Q: Right now we just tell our committees what we would like them to do. We don’t put anything in writing. Should we develop a formal job description for our committees?

A: Committee charters are definitely worth the time they take to write. A Gallup research study (First Break All the Rules) found that clear expectations are what most people want most in a work relationship. All board and committee members should know the basic things that are required of them (attendance, financial stewardship, participation in the life of the congregation, and committee participation). Committee assignments help engage leaders, empower their efforts, and help get work done. And effective committees help the general board resist the temptation to function as a committee of the whole. But if we want our committees to do a good job, we need to start with a fabulous charter.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, defines a miserable job as one where the work is anonymous (people don’t see the contributions of the workers), irrelevant (it does not connect to the organization’s key missions), and unmeasurable (there are no written, concrete goals that can be achieved and celebrated). Clearly not fabulous! But a charter can help address these three barriers to volunteer effectiveness and satisfaction.

Relevance

As a first step, we encourage the congregation’s officers and clergy to provide a specific charge to the committee for the work it is to accomplish. Then we suggest each committee develop some overall goals and detailed, measurable supporting objectives to be included in the charter. This invites the committee to show how its work will contribute to the mission, vision, and values of the organization (relevance).

Measurability

Once the goals, objectives, and measures have been settled upon by the congregation’s officers, they can be added to the board’s key initiative tracking form or other mechanisms used to track the progress of committee work (thus improving measurability). This will help board leaders ensure that committee work gets done.

Recognition

The use of written goals, objectives, and measures also allows the board to ask committees to make important presentations at key junctures in their work, thus reducing anonymity. The charter itself also brings greater recognition to the committee by clarifying its role for the board. In addition to listing what the committee is to do, the charter might also list the special talents and skills needed to achieve the vision. The presence of these gifts in the committee can then be recognized and celebrated, bringing committee members’ efforts further into the limelight.

Recruitment

Charters serve a number of other useful purposes as well. For instance, a well-crafted committee charter can be used to recruit good committee members. Some congregations have a volunteer profile form that can be used to identify the skills, interests, and passions of its members. Officers can use this data to review prospects and recruit the kind of  committee members who are a good match for the committee’s charter.

Orientation and Presentation

A detailed committee charter can be used to facilitate the committee’s first orientation meeting. This helps the team get off to a great start. The charter also can serve as an helpful presentation template to provide an overall review of the committee’s work to the board. One of the most important responsibilities of a board member is to be literate about the key functions of the congregation. While we do not encourage board members to micromanage the committee’s operations, it is appropriate for the board to request information on the overall desired outcomes of the committee’s work.

Vision Alignment

Vision alignment is another important benefit of using committee charters. We recommend that committees review all congregational mission and vision goals and then write a one-page vision for their committee’s area of responsibility. This visioning invites creativity and optimism. It also connects the committee’s work to the congregation’s broader mission, values, and ministry goals. We also encourage church staff members to develop a staff vision for their areas so that they are ready to help facilitate discussions with their committees.

In essence, chartering helps the leadership empower committees to do their work. With a clear charter we can showcase their efforts at major board presentations and track their progress on key initiatives. And if they are struggling, we have a charted road map to get them back on track. Chartering just makes good sense.

Robert Leventhal is an Alban Institute senior consultant specializing in synagogues. He is also the author of a recent book, Stepping Forward: Synagogue Visioning and Planning (Alban Institute, 2008). Prior to joining Alban, Bob worked as a marketing executive and management consultant.

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