Policy governance: Adapt or adopt?

By Don Green

The well-regarded Carver governance model can work for churches.

Policy governance was created by John Carver in the 1970s and is described in his book, Boards that Make a Difference, first published in 1990. After observing our University’s governing board transition to a policy governing board several years ago, I have been an advocate of adapting John Carver’s model of policy governance for churches and other Christian organizations.

I also know from experience in consulting with churches and Christian leaders that governance structures and decision-making systems are especially slow to change. But left unchanged, these factors often become a hindrance rather than a help in accomplishing the church’s mission. What is needed, especially in larger, growing congregations is a more comprehensive, consistent, holistic process for the governing group.

In this approach the board or a leadership team of elders and senior staff appropriately oversees the church’s fulfillment of mission toward its vision while empowering the ministry staff to lead and manage the details of ministry. The primary purpose of this leadership team is to see that the church or Christian organization achieves what God desires and avoids what is unacceptable. The model often adopted is some form of policy governance.

John Carver model
Policy governance was created by John Carver in the 1970s and is described in his book, Boards that Make a Difference. In the foreword to The Policy Governance Fieldbook, edited by Caroline Oliver, Carver tells why, after years of serving on boards and with boards as a CEO, he devoted his life to improving board governance: “There was no model for governance.”

By model he means “a collection of principles and concepts that make sense as a whole.” Thus, he defines policy governance as “an integrated set of concepts and principles that describes the job of any governing board. It outlines the manner in which boards can be successful in their servant-leadership role, as well as in their all-important relationship with management” (see www.carvergovernance.com).

The goal of this governance model is to empower the board or governing group to focus on the “big picture” vision of the organization and to empower the administration to focus on carrying out the vision through appropriate and acceptable means within the limitations set by the board. By applying the Carver model, a board is better able to distinguish between governance and administration through the use of four different kinds of policies: (1) ends (or vision) policies; (2) executive limitations policies; (3) board-executive relationship policies; and (4) board process policies.

Some churches and ministry-based organizations have modified this four-part model into a three-pronged approach based on John Kaiser’s book, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission. Kaiser calls this approach “The Accountable Leadership” strategy. Within this ministry-modified model, boards develop policies — or, as Kaiser calls them, “guiding principles” — that address three key issues: (1) defining responsibility (comparable to vision/ends policies); (2) delegating authority (comparable to limitations policies); and (3) determining accountability (comparable to some board process policies and to relationship policies).

Whichever model one chooses, it is readily apparent that boards of churches and Christian organizations would benefit from a clearer definition of the board’s role, its responsibilities, and its relationship with the director, president or pastor. In deciding whether policy governance should be adopted or adapted as the model of governance in churches, there are some important issues to address.

Biblical worldview
First of all, any discussion of governance for God’s people should begin with a biblical worldview, which means seeing the task from the Creator’s view (as revealed in creation) and Christ’s view (as revealed in redemption), not merely Carver’s view (as reflected in the Fall). In Carver’s model, the board holds itself accountable for its performance and holds the chief executive accountable to approved policies.

In Scripture, the first line of accountability for all leaders is to God, which may be missing in Carver. For Christian leaders, mutual accountability flows naturally out of living in a reconciled relationship with God and others in an authentic, accountable, covenant community. John Kaiser’s “accountable leadership” approach to applying governance in the church is consistent with God’s original intent for governance that is “safe and effective.”

Second, applying policy governance in a church context requires rethinking the issues, processes, attitudes, and behaviors of those who lead and govern. There are practical reasons for the concepts and principles of policy governance to be adapted without adopting all of the assumptions. God’s intention was not to create a board of directors and a corporate CEO, but, rather, a community of mutually accountable servant leaders who work together in fulfillment of their distinct roles by allowing for diversity in equality and unity.

Third, through a careful study of Scriptures, leaders should frame the discussion biblically so the elders can function collectively as a group “to guide God’s flock,” “guard God’s family,” and “govern God’s people,” as Rick Thompson suggests in E3: Effective Empowering Elders.

Faithful and fruitful
Many of the good elements of policy making can be incorporated, but not at the expense of other critical functions that must be carried out for a congregation to be faithful and fruitful. Elders and ministers dare not minimize the importance of fulfilling such vital tasks as shepherding, equipping, and mentoring, nor overlook the obvious need for spiritual leadership. From this writer’s perspective, church boards and often elders are too involved in managing or micromanaging the ministries of the church while no one is effectively leading the overall ministry of the church. The critical need in many churches is for clearly differentiated roles for elders who govern, ministers who lead, and ministry staff and teams who manage the ministries.

As churches adapt policy governance in some expression of elder governance, it is my prayer that they would develop a healthy leadership team comprised of elders and the senior minister, whose collective responsibility is to govern the church through necessary and appropriate policies or guiding principles.

When a leadership team fulfills this vital role, the ministry staff and entire congregation will benefit from their defining responsibility, delegating authority within boundaries, and determining accountability. And, ultimately, Christ will be served and his kingdom will be advanced.

Dr. Don Green is director and professor of leadership at Lincoln (IL) Christian University [www.lincolnchristian.edu]. Adapted from an article last year for ChristianStandard.com.

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