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The Art of Governance by Dan Hotchkiss

The Art of Governance by Dan Hotchkiss

Religion transforms people; no one touches holy ground and stays the same. Religious leaders stir the pot by pointing to the contrast between life as it is and life as it should be, and urging us to close the gap. Religious insights provide the handhold that people need to criticize injustice, rise above self-interest, and take risks to achieve healing in a wounded world. Religion at its best is no friend to the status quo.

Organization, on the other hand, conserves. Institutions capture, schematize, and codify persistent patterns of activity. A well-ordered congregation lays down schedules, puts policies on paper, places people in positions, and generally brings order out of chaos. Organizations can be flexible, creative, and iconoclastic, but only by resisting some of their most basic instincts.

No wonder “organized religion” is so difficult! Congregations create sanctuaries where people can nurture and inspire each other—with results no one can predict. The stability of a religious institution is a necessary precondition to the instability religious transformation brings. The need to balance both sides of this paradox—the transforming power of religion and the stabilizing power of organization—makes leading congregations a unique challenge.

A special risk for leaders is that a congregation can succeed so well at organizing that it loses track of its religious mission. Congregational life becomes so tightly ordered that it squeezes out all inspiration. The challenge of organized religion is to find ways to encourage people to encounter God in potentially soul-shaking ways while also helping them to channel spiritual energy in paths that will be healthy for them, the congregation, and the world beyond.

Here are some things that seem clear to me as I attempt to meet this need:

There is no one right way to organize a congregation.

For congregations, the nonprofit garb fits pretty well, though not perfectly. What works for other charities may not be so effective or appropriate for congregations. On the other hand, our culture’s vast experience with corporate governance offers us much wisdom to draw on. Our challenge is to draw on corporate experience selectively, with a critical awareness of what makes congregations different.

Some mistakes have been made often enough that it is only fair to warn against them. At the very least, some choices have foreseeable consequences. For example, if a board tries to manage day-to-day operations through a network of committees, it will inevitably spend a great deal of its time on operational decision making. This outcome follows simply from the fact that if there is no other place for a buck to stop, it will stop at the board table. Many a board resolves to stop “micromanaging,” but until it is willing to delegate real management authority to someone else, the board remains the default chief operating officer.

We can know good governance when we see it. For all the variety of workable ways to organize a congregation, certain patterns consistently appear when governance goes well. My own list of criteria for measuring the effectiveness of governance in congregations includes the following signs of health:

  •  A unified structure for making governance decisions. The governing board represents the membership by articulating mission and vision, evaluating programs, and ensuring responsible stewardship of resources. Boards are usually accountable to the congregation. Most well-run congregations have a single board with primary responsibility for governance, with clearly defined relationships with other committees, staff and the congregation.


  • A unified structure for making operational decisions. Program leaders (paid and unpaid) work harmoniously to create effective programs with the support of a structure that delegates authority and requires accountability. Anyone who works successfully in a congregation soon learns that multiple accountabilities are unavoidable. Every staff position has a natural constituency whose wishes sometimes conflict with the expectations of the staff leader or the board. Effective congregational systems do not eliminate those tensions but give clear guidance about how to manage them. Full-time senior staff members are expected to manage the politics of their positions, while part-time and lower-level staff members have supervisors to do that for them. Above all, delegation and accountability are matched. When a program’s goals are set, responsibility is assigned to its leader, and sufficient power is delegated so that it will be fair to hold the leader accountable for the fulfillment of the stated goals.


  •  A creative, open atmosphere. Members take advantage of many opportunities to share their talents and interests in an atmosphere of trust and creativity in which structure, goals, and purposes are clear. One of the most helpful findings from research on corporate effectiveness is that the command-and-control approach works for only a narrow range of tasks. Even the military, which highly values obedience, has learned that delegating as many decisions as possible to lower-level people, while giving clear guidance, reduces errors and improves adaptability to changing circumstances. Likewise, no congregation can succeed by relying on its board or staff to come up with all of the ideas. In the most effective congregations, programs and ministries “bubble up” continually from outside the formal leadership.

No list will capture every variation, but where these three criteria are met, I have learned to expect high morale among leaders and enthusiastic ownership among the members of the congregation.

Leaders of communities of faith are never simply managers of institutions, nor do they have the luxury of being purely spiritual leaders. Congregations are vessels of religious growth and transformation—but to be vessels, they need firmness and stability. A congregation easily becomes an end in its own mind—recruiting people to empty committee service, finance, and building maintenance. Institutional maintenance is a necessary, but ultimately secondary, function of a congregation. If souls are not transformed and the world is not healed, the congregation fails no matter what the treasurer reports.

That is why governance in congregations is not a science but an art. Leaders must continually balance the conserving function of an institution with the expectation of disruptive, change-inducing creativity that comes when individuals catch fresh visions of the Holy.

Adapted from Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership by Dan Hotchkiss


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