In working with many churches of different denominations in various parts of the country, I have found that, while every church is unique, one area where small and medium-size churches commonly struggle is in defining the roles and responsibilities of the church board and how board members relate to staff and lay leaders. So, in this post I want to identify five common types of church boards and how they function.
1. Rubber Stamp Boards (Impotent)
Rubber stamp boards exist for the purpose of working at the direction of the senior pastor or other dominant person in the church and giving approval to that person’s vision and plans. Board members have titles but no real power or influence. They meet together and discuss church issues, but they never take initiative or offer pushback.
2. Advisory Boards (Passive)
Advisory boards give input without taking responsibility and usually exist in churches with a strong, trusted leader. Because board members have confidence in this leader, they only give input when asked, basically deferring all leadership responsibility. They are there to listen as the leader shares ideas and to give input the leader may or may not choose to consider. This is a safe board structure for a strong leader, but it is unhealthy because it fails to live up to the biblical model for the responsibility of elders.
3. Management Boards (Controlling)
This is perhaps the most predominant board model in small and medium-size churches, but this structure is influenced more by American democracy than Scripture. Management boards assume it is their job to approve, oversee, and control all elements of church life, and in some cases, individual elders have the power to put the brakes on anything. While these boards are correct in their belief that elders have a weighty responsibility as overseers of the congregation, their methodology and process are flawed.
This kind of board structure often leaves people feeling micro-managed and mistrusted because the pastor, staff, and lay leaders are often required to ask the board’s permission (or at least seek their approval) before acting. Since this kind of board is not empowering, it ends up keeping the church from reaching its redemptive potential. The church’s numeric growth will cap out at the number of people the elders can manage.
4. Review Boards (Critical)
Review boards usually evolve from management boards who have realized they need to empower staff and leaders rather than manage them. However, once these boards release control, they notice mistakes occurring, and they begin receiving complaints about decisions they had no control over. Therefore, they begin devoting a disproportionate amount of meeting time to rehashing events of the previous weeks and questioning how those things were handled.
While this board model does give freedom to staff and leaders, the board’s Monday morning quarterbacking makes those leaders feel second-guessed and mistrusted. Board members often feel frustrated because they are trying to trust while simultaneously being forced to deal with the fallout from problems whose origin they had no control over. As a result, review boards usually see a lot of turnover.
5. Visionary or Policy Governance Boards (Empowering)
Policy governance boards are the most biblical but the least common model in American churches. This kind of board works with the staff to set the vision and direction of the church, then proactively develops policies, boundaries, and expectations for ministry. Board members set clear, big-picture expectations and hold staff and leaders accountable for meeting them.
This is the model of governance we see in Acts 15. The apostles had a spirited discussion over the issue of Gentiles in the church, and ultimately, they created a written policy that would govern the way ministry was done everywhere. The apostles who took the message outside of Jerusalem were expected to return periodically in order to give reports on how ministry was going, but they were not micro-managed. They were trusted!
In this model, rules and expectations for everyone are clear and written. Board members maintain control and carry out their biblical responsibilities as overseers by proactively setting expectations and developing policies. Then, staff and leaders have the freedom to carry out their ministries within those boundaries, but if they fail to meet the set expectations or step outside of the agreed-upon boundaries, they face discipline or consequence.
While the policy governance model is the most healthy and the most biblical, it often requires coaching and time to implement because so few churches actually live it out. In the long run, though, it’s worth the effort since this kind of board helps make it possible for a church to reach its redemptive potential and bear more fruit for God’s Kingdom.