An anthropologist from Pluto might be forgiven for misclassifying board and committee meetings among the sacred rites of Earth religion. Meetings, with their arid liturgy of motions, seconds, minutes, and reports, give comfort and security to some, while driving others crazy—particularly those who like results better than extended conversations about pros and cons of possible approaches to activities that may or may not one day issue in results.

It is not actually meetings that drive people nuts—most leaders expect, even enjoy productive meetings—it is the perpetual unclarity in many congregations about who makes what decision. Lay leaders burn out like old brake pads from the start-and-stop decision-making tempo. People who, at work, carry assigned projects from start to finish find it hard to understand why relatively small decisions require long discussion, often at not one but several meeting tables.

Leaders burn out and disappear, but do not necessarily complain. Goodhearted folk, leaders excuse or even justify tedious decision-making methods, calling them “congregational” or “presbyterian,” “Jewish” or “episcopal.” In many congregations, it is more comfortable to raise doubts about religious doctrine than to question the committee system.

Questioning the Unquestionable 

This is gradually changing. For a variety of reasons, leaders in congregations of all kinds have begun to question the unquestionable. Sometimes the departure of too many governing board members triggers the rethinking. Sometimes a strategic planning process launches an imaginative plan that quickly founders in the sandy shoals of governance. Sometimes an exceptionally vital, growing congregation notices that its most innovative programs have emerged only when someone, in despair of working though the formal structure, worked around it.

For whatever reason, growing numbers of churches and synagogues are considering alternatives to their traditional ways of governing themselves. Since 2009, when Alban published my book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, I have enjoyed consulting, coaching, and cheerleading congregations using it to engage in a deliberate governance change process.

It is not easy work. Institutions naturally resist change—not because the people in them are especially conservative, but because conserving is what institutions do. They codify and repeat patterns of behavior—building trust by repetition, growing in proficiency by practice, building a clear “brand” through consistent and predictable performance.

All institutions resist change communities of faith resist it for a special reason: almost anything they do regularly quickly becomes part of somebody’s religion. The oddest things turn sacred—furniture and flower arrangements, calendars of fundraising events, organization charts. People cling to such symbolic objects, not because they love them, but because they love the congregation and the good they have experienced from its influence, and worry that if surface symbols change too much, they might lose the reality beneath.

Ron Heifetz and Martin Linksy write, “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss.” Resisting change can be a good thing when it helps people to hang on to what is truly precious. A congregation with no change-resistance worships on a different day and in a different place each week. That makes it difficult to find it or know whether to support it; in constant motion, it stands nowhere.

Sometimes only innovation—which requires letting go of symbols—lets us hold on to what we truly value. Congregations have begun to realize that comfortable ways no longer produce comfortable outcomes. Change, no longer a threat, becomes our best hope for avoiding deeper loss. When old modes of governance threaten to strangle what is precious in the congregation’s life, governance change becomes more thinkable.

Means for the Sake of the Ends 

Lyle Schaller once observed that liberal churches, which are so often ready to tell the world how it should change, especially resist changes to their own internal workings. Liberals, so this thinking goes, are so open-minded they are not always quite sure what they believe or where they are headed, and so they come to treat “the way we do things here” as if it were the end-all of the church. By contrast, a church with a clear, focused purpose like “bring souls to Christ” will try new worship styles, change its committee structure, or rebalance its staff—whatever works—because the end is more important than the means.

Many of my governance-change clients are comparatively liberal congregations, and I must say that they belie this generalization. If some liberal congregations have been slower to reform their structures of decision-making, one reason may be that they care so much about what Luther called the priesthood of all believers, which makes governance a more complex challenge than it is for congregation that more easily hand power to one person. Building a structure that is serious both about congregational participation in decision-making and enlisting every person in discerning God’s will for the congregation makes governance a complicated business. I’m glad congregations of all stripes are now thinking more creatively about their own decision-making practices.

No structure guarantees success or promises a life free of problems. “T.S. Eliot warned against “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”  Luckily congregations are full of people who are good already. The work of governance change can be simply a matter of enabling the congregation to be as good as they are.


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog   

Adapted from the Summer 2011 Congregations article, “Life After Governance Change,” copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   



AL370_SM Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership   
by Dan Hotchkiss 

In Governance and Ministry, Alban Institute senior consultant Dan Hotchkiss offers congregational leaders a roadmap and tools for changing the way boards and clergy work together to lead congregations. Hotchkiss demonstrates that the right governance model is the one that best enables a congregation to fulfill its mission—to achieve both the outward results and the inward quality of life to which it is called. 

AL414_SM Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance  
by Donald E. Zimmer

Church leaders must fundamentally change the way they view leadership, governance, and management in their organizations if they are to take seriously the need to listen to God’s desires before acting. In Leadership and Listening, readers will find encouragement and specific suggestions for re-imagining church governance and management. Zimmer observes that the contemporary church is rooted in both the kingdom of God and the systems and cultures of government and business. As a result, many church governing boards are about “business,” rather than their primary task: discerning God’s desires for the part of the church they serve.

AL392_SM Strategic Leadership for a Change: Facing Our Losses, Finding Our Future    
by Kenneth J. McFayden

Strategic Leadership for a Change provides congregational leaders with new insights and tools for understanding the relationships among change, attachment, loss, and grief. It also helps leaders facilitate the process of grieving, comprehend the centrality of vision, and demonstrate theological reflection in the midst of change, loss, grief, and attaching anew. All this occurs as the congregation aligns its vision with God’s and understands processes of change as processes of fulfillment.    

AL186_SM Leading Change in the Congregation: Spiritual and Organizational Tools for Leaders
by Gilbert R. Rendle

Many books have been written about leadership and change, but until now none has focused on the kind of change that tears at a community’s very fabric. Rendle pulls together theory, research, and his work with churches facing change to provide leaders with practical diagnostic models and tools. In a time when change is the norm, this book helps leaders to “lead change” in a spiritual and healthy way.


If you missed Dan Hotchkiss’s spring seminar on governance and ministry, you have another chance!   

Hotchkiss, Dan_Winter 2010 September 20–22, 2011
Governance & Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
Location: Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center,
West Hartford, CT
Presenter: Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant

All participants receive a copy of Dan’s best-selling book, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, and a half-hour follow-up coaching session.

For a full list of learning events, check out
  Alban’s 2011 Event Calendar    


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