by Dan Hotchkiss

In an old cartoon by Charles Addams, a man and his son walk through a park and look at statues, each of which depicts a little clutch of people. “There are no great men, my boy,” the father says, “only great committees” (The New Yorker, May 5, 1975). 

We laugh. A great committee—how absurd! For quite a while, the venerable committee has been out of style. Books on how to jazz up congregations scorn the committee as a time-wasting fossil of the pre-postmodern era.

And yet, some committees accomplish a great deal—managing existing programs, generating and evaluating new ideas, and making it possible for their parent body to make decisions more wisely. What makes it possible for a committee to be good, or even great?

Most standing committees in churches and synagogues are really not committees at all; they have charge of an activity. In effect, they function as department heads. If I ran the world, such committees would be called teams. In larger congregations, the paid staff would generally appoint their leaders, direct their work, and take responsibility for their performance.

But some committees really are committees: they don’t exist to manage operational work but to support decision-making by a parent body like the governing board or congregation.

This is the original idea of a committee as defined in parliamentary manuals like Robert’s Rules of Order, and it’s not a bad idea. Small groups can do things large groups can’t. It is often more efficient to create a committee to address a complex matter than for the parent body to take it on alone. Unfortunately, “the committee” has become an all-purpose organizing tool. Like the person with a hammer who sees only nails, we assign every kind of task to a committee.

Lots of committees do good work; a few are truly great. Good committees do what they’re told: pre-process a decision, come up with a recommended action, and make a case for it before the board. The board often does as its committee recommends—either because it is persuaded or perhaps simply because it thinks it should “trust the committees.”

Some boards refer business to committees in a more or less frank effort to evade responsibility. A board might, for example, create a committee to choose new carpet for the sanctuary. Such a committee’s job, of course, is mainly to take some of the heat for a decision that is guaranteed to be controversial. The board approves the recommended color (puce), piously intones its gratitude to the committee, and moves on to something else.

One wonders, in such cases, why the board doesn’t simply delegate authority to choose a carpet color. But by going through these motions, the board reassures itself that it is in the driver’s seat. Nothing is lost but a good chunk of everybody’s time, as each decision gets discussed three times or more.

Fine. But it’s not so fine when boards do the same thing with the annual budget, or the building plan—passing the buck to a committee on decisions that affect ministry priorities over months or years. Boards are especially keen to brush such matters off, not only because they are complex and time-consuming, but because to make them well, the board would have to understand and discuss subjects boards rarely talk about—like worship, education, music or social action.

A good committee accepts its charge, completes it, and relieves the board, as much as possible, from stress. But for critical decisions, the board needs a committee that is not just good, but great. A great committee scrutinizes its charge and demands more guidance if it needs it. Rather than relieving the board of its responsibilities, it sets the table for the board to face its most important questions and address them after full and open conversation.

Ideally, a board would never hand a matter to a committee without giving adequate guidance. This is not easy: it means saying up front everything the board has to say about the matter. What are the goals to be achieved and the criteria that must be met? Under what conditions would the board reject a course of action? This is a hard conversation, because it requires the board to rise above the particulars to be decided and address the matter more abstractly.

Great committees do not spare the board this work. Instead, they ask questions: What are the goals this budget must support? What are the principles that should underlie staff compensation? What difference do we mean to make in the lives of our young people through the behavior policies you want us to create? How many people and what kind of program does our new building need to accommodate?

These are hard conversations. Board members may say, “We don’t know what we want. That’s why we appointed a committee.” Really? The board has nothing to say about its underlying values, vision, and goals? Good committees accept this; great ones press on till the board has given them a proper charge.

Good committees produce recommendations and get them adopted; great committees set the table for important conversations. Great committees lead, not by getting their way, but by clarifying issues, gathering data, and posing questions that enable the board and the entire community to make its most important choices.

Good committees relieve others of responsibility. That can be a useful service, especially when the decision to be made is small. Big decisions require great committees, committees brave enough to require others—board, staff, congregation—to reflect more deeply and intelligently before making the decisions that matter in the long run.

Congregations, 2013-03-22

2013 Issue 1, Number 1