This post, which looks at church board structure, is the fourth post in a series on church boards.
We’ve previously looked at why church boards are not, scripturally, responsible for the spiritual government of the church. We also covered board responsibilities and board members. Later, we will look at board meetings. In this post, we will focus on church board structure.
When we consider a church board, how do we structure it? What roles are needed within it, and what are the various dynamics that we need clarity on to ensure a healthy board?
Three fundamental areas we need to think through are:
- What roles are needed on the board?
- How big should our board be?
- How does someone join or leave the board?
Church Board Structure: What Roles Are Needed?
A church board is a team, and teams need leadership, clarity, and unity. To work towards these, a church board needs to have a leader. You can call this role the Chair, President, Head of Trustees, or whatever title you want. But fundamentally, this defined role makes logistical sense so someone is empowered on the Board’s behalf to arrange and lead meetings, and coordinate with people as needed.
Personally, I don’t believe that this role should be held by the senior leader or even another elder. Some will disagree here, but my concern is that too much authority is placed in one person’s hands. I don’t have an issue with the senior leader or an elder being on the board. In fact, I think it is prudent so they can represent the leadership team, and also hear the heart of the board themselves. However, it’s equally wise to make sure the majority of the board aren’t elders. The risk is that the board, in reality, becomes a rubber-stamping committee, which does not serve the church at all.
Another needed role on the Board is a treasurer or ‘CFO’ type role. This person, amongst the board, has a primary focus on the financials, and is aware of income, outgoings, projections, budgets, changes and trends. Whilst all the board are responsible for oversight of the church finances, having a point person is smart. Once again, if possible, I don’t believe it is wise for the Senior Leader or an elder to be in this role. This allows for transparency, accountability and covering.
A third role beneficial on church boards is that of board secretary. They will have legal requirements to fulfil, typically around ensuring that all rules, bylaws, policies and procedures of the church are followed during meetings and in the implementing of decisions made. They will also oversee all record-keeping, documentation and archiving, such as minutes and agendas.
Church Board Structure: How Many?
How many church board members should you have? Whilst there is no right or wrong answer, there is an inherent tension here to be navigated. Too few people, and your board may lack wisdom, experience or diversity of perspective and opinion. If you have too many board members, you risk becoming a bottleneck of bureaucracy, taking too much time to hear everyone’s opinions, talk around pertinent issues, and make clear decisions. For these reasons, I often recommend a board size of between 5 and 9 people. I’ve found that this amount balances the need to remain organisationally agile and flexible, yet be deep in wisdom, all whilst being of a size that facilitates relational growth and a growing sense of team.
Of course, this number isn’t a quota. It is better to have the right people on the board, rather than makeup numbers. A smaller group of wise members will always be more productive and effective than a larger group which is a mixture of excellent and average board members. It just seems that having any more than ten in your board leads to unnecessary complications. It is harder to find general consensus, schedule meetings, or you can inadvertently create a ‘two-tier’ board. This will look like an inner circle or ‘senior board’ who have access to greater information, input and influence because of relational proximity to the chair or church leaders, and a ‘junior board’ who feel on the outside, looking in, and normally are the last to know or be consulted on matters.
Church Board Structure: How Do We Change Board Members?
Sometimes, boards will need to change personnel. This could be because of changes in life seasons, availability, resignation, moral failure, or because there is a need for more people to join. This is normal, healthy and understandable. So how do you remove or add someone to a church board?
It isn’t wise for a single individual – whether the chair, the senior leader, someone else entirely – to have sole authority to select who should be on the church board. It is unhealthy for one person to have the authority to pick and choose board members as you risk the board being weakened and diluted. The reality is that the board would become an inter-church political lobbying group because by nature, in that position many of us would pick those allied with us or sympathetic to our agenda and ideas.
Another common practice that I have concerns about is congregational voting. It isn’t wise for people within the church to vote who should be on the board for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is hard for someone to cast an informed vote when they don’t know them or the fruit of their life. Secondly, voting – which is motivated by a democratic heart for everyone to have a say – is flawed here, because people who have been part of the church for a matter of weeks have the same influence as people who have served the church for decades. Related to this is the fact that voting means someone who has been a believer for a matter of weeks also has the same level of input as someone who has walked with Jesus for years. For these reasons, I believe the voting process opens itself up to a political process that doesn’t necessarily result in spiritually-minded outcomes.
So if board members aren’t selected by one person, or by the whole church voting, how do you choose them?
I propose a third way: the board members themselves should collectively choose who is on the board, through proposals, discussions and consensus.
If the board is full of godly and wise men and women, this will be an effective process. But to prevent any possibility of a ‘boys club’ or cronyism, there are a couple of checks and balances that are wise to put in place.
Firstly, bring in limited terms of service, perhaps a few years at most, to serving as a board member. This protects against entrenchment – someone remaining in position for life. Additionally, it makes it easy for people to leave the board if they wish, and also if a board member becomes problematic. Of course, there is a difference between a problematic board member and a church board member asking wise but difficult questions!
Having limited terms of service is one thing, but I wouldn’t recommend having restrictions on the number of times someone can serve. Someone of quality who is prepared to rejoin after having a season not being on the board is no bad thing, as they will bring a freshness of energy and perspective, as well as experience. This also allows a building of unity and trust, which is a powerful thing when church leaders and church boards partner together.
A church board needs to be able to monitor its own health and work for its own development. So sometimes a change of personnel can be a positive force! This means the board may need to regulate itself, and it is appropriate for the board to on occasions perhaps even vote for the removal of one of its members in exceptional circumstances, for example, moral failure or some ongoing habitual life pattern that disqualifies a board member from serving with effectiveness and integrity. Removing someone for political reasons, though, should be considered a red flag.
Church board structures have a degree of flexibility, but there will no doubt be legal requirements you will need to be aware of. Fundamentally, the structure should serve the board in its role and responsibilities, and not restrict or limit its ability to function.
The other articles in this series look more closely at the following areas:
- Overview and summary
- Defining board responsibilities
- Choosing board members
- Board structure
- Running effective board meetings