to become more positive.

12. The experience of serving on a church board or council will be seen as a training ground for "trusteeship" outside the church.

As part of the movement for the renewal of boards and councils through the integration of spirituality and administration, I invite readers to share with me any models that they are developing for the agenda, structure, and process of board meetings as well as efforts to enable lay members of boards to enrich their own spiritual journeys through service on the board or council.


Reprinted by permission from Congregations: The Alban Journal, published by the Alban Institute, Inc., 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1250W, Bethesda, Maryland 20814-3211. © Copyright (1993). All rights reserved.