The board meeting has already been underway for two and a half hours when the chairperson stifles a yawn and glances at her watch: 9:30 p.m. “Does anyone have any new business?” she asks.

“I have something,” says one board member. “Several church school teachers have complained to me about the back door. Without a key, you can’t set it so it opens from the outside. We ought to fix that, and while we’re at it we should consider a glass door to reduce the risk of hitting a child when we open it.”

“Is this really a board issue?” asks another board member. “Shouldn’t we leave it to the building committee, or the church school staff, or the custodian?”

“I think it is the board’s responsibility for several reasons: First, a glass door can easily cost $2,000. Second, this year’s building budget is already spent or committed. Third, as board members we’re all personally responsible for children’s safety. And fourth, the Building Committee reports to us, the church school is under the authority of the Religious Education Department, and the custodian reports to the administrator. Only the board is over them all, so only we can choose to delegate this to one of them.”

And they’re off. Someone knows a contractor. Someone has a funny story about doors. Someone read somewhere that glass doors are vulnerable to burglaries. At 10:15, a member moves to refer the question to the Building Committee with instructions to come back if the cost would add more than $2,000 to the building budget. After much debate and one amendment the board approves the motion, 8 to 2.

What is wrong here? From the point of view of bylaws and legality, probably nothing. The law gives governing boards total power over business matters large and small, which gives them the right to “micromanage” to their heart’s content.

Effects of Micromanagement
Most board members know micromanaging is bad. Boards criticize themselves all the time for long meetings, trivial agenda items, and an inability to delegate: “We should be making policy, not managing the operation.” Staff and volunteers chafe at the need to bring projects back to the board at each point along the way. A seemingly innocuous report can be a red flag in the board’s face, provoking it to meddle.

Board members don’t like it, either: A year or two of late-night meetings about door latches, complaints from members, reports from staff and committees, and “policy” decisions that address one-time events will drain most board members of the passion that caused them to say yes in the first place.

Board-member burnout is one effect of board micromanagement. Even worse is that boards mired in micromanagement miss the chance to do really important work. Most people who join a congregation’s board hope to contribute to the spiritual lives of others, to help discern God’s will for the congregation, and to make a lasting difference in the congregation’s life. In frustration at the triviality of their agendas, boards adjust budget items, second-guess staff decisions, and receive an endless stream of supplicants. But the sense of power this activity creates is mostly illusory.

Why do boards slip into micromanaging even when they know they shouldn’t? One reason, of course, is that they can. A second is that the line between “micro” and “macro” is subjective. Too few boards have clear, shared criteria for choosing which issues to spend valuable board time on. Many simply deal with every issue anybody brings to them, but even those that try to discriminate have difficulty drawing a clear line.

A Bold Proposal
What is the best use of the board’s time? All nonprofit boards struggle with this problem. The literature on nonprofit management abounds with good advice, but good advice and good intentions are not enough. To police themselves, boards need clear boundaries, definitions, and instructions.

Enter John Carver, governance guru of the nonprofit world and author of Boards that Make a Difference. Carver is not content to help boards improve; he challenges them to quit most of their current work and start “making a difference.” The key difference boards can make is not to direct or help the staff but to represent and connect the institution to its “owners,” articulate its basic rationale for being, and set limits for its staff and volunteers. A Carver board spends most of its time thinking not about what the organization is doing but about why it should exist at all.

Carver’s “Policy Governance” model is widely read and debated, and sometimes even adopted by leaders in secular nonprofits, school boards, and city councils throughout the English-speaking world. Among leaders of most congregations, Carver’s model is still little known. A dozen or so Unitarian Universalist congregations have adopted Policy Governance over the last decade, and this article is based in part on their experiences.

Means and Ends
At the heart of Carver’s model is the distinction between means and ends. Ends, as Carver uses the word, are the basic purposes for which the congregation (or other organization) exists. In one congregation, an ends policy might be “that the hungry will be fed.” Another congregation might embrace the end that the children of members will “understand and identify with Jewish tradition and pass it on to their own children.”

Unlike many congregational mission statements, ends policies do not say what the congregation plans to do. They do not talk about Sunday school, buildings, or even worship. Ends say how lives will be changed as a result of congregational activity. If ends policies refer to members of the congregation, it is to discuss their roles as customers, clients, or beneficiaries—not as volunteers, decision-makers, or voters.

