The question of governance has become the repository of all manner of discontent in churches and synagogues: “I feel that the real decisions are made outside the meetings and that we are a rubber stamp.” “The meeting lasted until 11 p.m.—again.” “We never seem to get to the important issues.” “The last three presidents were so burned out that we never see them any more.” “This is a synagogue (or church)—is this how we want to work with each other?”

No question to Alban is more frequent than how to improve governance. It is a good question. Unfortunately, like many good questions, there is not a simple answer. Or, more accurately, there are all too many simple answers, none of which is fully adequate. Making any general recommendation about governance is also made more difficult by the fact that different denominations have their own rules and traditions. These rules and traditions can be rich resources or sources of wisdom. Unfortunately, they also pose great limitations on the ability of congregational structures to adapt to diverse and changing circumstances.

Within this situation, where at least is the beginning of wisdom? Any congregation must answer for itself three questions regarding governance. To the extent that a congregation has imposed—either by tradition or covenants—specific modes of governance, it must make those traditions or covenants into live answers to these questions:

  • What norms and processes should we adopt to structure our governance work? Many of the questions about governance arise from a feeling that our ways of working together in boards and vestries are broken—meetings run long, the board redoes work already completed by the staff or committees, people who bring issues to the board feel stymied or second guessed rather than helped. Good people feel their energies are badly spent.

    Many congregations have found that the world of nonprofit management provides a rich source of information about how to improve meetings. Two main channels of this information from nonprofit management into congregations have been Board Source (though this contains frustratingly little free information) and the Carver policy governance model. There is also a growing body of free information available on this subject on the internet. A personal favorite free resource is the Free Management Library of the Management Assistance Programs for Nonprofits.

  • What should be the quality of the experience of working in the governance of a congregation? Often it is not good. This issue was forcefully brought into focus a few years ago by Charles Olsen, who did extensive research about church boards. He found that for a dismaying number of board members the experience was severely disheartening and undermined religious commitment. Many congregations could point to a series of board presidents who have left the congregation entirely after completing their terms. This research led to a helpful understanding of how boards and other governing bodies can become spiritual communities and, in turn, to the Alban book Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders. This discussion of what might be viewed as the texture of congregational governance is paralleled by growing secular literature concerning the inner quality of organizational life, its power to sap energy and renew. Two gurus of this literature are Bill Shore (The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving) and Parker Palmer (The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring). In some measure this focus of attention on the quality of the inner experience of congregational life reflects changed generational expectations–those now moving into leadership in congregational life demand that this experience be personally fulfilling in a way that the long-serving and perhaps long-suffering World War II generation did not. Many of the answers about how to change the quality of organizational life draw on methods of spiritual discernment and use language of spiritual practices (e.g., Kent Groff, The Soul of Tomorrow’s Church: Weaving Spiritual Practices).
  • How should the leadership of a congregation differ from other leadership? We live in a culture immersed in discussion of leadership. Every airport bookstore has shelves of books on leadership. Each member of a congregation comes to service within a congregation with experience of how other organizations do things. On the subject of leadership the world presses in strongly on congregational life. How do congregations manage to avoid losing their own distinctive voices of what leadership should be—at least in governance of congregational life, if not beyond? Two sources of insight on this have been the Robert Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and the Institute for Service Leadership.

Different congregations will answer these questions in different ways. Different congregations will look for answers to these questions in different places. Some congregations will find a system or method that answers these questions satisfactorily for them at this moment in their histories—and some will not. The experience of owning answers to these questions can be important clarifying work for a congregations. In grappling with these questions congregations should keep in view the horizon of hope and possibility. Governance for a congregation is not just a method of internal regulation. It can be a school for how to live and act faithfully and transformatively in the world.


Featured Resource

AL158_SMTransforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders by Charles M. Olsen

Discover inspiring, practical ways your board can make its meetings become opportunities for deepening faith, developing leadership, and church renewal. Research included interviews with lay leaders; clergy; and seminary, judicatory, and denominational staff from mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Evangelical Christian faith traditions.