Shift Space – Governance and Administration

Recently, I was talking with a pastor colleague and the topic of Shift: From Maintenance to Mission came up (imagine that!). This pastor said the issue her congregation most needed to address before anything else was to shift its governance and administrative structure, which she said uses up all the volunteer time the folks in her congregation have to give and leaves very little time or energy for mission and ministry. She went on to add:

We have about 60 people in worship on Sunday morning and a little over a hundred members. There are 57 slots on boards and committees that get filled every year prior to our annual meeting. This is simply unsustainable. Some of these boards have not met in my three years as the pastor of this congregation.

Does this sound familiar? Many of our congregations have a governance structure that evolved in a particular place and time and that served the mission and ministry of the congregation at that place and time. Today, however, in many cases that structure no longer serves and in some cases actually inhibits faithful and effective ministry. Perhaps it’s time for your congregation to re-interpret, re-imagine and re-design a governance structure and process that will serve and support your ministry in today’s world. If this is the Shift you are imagining for yourselves here are some thoughts about how to proceed, some questions to consider and a short list of possible resources to guide you through this particular Shift from maintenance to mission.

The first step is likely to have an open conversation with your leadership body about whether or not the governance structure you currently have in place is supporting or hindering ministry and mission in your congregation. Are you having a hard time filling all the open slots? Are your meetings ineffective, boring, places for complaints instead of new ideas? Are there too many boards and committees for your current size of membership? Is your structure serving the ministry or has your ministry become an effort to maintain the structure?

Next it might be helpful to affirm the core purpose of governance structures. How are they meant to serve the mission and ministry of the congregation? What can governance provide to a congregation that is useful and supportive? What are the key components of effective governance that you would need or want to maintain but perhaps in different ways?

Another step would be to do a careful and thoughtful assessment of your current governance structure. What would we want to maintain? What do we need to be ready to let go of? From where can we expect resistance to come and how can we address that resistance in a positive and healthy manner? What ministries will be impacted by a change in governance structure? Are there ministries we can release in the hopes that something fresh will emerge? What is the core value and purpose of the various committees or boards and are they effectively carrying out that core purpose?

Along the way you may also want to consult with other congregations that have already made this Shift. I am aware of a few congregations around the conference that have already made this Shift and would be happy to help you connect with one or two folks who could share their approach with you and answer your questions as you begin to identify the steps to take in your own congregation.

There are a number of books that have been published in recent years to support these conversations in congregations. The book that the Conference Board of Directors is currently using to guide them is “Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership”  by Dan Hotchkiss. Another book that is highly reviewed is “Mobilizing Congregations: How Teams Can Motivate Members and Get Things Done” by John W. Wimberly Jr. You may also want to check out “Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance” by Donald E. Zimmer. In addition, the former Alban institute’s website is a treasure trove of blog posts and books on every imaginable topic including a number of articles about church Governance and various approaches to transforming it for ministry in the 21st century.

The approach that will work for you will depend on your context, your congregation’s size and other factors that make you unique. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to Shift from maintenance to mission in the area of governance. However, you are definitely not alone in noticing that the way many of our congregations are structured can be an inhibiting factor to engaging fruitful, effective and transformative ministry within our communities and beyond our doors.

If this is the Shift your congregation chooses to work on in the coming year, there will be opportunities to connect with other congregations also exploring this Shift at the conference annual meeting, June 10-12. And beyond that, I encourage you to reach out to me, to your Associate Conference Minister (Jane, Joanne or Rob) and to other congregations in your area for support and guidance. May God bless you in your efforts to shift your governance structure so that it serves your mission and ministry and opens doors and windows for the Holy Spirit to do her work among you with passion and creativity.

Tisha Brown