So often I hear the argument from members of church governing boards that they don’t have time to practice spiritual disciplines, especially corporate discernment. They believe they can’t make room to listen to God together because the financial, facility, program, and personnel issues facing the congregation (or other church organization) take precedence. The business aspects of church life are important, but are they the most important concerns for governing boards? Boards whose members feel they don’t have time for anything as open ended as listening to God typically spend most of their quality time together on the day-to-day business of the church and putting out organizational fires.

In their book First Things First, Stephen Covey, one the most successful and influential leadership consultants in contemporary North America, and coauthors A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill offer a simple four-part matrix that arranges the tasks organizations must deal with according to their urgency and importance. The authors report that a typical organization spends about 25 percent of its time on issues that are both urgent and important and 1 percent on issues that are neither. The remaining time is spent on work that is either important and not urgent or urgent but not important.

Organizations differ dramatically in the time they devote to these two categories. High performance organizations spend between 65 and 80 percent of their time on important but not time-urgent tasks, while others spend 50 to 60 percent of their time on work that appears urgent but is less important. The authors’ point is that leadership needs to focus on the important and generally non-time-urgent tasks of assessing circumstances and opportunities and gaining and communicating a clear sense of purpose and direction, rather than reacting to less important routine activities and agendas of others.

Allocating time to the important, non-time-urgent work that these authors advocate is clearly essential for congregations, but there is more. Over the years, I have encountered a number of savvy church governing boards that devote considerable time to assessing circumstances and opportunities as well as gaining and communicating a clear sense of purpose and direction, but many do so without ever engaging in any form of corporate discernment. Are there specific corporate discernment practices that every board should follow? No, but effective church governing boards also need the emotional, relational, and spiritual space that corporate discernment offers so that they can move beyond existing attachments and perspectives and listen together in openness and obedience for God’s leadings. The good business practices that Covey, Merrill, and Merrill advocate are steps toward becoming a more high-performing organization, but church governing boards are called to be more than high performing. They are called to listen and obey.

In directing their full attention to listening to God together, the biggest obstacle church governing boards face seems to be an inability to envision and describe a credible alternative that people who value a more business-oriented governing board and people who value a more spiritually oriented board can relate to. My conversations and research suggest that such credible alternatives exist. The challenge is to articulate an alternative that speaks to both.

Any journey into the arena of church governance must begin in the Scriptures, for the Scriptures are our common heritage and the foundation of our life together. The Scriptures tell us who God is, how God is at work in our world, and what God desires of us. They talk at great length about purpose, values, and relationships, but what they say about governance has been a matter of debate.

David Bartlett, dean and professor at Yale Divinity School, believes the New Testament offers two contrasting approaches for Christian communities. One is organic and open, the second more formal and hierarchical. In his book Ministry in the New Testament, Bartlett suggests that Paul emphasized the more organic and open approach to the church’s organization (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–30; Eph. 4:11–16; Col. 2:19) because of the potential he saw in that model for being open to the Spirit’s movement, while the authors of the more formal, hierarchical models of the pastoral letters (1 Tim. 3:1–13; 4:13–14; Titus 1:5–16) were more influenced by the need to maintain order. Bartlett concludes that it is not one or the other, but what serves the gospel in a specific context that must be followed.

Over time, church governing boards appear to have been more influenced by the perceived need to maintain order, and they have consistently opted for a more formal and hierarchical approach. I believe the Scriptures can offer us seven distinct themes that serve to invite the church to look toward the more organic model:

We the church are called to be servants.

We are blessed by difference.

We are the image of Christ in our world.

We are uniquely gifted by the Spirit.

We are saved by grace through faith for . . . good works!

We need sabbath for rest, renewal, and regeneration.

We are a part of a highly interrelated world.

Moving an organization toward an embodiment of the themes listed above is challenging, because the themes run counter to the way most contemporary organizations work. Because of that, a different approach to introducing them is necessary. The approach needs to be more organic and to come from within; it cannot be imposed.

I suggest pausing to look at Deuteronomy 6:4–9. This passage has long been one of my favorites. It speaks to the absolute centrality of God, a truth conveyed in God’s commandment to love God with our whole being and to carry that love in our heart and our work wherever we go. Perhaps that is why I return to those verses here. We don’t need to worry about change yet; that will come. We simply need to begin to make these seven themes the topic of our everyday conversations so that we “talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up,” and at least symbolically, “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

My wise friend and mentor Charles Tollett often challenges groups he consults with to ask, “In what ways might we . . .” If the themes I have listed seem like desirable goals, then we need to ask ourselves, “In what ways might we incorporate them into our personal life and the life of our governing boards?” Asking a nonthreatening question such as, “In what ways might we . . .” opens us to the Spirit’s wisdom and creates the opportunity for people to share their insights in a spirit of learning versus deciding. 

To learn more about the themes discussed in this article, please consider reading Donald Zimmer’s new book, Leadership and Listening, where he explores spiritual and biblical foundations for effective congregational discernment and governance. 

Comments welcome on the   Alban Roundtable blog     

Adapted from Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance by Donald E. Zimmer, copyright © 2011 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.   



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. 

AL158_SM Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders  
by Charles M. Olsen

You will never look at church boards the same way again. Olsen presents a bold vision of leadership—one that offers church board work as an integral part of congregational leaders’ faith experience and development. Discover inspiring, practical ways your board can make its meetings become opportunities for deepening faith, developing leadership, and ultimately renewing your church. 

AL370_SM Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership    
by Dan Hotchkiss

In Governance and Ministry, Alban 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.    

AL282_SM Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups  
by Abigail Johnson

Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. Johnson demonstrates how theological reflection will enrich the faith life of the individual and increase group members’ sense of belonging to God and to the whole people of God.


Feeling like your congregation’s governing process is not as effective as it could be? Let some fresh air blow through your ideas about governance.   

Hotchkiss, Dan_Winter 2010 Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership
September 20-22, 2011, Holy Family Passionist Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
Presenter: Dan Hotchkiss, Senior Consultant and Author of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership (Alban, 2009).

Register Now!  Only a few slots left!  


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


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