Q: Our board spends too much time reviewing and approving work that should be done by staff and committees. We know we shouldn’t micromanage, but we can’t seem to help it. How can we change?
A: You have a lot of company. Most boards criticize themselves for “micromanaging,” and rightly so. This happens because tiny issues are more interesting and understandable than large ones, and more gratifying to address because they can often be solved quite quickly. Preference for micro-issues is so universal that C. Northcote Parkinson formulated it into one of his famous laws: “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”
What can be done? Boards slip into triviality for two main reasons: because they don’t know how to delegate and because they don’t know how else they would spend their time. A third reason is that some people are so used to boards that deal with trivia they don’t recognize the problem.
The solution is for the board to learn the art of delegation and then to fill its agenda with more important and appropriate work.
To delegate a task involves more than simply finding someone who will take it on. The board needs to articulate clearly the result it wants, the extent and limits of the resources and authority it is prepared to approve, and the plan for evaluation and accountability. Authority and responsibility need to match. Having done all this, it can assign the job once and for all. By dealing with these questions up front, the board actually enhances its control over the ultimate outcome and frees itself to look ahead to the next challenge.
These principles apply in congregations of every size. In small groups, the board functions as a coordinating body and may even be composed of chairpersons of major committees, so its agenda tends to consist mainly of a round-robin of reports and requests for approval. This often bores most of those present, because they have to hear much more about other people’s work than they want to know. Worse, it tempts the board to second-guess or meddle in work already assigned to others.
The same thing happens in large congregations, except that the staff often produce more of the reports and approvals the board spends its time on. Board members feel disappointed to be following rather than leading, as most of them hoped to when they agreed to serve.
One tool to help a board refocus its efforts is the consent agenda. To use a consent agenda, all reports need to be due well in advance, strictly limited in length, and with proposed action items clearly identified at the top. The board empowers someone (the chair, the clergy leader, or both) to decide which proposed actions will go onto the consent agenda and which will go onto the discussion agenda.
The reports go out by mail at least a week in advance of the meeting. On the meeting agenda, all consent items are listed. The chair says, “Board members, you have all received the board packet, with the consent agenda. Does any member wish to move an item from the consent agenda to the discussion agenda?”
If any member requests it, an item is moved. (By courtesy, advance notice would be given to the board chair.) The chair then says, “Without discussion, then, the consent agenda is ready for a vote. Those in favor? Opposed? All items on the consent agenda are adopted.”
Most of what most boards spend most of their time on is now done! All that remains is to fill the board agenda with important questions about mission, congregational identity, goals, and strategies, and the important work of teambuilding, group reflection, and discernment.
Helpful tips for setting an effective and efficient consent agenda can be found on the Alban Institute’s Web site at /ShowArticle.asp?ID=372.
Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, a Unitarian Universalist minister, is an Alban Institute senior consultant who speaks, writes, and consults widely on strategic and financial planning, congregational governance, clergy leadership, and social justice ministries. The author of Ministry and Money: A Guide for Clergy and Their Friends (Alban Institute, 2002), he is currently working on a book on congregational governance.