Five Ways to Improve Policy-based Governance


When churches change governance, most are changing to a form of policy governance. This makes sense. Policy governance addresses challenges outlined in my earlier post on improving council-based governance.

So why not encourage all churches to change to policy governance? Policy governance presents its own unique challenges to churches.

Policy Governance verses Policy-Based Governance

In pure “policy governance,” the key roles are the Board of Directors and Execute Director. The board oversees the director and sets policy for the organization. The Executive Director oversees daily operations.

There are elements of policy governance that concern churches. In churches the Pastor fulfills the “Executive Director” role. Some churches do not want their pastors overseeing the “business” side of day-to-day operations. Other churches don’t want a single board governing the entire church.

So churches create a hybrid form of governance called “policy-based governance.” Here’s five ways to improve policy-based governance in churches.

Adopt Policies

There are policy-based churches with no policies. Here’s some of the ways this happens:

  • The church modeled its policy-based governance on a church that did not have a policy manual.
  • The church has strong leaders whose values and expectations serve as unwritten policies.
  • The Board of Directors never got around to writing the policies.
  • The Pastor fears being controlled by the Board of Directors, so discourages policies.

Policies are the heart and soul policy-based governance. Policies allow leaders to make quick and sound decisions. Policies align the congregation with its purpose. Policies keep the Board of Directors from micromanaging the Pastor or church.

If your church wants examples of policy manuals, shoot me an email. Whatever it takes, create a policy manual.

Train the Board of Directors and Pastor

Too often churches try to learn policy-based governance on the fly. The Board of Directors and Pastor envision themselves walking arm-in-arm into a bright future under the new governance. A better analogy is they are sitting side-by-side on sleds at the top of a ski run.

The problem is everyone is operating under their own understanding of policy-based governance. Some board members act as if the board should direct the daily operations of the church. Others act as if they should rubber stamp the Pastor’s decisions. Similarly, some Pastors expect the board to run the church while others ignore the board.

The solution is training the Board of Directors and Pastor. If your church is a member of an association or denomination, ask if they provide training. It’s one of my roles for the Ohio District-LCMS. If they don’t, find a consultant.

Get Coaching for the Senior Pastor

I experienced the change from council to policy-based governance as a Senior Pastor. Under the new governance, I continued to preach and teach and visit members. How I spent the rest of my time changed significantly.

Looking back, I should have found a ministry coach to help me transition into policy-based governance. I’m confident coaching would have helped me better understand policy-based governance. Coaching also would have helped me adjust more quickly to serving in policy-based governance.

Why am I confident? As a coach, this is one of my roles today.

Move Closer to Policy Governance

The strength of policy governance is it allows churches to more effectively fulfill their purposes. In general terms, the more churches adapt policy governance, the more they weaken the system.

For example, if the Board of Directors oversees more than one staff member, it complicates the system. Churches run the same risk if they make a second board, say the Board of Elders, equal to the Board of Directors.

One solution is moving as close as possible to policy governance. Sometimes this only means restructuring. Other times it means updating the Bylaws. Either way, it can benefit the entire church.

Hire an Executive Director

An Executive Director takes on much of the management role for a Pastor, while reporting to the Pastor. Church members at times frown on this role, seeing it as a redundancy. Why add staff when the Pastor already does this work?

Here’s why. It’s possible the Senior Pastor is a gifted communicator or caregiver or leader, but not administrator. It’s also possible the church is large enough to need a full-time administrator. In such cases an Executive Director can make a significant difference in the church.

If you know other ways of improving policy-based governance in churches, leave a comment or send me an email.

If you appreciated this post, here are two related posts.

Church Governance: Improve before Change

Five Ways to Improve Council-based Governance

Root Causes for Changing Church Governance

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