Comparisons are useful but tricky. New Testament writers compare the church to a human body, a herd of sheep, a bride, and a vineyard. Synagogues are often likened to a house, a tent, or an extended family. None of these analogies is meant to be exact or literal—a church may act in some ways like a herd of sheep, but a wise leader doesn’t plan on it. Poets do exaggerate sometimes.
In the same spirit of poetic license, it may at times it may be useful to compare the clergy leader of a congregation to a corporate CEO, its members to customers or stockholders, or its staff to the employees of a charity. We can draw many useful analogies between congregations, other nonprofits, and businesses, but ultimately congregations need ideas and language of their own. It is easy to say that “the church should run more like a business,” without recognizing that in some respects the church should and does run very differently.
I often ask members of a congregation’s governing board to describe their job. Someone usually answers, “We’re here to represent the members of the congregation.” The analogy at work here is political: the board is like a city council or the U.S. Senate, whose members are elected by the people to make law in their behalf. Most American congregations elect the governing board by congregational vote. In New England, churches of the congregational tradition sometimes actually mirror, in their structure, the town meeting form of government.
Another answer I frequently hear is, “We are ministers alongside of the pastor.” This is a powerful idea, codified in Reformed theology as the idea of the ruling elder, ordained to lead alongside teaching elders, or pastors. In current Presbyterian practice, elders are elected, but the rite of ordination makes them more than representatives; as ministers they “exercise their responsibilities according to the guidance of their own nurtured consciences and not merely as spokespersons of particular interest groups.”1 While not so explicit in most non-Reformed traditions, the idea that a lay board member’s work is ministry is worth considering in any congregation.
Almost always, when I ask about the board’s job, someone says, “The board is a fiduciary.” And what might that be? A fiduciary (in Latin, fiduciarius, “trust,” from fides, “faith”) is anyone with a duty to act in faithfulness to the interest of another, even at cost or peril to himself or herself. A parent, for example, has a fiduciary duty to care for his or her children no matter how much sacrifice that might require. The board of a business holds the corporate assets as fiduciary for the stockholders. Since the stockholders’ main interest, ordinarily, is in making money, corporate boards generally try to maximize stockholder value. If they pursue other goals—pumping up executive compensation, making sweetheart deals with other companies owned by board members, or sometimes even trying to be responsible corporate citizens—they can expect to be accused of failing as fiduciaries.
By this analogy, a congregation’s board exists to represent the owner. But who is the owner? Often board members answer this question too quickly: “The owner is the congregation!” And the owner’s interest? Satisfactory worship, education, social action, and so on. The fiduciary duty of a congregation’s board, then, is to know what the congregation wants and to provide it.
This way of thinking sometimes produces good results, but in my opinion it is based on a false analogy. A congregation does exist to serve its owner—but the members are not owners in the same way stockholders own business corporations. Who, then, is the owner? Jesus? God? Perhaps, but a more useful answer, I believe, is “The owner of a congregation is its mission.” A congregation exists to serve its mission. The duty of a congregation’s leaders is to discern the piece of God’s will that constitutes this congregation’s mission, to articulate the mission well, and to ensure that what the congregation does will realize the mission. The “bottom line” is not the balance in the bank (important though that is) but the degree to which the mission is fulfilled.
And what is the mission? The great management consultant Peter Drucker wrote that the core mission of all social-sector organizations is “changed lives.” The specific mission of a congregation is its answer to the question, “Whose lives do we intend to change and in what way?” A congregation that limits its vision to pleasing its members falls short of its true purpose. Growth, expanding budgets, building programs, and such trappings of success matter only if they reflect positive transformation in the lives of people touched by the congregation’s work.
The job of congregational leaders—boards, clergy, lay leaders, and staff—is not to “give the members what they want.” For one thing, if the only mission is to current members, the congregation will soon die. And so the mission must be not only to change the lives of members but of others yet to join. A real problem with democracy in congregations is that future members do not vote. If they did, at every meeting they would make up a majority.
Another reason congregations cannot simply “give the members what they want” is that part of the mission is to teach people to want things that they don’t want. Members of vital congregations testify to many ways the congregation has drawn them out of themselves into voluntary service, sacrificial changes of career, and hard work for social justice. Sometimes I ask such people, “What would you have done if someone warned you how joining this congregation would transform your life?” Generally they admit, “I would have run the other way!” Pleasing people—members, future members, leaders, or anybody else—is not the mission. The mission is to change lives.
Who, then, is the owner of a congregation? Who plays the role of stockholders in a business? Not the members. Not the board. Not the clergy or the bishop or the staff. These all are fiduciaries whose duty is to serve the owner. Symbolically, we might say God or Jesus is the owner. But God’s whole will is too big to guide one congregation. Instead, the board’s job is to discern our mission, the small piece of God’s intention that belongs to us. Or to put it differently, our job is to find the mission we belong to, the real owner for whose benefit we hold and deploy the congregation’s resources.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “Who Owns a Congregation?” originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission.
1 Edward Le Roy Long, Patterns of Polity: Varieties of Church Governance (Pilgrim Press, 2001).
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