In Carver’s words, ends policies specify “what benefit to which people at what cost.”

Means include all organizational choices that are not ends. Hiring, supervising, and dismissing staff are means decisions. Budgeting, investing, raising and spending money are means activities. Decisions about programs, building maintenance, baptisms, weddings, worship style, and how to vote on national church resolutions are all means issues—not because they are unimportant, but because they talk about what we are going to do, not about how people’s lives will change.

A means issue does not become an ends issue because it is expensive or important. (Choosing a minister, for example, is a means issue.) Means issues are still means issues even if they require a long sequence of steps to accomplish, such as the construction of a building. An ends issue is about those who benefit from the congregation’s work, not those who do it.

What Policy Boards Do and Don’t Do
At this point, many people expect to hear that the board deals with ends policies and the staff with means issues. The Carver model is not quite so simple. Defining and prescribing ends is the board’s main preoccupation (Carver calls it the board’s “obsession”). The staff—a term that includes volunteers who act as staff—spend most of their time selecting and applying means. But means and ends are not so neatly separable. Within the large ends set by the board, staff members make ends choices every day. Which hungry shall we feed? Which Jewish traditions shall we emphasize with nine-year-olds? The board, in turn, sets limits on the means that are permitted.

In every area, the board enacts the largest policies and leaves the smaller ones to others. Carver compares this to a set of nested mixing bowls. You can control the whole set if you grab hold of the outmost bowl; the others can still slosh back and forth, but only within fixed boundaries. If the board wants to control events more closely, it adopts policies at the next-
smaller level, and so on. Using this discipline, boards often are surprised by how much latitude they are willing to leave to staff.

Several rules govern how a Carver board makes policy:

  • Policies are always made from the outside in. The largest policies must be complete before moving in to the next level.
  • Policies never are adopted to control specific events. A board would never vote to change the locks on the church’s doors; it would vote only to define the level of risk it forbids staff to accept. Events may, at most, raise the question, “Do we need a policy on this?” Until we do, the staff are free—and required—to deal with all events within existing policies.
  • Policies are all addressed to the chief executive officer (CEO), not to individual staff members. It is not fair for a board to hold the CEO accountable for staff performance when it directs, rewards, or punishes staff members directly at all levels. Who plays the role of chief executive in a church setting is an interesting question. Most, but not all, of the Unitarian Universalist churches that have adopted Carver have assigned the CEO role to a team (e.g., the minister, the administrator, and one lay leader). A CEO team requires more complicated policies to deal with intra-team conflicts and succession planning, but reportedly has worked quite well in many cases.
  • When defining ends policies, the board speaks positively, prescribing what good the congregation will do for what people at what cost: The city will become more just, the poor will live in better houses, and so on.
  • The board also speaks positively when it writes its own means policies: We will meet monthly, keep minutes, and speak with one voice.
  • Means policies for staff are worded negatively, prohibiting those means the board will not accept. “The staff may not steal money, engage in race discrimination, abuse church members, or buy real estate without a vote of the congregation” are examples of means policies for staff.

The last rule is the oddest. Negatively worded staff means policies often resort to convoluted double negatives like “…shall not operate without a policy prohibiting discrimination…” Such words can be confusing, and the proscriptive “thou shalt not” form puts some people off.

Where the negative becomes a positive is in the lives of those who lead and manage programs. Having been told clearly what the boundaries are, leaders know that they are free to innovate and respond flexibly to changing opportunities.

The board, meanwhile, while it has relinquished its old habit of controlling every item that captures its attention, gains a more important power. Many boards try to feel powerful by adjusting a budget item or saying yes or no to a proposal, but such actions usually make little difference in the long run. A board that articulates in written policies the ends to be achieved and the means to be avoided controls many decisions at once. By articulating principles, a board guides many independent choices that together move the congregation closer to its ends.

