Costs of Cutting Corners in Governance

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The cost of cutting corners is too high for churches when implementing policy-base governance. I speak from both professional and personal experience.

I understand why church leaders are tempted to cut corners. Properly implementing policy-based governance take an inordinate amount of time. There are all sorts of fears about how congregation life will change with the new governance.

Unfortunately, compromising in policy-based governance doesn’t work. It can make policy-based governance function worse than the council-based system it replaces.

Here are the three most common temptations to cut corners in adopting policy-based governance.

First Temptation: Create a hybrid governance

At one time doodling referred to drawing pictures on a sketchpad. Today “doodling” sometimes refers to using poodles in breeding hybrid dogs as pets. Hence the popularity of Labradoodles, Goldendoodles and Pekepoos.

Crossing diverse breeds of dogs may work well for pets. Churches creating hybrid governance will likely to end up with a failed experiment.

Church leaders want to combine elements of council-based and policy-based governance because they fear centralized control. What if the new Board of Ministry Directors starts to run the church with an iron fist? What if policy-based governance transforms our pastor into a corporate CEO?

Such fears are powerful motivators for compromise. Caving to this temptation leaves the governing board chasing its own tail. The board must set policy for the congregation and run the day-to-day operations of the congregation. This leads to internal conflicts.

Second Temptation: Avoid creating a policy manual

It is not uncommon for churches to adopt policy driven governance, yet not create policies. I know, it sounds like running a restaurant without a menu. Yet there are reasons churches put off creating a policy manual.

The leaders don’t understand the importance or function of the policies.
The church is small enough a strong leader can coordinate the day-to-day ministry without the aid of policies.
The church changed governance because a large staff already ran day-to-day ministry. The staff didn’t need policies in the past, so why add them now?
The senior pastor is fearful of changes resulting from the policies.

Yet without policies there is a real risk the church will continue to function like a council-based congregation. The issues the governance change was supposed to address will continue to badger the congregation.

Third Temptation: Skip training for leaders new to policy-based governance

Unless the church hires a consultant, adopting a new form of government is time consuming. Even with a consultant its hard work. By the time the new governance is adopted, leadership usually feels it has a decent grasp on the new governance. So why invest time into training in how to implement policy-based governance?

How about to avoid unnecessary conflict? Without training each leader is free to act according to his or her understanding of policy-based governance. So now different leaders are going different directions. Clashes are inevitable.

How about to prevent leaders from defaulting back into council-based behaviors? It is human nature to revert to well established behaviors. In this case, the governing board acting more like a church council than policy-making board. This can happen to leaders when all is going well at the church. It’s almost irresistible when a crisis arises.

Why take such risks when training is available?

Successfully overcoming the temptations

Churches can avoid these pitfalls and resist the temptations. Here’s how:

First, the leaders must make a crystal-clear case for why the church should change governance. Member need to know which pressing congregational problems policy-based governance will resolve. The leaders must over communicate how the church will function differently under the new governance.

Second, the congregation must require the task force in charge of the transition to create a written plan. This plan must include the creation of governance documents, initial policy and personnel manuals and training for implementing the new form of governance.

Third, the congregation must hold the task force accountable for implementing the plan. The task force should give monthly progress reports to the worshipping congregation and church council. Voters’ Assemblies need a review of the status of implementation.

What other differences have you observed between council and policy governance? Share your thoughts in the comments or shoot me an email.

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