Friday, August 31, 2018

Policy governance in the church: An Overview

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.

TJ Addington (Addington Consulting) has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Willow Creek and governance lessons: A watershed moment

The inevitable resignation of the entire board of Willow Creek Community church today along with that of the two senior pastors is a watershed moment for church governance - and its failure. There are many lessons to be learned about what good and poor governance look like when it comes to the church. The leadership failures at Willow will become textbook fodder on governance for years to come.

One: Boards exist to protect the church as a whole and not one individual. 
For several years as allegations have swirled around their senior leader the board tried to protect him even though many credible individuals came forward either who had been abused by him or knew of abuses. Yet the board chose to try to protect their senior leader rather than to uncover the truth of the claims even to the point of suggesting that the victims were lying and calling their character into question. 

This is not unusual. I once did an intervention in a church fraught with conflict. There had been a string of resignations over a three year period of staff. When I asked the board why their staff members had resigned they said they didn't know. So I interviewed every one of them and it always came back to abuse by the senior pastor. When I reported my findings back to the board they hung their heads in shame. Of course they knew something but they had chosen to ignore the obvious, not ask the relevant questions and protect their pastor while painting the victims as the villains. Subsequently for this and other governance failures I recommended that the entire board resign which they did.

Boards exist to protect the health, financial stewardship and direction of the church. They are responsible to ensure that the congregation is taught, led well, protected, released into ministry and that the spiritual temperature is kept vital. They may not do it themselves but they ensure this happens. This did not happen at Willow. Actions show that through a several year period the board chose to protect their pastor over dealing with issues they knew to be present. It was a classic failure of governance which will damage the church for years and possibly threaten its existence in its present form.

Two: Boards that are intimidated and manipulated by their senior leader cannot govern - period.
Some churches have such strong leaders that it is almost impossible for a board to hold them accountable and the board ends up working for the senior leader rather than the senior leader being accountable to the board. Whenever this happens alarm bells need to sound because boards that are intimidated or manipulated by their senior leader cannot govern. Rather they end up serving the agenda of their senior organizational leader.

This is why executive sessions are vitally important for any board even if there are no significant issues to discuss. It provides a forum where sensitive issues can be put on the table and candid discussion can take place outside the influence of the senior leader who is accountable to them. Even if this is resisted by the senior leader it should happen on a regular basis because many boards will not bring up sensitive issues in the presence of their senior leader. 

Three. Individuals who cannot deal with conflict should not be put on a church board. 
With leadership there is always conflict. Issues within a church that must be dealt with, differences of opinion on boards and sometimes relationships with senior leaders. Where I used to live we called the conflict resistant culture "Minnesota nice." This is the tendency not to deal with conflict. There is a lot of "church nice" on leadership boards where we don't have courageous enough people to put issues on the table and insist that the board look honestly at them. If someone cannot deal with conflict they should not serve on a church board.

Many congregations suffer for years without good leadership or pastors without adequate accountability because of "church nice" boards. Who suffers? The congregation! 

This also has implications for who ought to serve as the chair of a board. It takes a strong and independent individual to serve well as a board chair. They must be able to graciously police the board, interact with the senior leader, keep the board on track and in cases such as what happened at Willow Creek, lead the board in critical conversations. When this does not happen board chairpersons need to be challenged and/or replaced.

Four. When serious issues occur the board must find the truth and speak the truth regardless of the consequences.
Christian organizations generally have a poor track record of transparency around such issues as financial impropriety, sexual abuse, leadership abuse and issues that might impact their reputation. Unfortunately, when organizations try to hide issues it causes more damage then when they admit and deal with issues. 

Outsiders looking in on the actions of the board at Willow Creek have wondered about their actions during this period especially in the face of very credible individuals who have come forward with their story. Why did they not deal with issues that many others saw? The answer is simple: they were trying to protect their leader and the reputation of the church rather than trying to find the truth if it hurt either of these. In the process they destroyed their leadership (hence their resignation), hurt the church beyond what the senior pastor is responsible for and set the church up for trauma for years to come. Their "independent outside investigation" was not designed to find the truth but to protect their interests. 

Five: Church boards must understand their role as a governance board.
I have to conclude that the board at Willow did not understand their role as a governance board. But they are in good company as many church boards do not. If they did, the story would have played out much differently than it did. They did not safeguard the health of the church. They did not protect the flock (or the abused). They did not listen to credible voices. They allowed their leader to manipulate them and the process. They protected the guilty rather than the hurt. They did not truly seek truth but sought to protect. In the end they caused more damage than they did to resolve their issues.

All of this to suggest that this episode ought to be a wake up call for the evangelical church regarding what good governance looks like. For the sake of the church - the Bride of Jesus.

TJ Addington (Addington Consulting) has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Issue Logs: A simple way to force continuous improvement in your team or organization

All organizations encounter issues: Things that don't go as planned or complications in trying to get something done. Usually what we do with these is to complain and then find a work-around to get it done. The problem is that it happens again and again and again. 

In essence we are putting up with frustrations and time wasters that are unnecessary. Rather, we should see each issue we encounter as an opportunity to do something better. Every time!

This is where the issue log comes in. An issue log is a required reporting of anything that goes badly or any disconnect we encounter. You record the issue, rate it in terms of severity and list who was responsible for it (or responsible for the process). The goal is to bring problems to the surface so that they can be diagnosed, resolved, and if necessary the system changed so that it does not happen again and the process (and people) improved. And, not reporting a known issue becomes an issue so there is built in compliance!

Such a system makes a powerful statement within an organization that we are committed to becoming better in every way that we can. Issues can be good things because they show us an area that can be improved. It will also surface employees who are not doing the work they should be doing because their negligence shows up in the issue log. Yes: Accountability is a good thing. And, the issue should not show up again once handled.

Continuous improvement requires the surfacing of issues so that they can be resolved. Those organizations who embrace it see the benefits quickly.

TJ Addington (Addington Consulting) has a passion to help individuals and organizations maximize their impact and go to the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at

"Creating cultures of organizational excellence."