Q: What should the role of the executive committee be?

A: One of the most common concerns I encounter in board training is the relationship between the executive committee or board officers and the rest of the board. As one executive committee leader remarked, “We feel we are very dedicated, but the board thinks we control everything and that we expect them to be just a rubber stamp.”

The executive committee’s traditional roles include advising the board president or chair, planning the work of the board, acting as the board’s agent in the case of emergencies that can’t wait until the entire board is convened, helping the board focus on key policy decisions, and helping it provide a vision for the staff to implement. However, there are several areas where I believe the effective executive committee can expand its role beyond these traditional parameters or perform its traditional roles more effectively.

Support the Leadership
Sometimes lay leaders think they should advise only the board president since this is the person who appointed them, but I believe it is helpful for the executive committee to see its role as one of support for both the board president and the pastor or rabbi. This reinforces lay/staff partnerships.

Attend to the Board’s Agenda
It is a challenge to attract talented and motivated people to serve on the board, so it is essential that boards deliver a volunteer experience that is effective and rewarding. In my surveys of board members, most disagree that their experience meets this test. For instance, some executive committees meet right before the board meeting. This provides little time for planning the board’s agenda. It also means that executive committee members are less fresh for their meeting with the board. One symptom of this is that executive committee members sometimes do not stay for the entire board meeting. In my article “The Synagogue Leadership Agenda” (Congregations, Spring 2005), I recommend using a 12-month calendar for staging important decisions, scheduling team building, and study.

Provide Committee Oversight
Some synagogues and churches encourage their executive committee members to provide oversight to other committees, sharing the board’s concerns and helping these committees develop policies and programs to address congregational needs. This can work very well, but the precise role of the executive committee in this situation needs to be carefully communicated. Committees must be confident that, while their ideas may be vetted by the executive committee, they will not be blocked from ultimately reaching the board.

Implement Some Tasks
We have all heard the old saying that the board sets policy and the staff implements it. This is an important concept, but it does not apply perfectly to congregations of all sizes. Those with memberships of 400 and under are chronically understaffed. Many of these congregations do not even have an executive director. In such places, the executive committee often is required to do hands-on staff work, including bookkeeping, event planning, membership record keeping, and work on the bulletin. Even in larger congregations there are some areas where the staff may not have all of the requisite skills for key tasks and the executive committee will need to pitch in.

Clarify Expectations
Many nonprofit leaders I’ve talked with say the major elements that hinder board effectiveness are unclear roles, a poor definition of what constitutes collaboration, and a lack of accountability. Executive committee members sometimes complain that the regular board members are not as diligent as they are: they miss meetings, don’t have specific committees, and are inadequately committed to church or synagogue functions. If the general board is going to advocate for their legitimate authority, its members need to be more consistent partners.

Transfer Personnel Issues
Personnel issues can consume an executive committee. When the committee is managing sensitive personnel issues, its role can become very controversial. If there is poor transparency of the committee’s processes, conflict can erupt. (See “The Fair Report: What Do We Say When Bad Things Happen in Good Congregations,” Alban Weekly, Nov. 21, 2005). I agree with Mark Light, author of The Strategic Board (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001), that personnel issues are best left to a small group on a need-to-know basis. In larger congregations, I recommend that this task be delegated to a human resources committee charged with clarifying lay/staff roles and ensuring that the right people are organized to give feedback on personnel issues.

Reconsider Size
Some congregations have boards of 40 to 70 members, including past leaders as legacies or trustees. Many nonprofit leaders argue that a group of 8 to 10 is the most effective size for a board. When boards are large there is a tendency for the executive committee to do the real work of the board. They may look at several options and then present only one recommendation. This can preempt the board’s opportunity to go through the same deliberative process.

Given the problems that many congregations are having with the executive committee/board relationship, I predict that there will be an increase in experiments to reduce boards to 10 to 15 people and eliminate executive committees.

However, I believe the larger synagogue or church board of 25 to 30 members can work and will remain the dominant model. It is worth the effort it takes to serve on these boards because synagogues and churches are not just trying to deliver nonprofit services. They are trying to transform members into governance and spiritual role models. A larger board with some representative segments of the congregation (new members, seniors, singles, etc.) will sometimes be less strategic, but it models core Jewish community building values.

Robert Leventhal is an Alban Institute senior consultant specializing in synagogues. He is currently working on a book project with Alban, Stepping Forward: Using Planning to Develop Hope and Heart. Prior to joining Alban, he worked as a marketing executive and management consultant.