Effective church governance

It was a big weekend for elections. Our church was a polling station on the
Saturday and on Sunday we had the AGM. People joked about recycling the cardboard booths for the AGM.

Right now is the time to get down to business of meeting with the new parish council.

You won’t find parish councils in the bible, let alone guidance on how they should meet. Someone thought them up. They’re useful. They help us order what happens at church. They help churches get on with gospel ministry.

Generally speaking, the parish council is the governing body for the financial and property affairs of the parish and each church of the parish.

The parish council is there to govern, not to lead or to manage or to do the work of ministry.

How though should parish councils work?

The default pattern of meeting seems to be one evening a month, but this is not required by the Parish Administration Ordinance. I’m not sure how this monthly culture developed but it is a powerful tradition.

I’m wondering about its wisdom though. The problem with meeting monthly is that there is a strong gravitational pull to managing rather than governing the affairs of the church. The agenda becomes cluttered with less urgent matters and the parish council can quickly find itself being drawn into management, or worse – micromanagement. Frankly, that is a waste of good people’s time and energy. They shouldn’t have to decide what color paint the kitchen should be, or who can be asked to go on the flower roster.

Here are some alternate patterns of meeting:

John Kaiser is an American Baptist who suggests a quarterly pattern of meeting for church boards.  His very provocative book on how to organize congregations for mission is Winning on Purpose

In it he suggests a schedule for having less meetings with more focus and preparation. The obvious problems with quarterly meetings are that someone missing one meeting misses 6 months and there is also less chance for relationships of trust to develop.

Zac Veron in Leadership on the Front Foot (p172) advises the parish council meet once a year to set staff salaries. Instead of a parish council, governance is done by a ‘Ministry Coalition’ appointed by the Senior Minister. This coalition is where visionaries and strategic thinkers give long term focus on ministry. Clearly this polity isn’t the culture of the diocese as Zac is the first to admit. But I think he would say it is within the rules and has proven wonderfully effective at St James, Carlton.

At St Barnabas’, Roseville East, the parish council delegated its governance to a ‘Change Taskforce’ to develop a strategic ministry plan. This met fortnightly for five months and spent time on top of that consulting the members and evaluating the current ministries. We needed more time than the parish council could give to this. The taskforce reported to the parish council then to the entire congregation through a period of major change. That taskforce ran parallel to the parish council, which carried on with other governance matters.

I’m thinking of maybe meeting six times with one of those meetings a half-day retreat. I’ll put it before the parish council and see how they feel. I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t mind meeting less and for those meetings to be better focused on governance.

Many parish councils are right now meeting for the first time. Has the tribe got wisdom on effective patterns of meeting? Does anyone get away for strategic retreats or have meals together? What pattern works for you?

I know few things are as exciting as committees, patterns of meeting and the Parish Administration Ordinance, but plenty of churches that are dead keen on mission fail spectacularly when it comes to organisation and implementation. There are also some pretty horrible dysfunctional parish councils that burn good members and need serious reform. We therefore do well to help each other on this.

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