Policy governance, popularized by John Carver is getting increasing attention as a governance method in the church. I have helped many non-profits and larger churches move to a policy governance model. In this blog I will give an overview of policy governance and in subsequent blogs I will lay out the advantages and disadvantages of this governance approach when applied to the local church.

Boards are notoriously poor at doing effective board work. For instance, boards often:

  • Rehash decisions endlessly
  • Make decisions that others in the organization could make faster and better
  • Focus on the small rocks rather than the big rocks
  • Are unable to prioritize their work
  • Control the leader of the organization rather than releasing him/her
  • Routinely get into staff issues
  • Do not have defined boundaries between staff and board roles

All of these hinder the organization (in this case the church) from being as effective as it could be and it discourages good leaders both on the board and outside the board. Policy governance is meant to cut through the clutter of poor board work, release the leader within boundaries and create a framework for how the board operates. Here are the basics of policy governance.

The board operates with four sets of policies which cover their work

The first set of policies is called Executive Limitations. These lay out what the senior leader of the organization cannot do without the permission of the board. Anything that is not prohibited in these policies the senior leader can do and he/she is expected to use reasonable interpretation of the policies in making leadership decisions. In the event that the senior leader is out of compliance with any of these policies they must inform the board of their lack of compliance and their plan to get back into compliance.

The second set of policies is called Linkage which is the relationship between the board and the staff of the organization. It is common for boards to get into staff decisions below their senior leader (who presumably everyone reports to). In policy governance there is only one employee of the board and that is the senior leader. Boards are not to get into other staff issues as their linkage to the staff is through the senior executive or pastor. While this policy is often misinterpreted in the church (and can be misused by the senior leader) it clarifies the reporting role of the staff to the senior leader and prevents the board from giving direction to staff apart from the senior leader. 

The third set of policies is called Board Policies which define how the board operates, what the qualifications for board members are, how they make decisions, resolve conflict and all issues related to board work. Since church boards are notorious for not defining many aspects of their work, the Board Policies force the board to define their work. In addition, things like Mission, Vision, Guiding Principles and other key church health commitments are found in the Board Policies.

The fourth set of policies is called Ends Policies, which describe what the goals of the ministry are, or what the board is holding the senior leader accountable for accomplishing. This goes back to the vision and mission of the church and clearly defines the ends that the board is committed to. This is the hardest set of policies to write but one of the most important as churches often cannot define the target that they are working toward. They operate like Charlie Brown who never used a target when using is bow and arrow. When asked why he answered, "Because this way I hit it every time."

The board can change policies at any time
In Policy Governance, the policies are a living document that the board can change at its discretion. For leaders who lead well they may broaden the range of freedom given that leader. For leaders who have challenges in certain areas, they may contract the freedom in those areas. Thus, the board is able to redraw the lines for the senior leader, for itself (Board policies) or its ends as it deems helpful and necessary.

The board governs through policy
Many boards waste inordinate amounts of time dealing with individual situations which may be revisited numerous times. In policy governance the board focuses on general or specific policies so that as like circumstances arise the policy is in place and the board need not again address the issue. This forces the board to focus on the principle behind a policy rather than individual situations. 

Policy Governance forces boards to address and clarify fundamentally important issues in the church, its mission, vision and desired outcomes. It raises the bar for what the board does as well as for the senior leader. It clearly delineates the boundaries between staff and board and who is responsible for what. And it frees senior leaders to lead without board interference in those areas where the board has not placed limitations.

I believe that Policy Governance as practiced by non-profits generally need to be modified for church use and I will address this in the near future. I also believe that policy governance can by misused by leaders if not carefully overseen by governing boards. Boards and leaders who do not have a solid grasp of policy governance can do a great deal of harm to a congregation which I will explain in subsequent blogs. Done right it can expedite decisions and ministry effectiveness.

  • Aug 31, 2018
  • Category: News
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