Congregations are Different
By now it may be obvious that congregations find the Carver model (and perhaps good governance in general) harder to implement successfully than other nonprofits do. Clear role definitions are hard to achieve when everyone plays multiple roles. In a mental health clinic, staff and trustees are rarely also clients. But in churches and synagogues, role confusion is the rule, not the exception. Most board members who sing in the choir know better than to pull rank on the choir director, but not all remember to set aside personal preferences in board meetings. Most board members are active volunteers and program leaders. When confronted with a problem, they naturally offer ways to solve it rather than composing words to guide the people who will solve such problems over time.

Another difficulty congregations have in accepting Carver is that his Policy Governance model runs against so much tradition and, in some denominations, law. Carver assumes that all staff report to a CEO who is hired and fired by the board. Many larger synagogues have an executive director who functions this way—but who does not supervise the rabbi or cantor. In many congregations, the most obvious candidate for the Carver CEO role is the senior clergyperson, who may be selected by the congregation, bishop, presbytery, or some combination rather than the board alone.

Some congregations have a long list of committees that are in charge of program areas. The ambiguous relation between such committees and the staff members they relate to is a source of ineffectiveness and conflict. In place of a boss, staff members have a political constituency. The committees sometimes are there to help the staff person, but at other times must “represent the board.” Who is in charge? Such ambiguity discourages creativity and favors rigid adherence to familiar ways—as too many congregations demonstrate.

In Carver’s model the board appoints only a few committees to help it to do the board’s job. A “committee” whose job is to lead, design, or provide input to a program is part of the staff structure—and might better be called a team, ministry, or task force. The staff, and ultimately the CEO, are judged by how well programs fulfill the ends and adhere to the means set by the board. For this accountability to be both real and fair, the staff must be at liberty to accept or decline advice from committees.

The Carver model requires that the board evaluate the performance of the CEO only on the basis of how well the congregation achieves its ends and adheres to its means limitations. But in congregations, all leaders (and especially clergy) are evaluated based on a bewildering jumble of factors: personal attractiveness, performance skills, political finesse, theological compatibility, and on and on. It is one thing to say that evaluation will be based only on stated goals and institutional performance, but another to make it so.

Carver suggests boards considering his model first decide definitely that they will adopt it fully. This is a challenge because Policy Governance requires a great deal of study to understand. It conflicts with so much formal and informal teaching about how boards ought to operate that, in my experience, many months of reading and discussion are required to fully understand it. It is only after many repetitions of the basic concepts that the whole board begins to grasp them reliably. It is also helpful to review completed policies from similar organizations.

The board needs several copies of Carver’s book, Reinventing Your Board, which contains a basic set of policies. If possible, it is a good idea for the board to work with a consultant who is familiar with the model. Carver trains and certifies consultants, some of whom have church experience, and many other consultants work with boards using the model with varying levels of purity.

After learning the model, the first step toward adopting it is to craft means policies—the “thou shalt nots” that limit staff. Starting from the largest policies—the outer mixing bowls—the board moves inward until it is ready to say, “The CEO and staff can make all the smaller decisions that do not violate these limits.”

When the staff limitations policies are complete, the board moves on to create policies for itself, both for the conduct of its business and for its relationship to the CEO. The same mixing-bowl principle applies here, except that the smaller governance decisions are made by the board chair rather than the CEO. When the board is ready to leave all such decisions to the board chair, it is ready to start operating under the model.

What? We have no ends policies! Given the importance Carver g
ives to ends, it may seem odd to begin operating without them. But remember that creating and refining ends policies is the board’s main work from this point on forever. Some boards adopt the existing mission or vision statement to stand in for ends policies until they can be adopted, perhaps in a year-long rotation that will bring the board’s attention to each major ends area annually.

Board meetings now are quite different from the one we eavesdropped on at the beginning of this article. The CEO would be empowered to take action on the door lock issue on his or her own, without coming to the board at all. The building committee might well be involved, but as a work group rather than a board committee; it would work under the supervision of the CEO.

The board might, if it felt there was a need, consider adopting a new policy limiting the risks the staff may expose children to. Or it might note a concern about the staff’s protection of church property—not for immediate action, but as a flag for the annual evaluation of the CEO. The custodian’s evaluation would be handled by his or her immediate supervisor, with whatever participation the staff thinks will help it to measure the achievement of the ends and compliance with the means.

