Staff and Governing Boards

In my work as an Alban consultant, the relationship between a congregation’s staff and its governing board is a frequent friction point I encounter. Staff members complain about the board micromanaging their work. The board feels as though staff doesn’t keep it informed about their work. In many cases, both sides of the debate are correct.

So what does a healthy board-staff relationship look like?  Boards need to stay focused on the big picture. If they don’t, everyone will be down in the weeds with no one in the congregation focused on the big picture leadership/vision issues. It is something only the board can do.

Where are the priorities of our ministry? Are our programs, staff and budget aligned with our vision for ministry? What resources do we need to strengthen our programs and mission? Are performance measures being realized or not? These are the questions good boards ask. Macro work is what boards do best.

Staff has a distinctly different role to play. Staff members are charged with implementing strategies and policies that have been approved by the board. The staff and volunteers make things happen. They work toward very specific performance measures whether it is increased participation in mission projects, more people in attendance, more diverse music in worship or more teachers recruited for the Sunday School. The Head of Staff has responsibility for evaluating the performance of the staff.

When the Board is focused on the big picture and the staff on implementation, a congregation will move steadily toward its vision. It will become a performance-driven congregation. It is a thing of beauty to behold.

One of the things I noticed in my 38 years as a parish pastor was the way boards will leave the macro for the micro whenever they are given the chance. For example, in my experience, when the Finance Committee reports to the Board, everyone starts to chime in with comments. Budgets are concrete things a board member can understand because each of has to manage our own personal finances. Building issues are similar. Many of us live in homes and so we can speak knowledgeably about a heating, plumbing or roofing issue. Given the opportunity to talk about money or buildings, many board members will jump at the chance.

However, what Board members need to be talking about are bigger picture issues regarding money and buildings, to continue with these two examples. The issue isn’t whether the electricity has risen from last year to this year.  An appropriate board discussion is: Do we have enough money to move toward our vision? If not, what do we need to do to get more funding?  The issue isn’t how we fix a leaking roof.  The issue is: Are our buildings adequate for the vision and goals we have created? If not, how do align them with our vision?

The Moderator of a governing board has a wonderful opportunity to keep the group focused on issues appropriate to the Board’s role. Left unguided, Board discussions will inevitably move into the weeds. But a skilled moderator will remind people that the congregation has staff or volunteers to cut the weeds. The Board’s role is on another plane. What are we going to plant in the field when the weeds are removed?

There are a lot of great books written on this subject. Alban has published a number of them. However, there are plenty of others to read. A good New Year’s resolution might be to read a few of them.  Happy New Year!

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About jwwimberly

I am a Presbyterian pastor who recently retired after thirty years of serving a congregation in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. I am currently a Field Consultant for the Alban Institute as well as author of books dealing with management issues in congregations. I am a devoted potter, throwing pots on the wheel and teaching the wheel when my schedule allows. Finally, I consider Mexico my second homeland since we have a home in San Miguel de Allende, GTO, Mexico.
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