But the main part of the board’s work would not be about doors at all. It might spend most of its meeting adjusting the statement of how the congregation hopes to transform lives. In the best case, this is not an academic exercise but an effort to discern what God is calling this congregation to do and to be today and in the years to come.

Six Core Principles of Good Governance 

Not every board will want to adopt Carver’s Policy Governance model. But under any system of governance, certain core principles should apply:

  1. Don’t invite people to participate on a work crew and trap them into a deliberate body, or vice versa. Democracy is fine, but it defeats itself if every group that gathers reconsiders what has already been voted. Policy bodies should include a variety of members; task groups should include only those who are in favor of the task. Once the direction has been set through proper process, someone should be charged with getting the job done.
  2. When delegating responsibility, clearly state the goals to be achieved and the scope of the authority granted. This principle applies to staff and volunteers as well as boards. Too often, congregations plug people into generic positions or point them in vague directions, then expect them to come back repeatedly to le the board rehash every decision and vote every dollar. No wonder it is sometimes hard to find volunteers! It is not fair to hold someone accountable for results when the results have not bee specified, or to blame someone for violating an unstated rule. Minutes spent clarifying expectations can save hours of hesitation, duplication, and conflict in the long run.
  3. Boards speak as a body, not as individuals. Carver rightly emphasizes that individual board members have no special authority outside board meetings. Board members often play program leadership roles as well, but need to always remember which hat they are wearing.
  4. Boards speak through written policies. Like any human gathering, a board meeting is a cauldron of informal, nonverbal, and emotional communication. People come away from meetings with a “sense of the board” on any number of topics. Good boards make it clear that staff and others will not be expected to read the board’s mind, but must reat actions in the minutes as the final word.
  5. Staff and volunteers need clear direction, clear limits, and maximum flexibility in choosing means. Whether or not a board decides to adopt Carver’s precise system for board policy-making, his idea of the mixing bowls is useful. The concept is similar to Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers author William Easum’s “permission-giving” style of congregational life. If the board articulates a clear ministry vision and sets limits, it will feel safe allowing staff to make the smaller choices.
  6. The staff and volunteers should be responsible for managing their own work. The larger the congregation, the more important it is that the staff be unified and that boards and committees avoid triangulating themselves into staff work. This does not mean that the staff needs to be strongly hierarchical, or that others cannot be included in goal-setting, evaluation, conflict resolution, and decision-making, but these things should be done under the direction of the staff member who will be held responsible for the results.


Questions for Reflection 

How does your congregation’s governing board spend its time? Take three months’ worth of minutes from a year ago or earlier (long ago enough that most of the issues discussed will have become moot). Divide your board into three teams. For each set of minutes, identify the major issues discussed, the approximate time spent, and the action or other outcome produced. When the teams re-gather, list all of the agenda items on whiteboard or newsprint. Then answer the following questions:

  1. How much of the board’s time was spent helping the staff (paid and volunteer) to select means? (Include all discussions of individual budget items, approvals of proposed programs, and decisions about particular events.)
  2. How much of the board’s time was spent limits for the staff ahead of time? How much was spent criticizing staff for violating limits the board had not articulated in advance?
  3. How much of the board’s time was spent refining and improving its own process, including the process for communicating and evaluating the head of staff?
  4. How much time did the board spend stating whose lives it intended to change and in what way? (Too many boards will find that they spent little or no time on this.)


Recommended Resources 

John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations (Jossey-Bass, 1990). Carver’s original book sets forth the theory and practice of Policy Governance.*

John Carver and Miriam Mayhew Carver, Reinventing Your Board, A Step-by-Step Guide to Implementing Policy Governance (Jossey-Bass, 1997). This practical guide provides a roadmap for boards that are exploring or adopting Policy Governance. It includes a complete set of sample policies on staff limitation, governance, and board-CEO linkage, and several examples of ends policies.

John Carver, Empowering Boards for Leadership: Redefining Excellence in Governance (Jossey-Bass, 19992). On this two-hour audiotape, John Carver makes a persuasive case for Policy Governance. The tape is an excellent resource for orienting new board members to the practice.


* Policy Governance is a registered service mark of John Carver.

*This article was publi
shed in the Spring 2005 issue of CONGREGATIONS as “Borrowing from Business”.

photo by Madabandon on flickr