12 Marks of a Healthy Board - Lesson 1

Roles, Responsibilities, and Focus

Healthy boards understand the roles and responsibilities of a board and of their individual service on the board. They are also mission focused.

Taught by a Team
Taught by a Team
12 Marks of a Healthy Board
Lesson 1
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Roles, Responsibilities, and Focus

A. Roles, Responsibilities and Focus

1. Introduction

2. Roles, Responsibilities and Focus is the First Mark

3. Mission, Vision, Strategy and Objectives

4. Summary

  • Healthy boards understand the roles and responsibilities of a board and of their individual service on the board. They are also mission focused.
  • Healthy boards are intentional in selection process of board members and have a board manual in place. They avoid spiritual dysfunction, monitor and evaluate results, and ensure adequate resources to accomplish the mission.
  • Healthy boards use their meeting times efficiently to focus on priorities, and are able to objectively assess their own performance. They care enough about other churches and ministries to collaborate. They also take responsibility for overseeing the well-being of their staff and families.

In Twelve Marks of a Healthy Board, Bert Downs, John Johnson and David Jones discuss characterstics that are essential in choosing board members and structuring how they interact together. They also describe how the board should minister to the staff and congregation and prayerfully lead by articulating a vision. 

Bert Downs
12 Marks of a Healthy Board
Roles, Responsibilities, and Focusbr/ > Lesson Transcript


A. Roles, Responsibilities and Focus

Healthy boards understand the roles and responsibilities of a board and of their individual service on the board. They are also mission focused.

1. Introduction

Welcome to the Twelve Marks of a Healthy Board. My guess is that if you are watching this video at this time, you are either on a board; you are working with a board or you are about to do one of those two. So we are excited that you are here today and we think that the Twelve Marks of a Healthy Board will help you to get a real sense of how an effective board moves forward and accomplishes the mission of the board to which it is attached. I am your host for today and my name is Bert Downs and I am the Chancellor at Western Seminary. Your guides for the day though, are guys who are intimately involved with board work. We are delighted to have you with us. How about you talk to us a little about who you are, what you are doing.

John: My name is John Johnson and I have been a pastor for almost 30 years so I have worked with numerous boards. I also work at Western Seminary teaching pastoral theology, and I direct the doctoral program.

Bert: What about you David?

I’m David Jones and I’m Vice President of Corporate Affairs for the Luis Palau Association. I’ve served with Luis for over 33 years. I work closely with our Board of Directors and I have served on both USA and international boards over these last 33 years.

Bert: Plus I believe you are working with evangelists around the world who are working with boards.

That’s correct. The Palau Association has a network of over 400 evangelists and one of the practical things we do is to try to help them with their board development.

2. Roles, Responsibilities and Focus is the First Mark

Bert: When we talked earlier you said that one of the marks of a healthy board is that it had a good understanding of its roles and responsibilities. You were pretty adamant on that David.

Yes, I think the first mark is about understanding the role and the responsibilities of a board and your service on a board. When this breaks down then all the others marks break down with it. The board of a Christ-centered organization has an enormous responsibility in the area of governance and policy setting. They have a key responsibility to preserve the integrity of the ministry, to establish strategic direction, and to support the long term future and viability of that ministry on whose board they serve. It’s important too, to remember that boards do govern. They don’t manage. I know that sounds simplistic but often times when boards get in trouble it is when they try to micro-manage either the church or the Christ-centered organization. It is critical for a person on a board to understand that their role is to steer the organization in the right direction, to ensure they are mission focused. We will talk about that in a minute. They need to provide proper oversight, to make sure there are policies and framework in place; to ensure accountability, to ensure everything is done at the highest standard professionally –above board in money matters. That things are done not only with excellence but according to Biblical principles and so the board has a huge role to establish those policies and procedures that will make absolutely sure that the entity is governed in the most effective and efficient manner.

Bert: John, how does that look in a church?

I think a lot of times in a church, a board and a staff, in particular, have to sort out their roles and there has to be a real clear understanding. Sometimes in a church there can be assumptions made about the roles of the board and the staff. This can lead to a certain dysfunction. We need to see the roles as more together as we see the board has a shepherding role alongside the staff. We need to make sure that we don’t cause confusion between the roles of staff and board as the two groups pray together and minister to people together, but what differentiates them? All those things have to be very clearly down on paper to say; ‘Here’s the role of staff, here’s the role of board.’ Also in that clarity of roles who is responsible to who? There is certain submission of board to staff but there needs to also be a certain submission of the staff to the board.

Bert: Pursue that a little bit that is a significant comment.

Well, the staff has this responsibility to help set the framework of the ministry: where it’s going to go, its objectives. But when they set their strategies and their objectives they need to come to the board and get agreement that they are heading in the same direction. But more than that, they need to see themselves as responsible to the board. The board holds the staff responsible for carrying out their set objectives. This then liberates the staff in that they will know they have the board’s backing. At the same time the staff can ask the board to evaluate their work.

Bert: David, is that how it looks in Christ-centered organizations?

The matter of role clarification is very important. Often people who are passionate about the mission of their church or organization don’t really know what their roles are. First and foremost the board members need to recognize that they work with the senior or lead pastor or the president of their organization. That is their main point of contact with the organization so they have a very important role to bless and encourage that person, to support them and to pray for them. They may not always be in agreement with them but they need to understand that’s the person they work with, not the others members of the staff. There first point of entry into the organization is the top leader. After this one of the key responsibilities of the board is to understand and help shape the beliefs, the vision, the mission, and the core values of the organization. Too often boards approach the strategic direction by first looking at minute details instead of focusing on an overview of why the organization exists, what is its purpose, what is trying to accomplish. Too often boards will get involved with minute details which are really not important in terms of the strategic direction of the organization. Obviously boards have a responsibility in the area of finances. They have legal responsibility for the financial integrity of the organization. Therefore the staff has responsibility to the board to provide them with good financial information, but the board should be involved in the budgeting process. They need to approve the budget but they shouldn’t be micro-managing the budget. Also the board should participate in fund raising and in development and in bringing the resources to the organization that are needed for it to accomplish what they believe God has called them to do.

Board members need to see themselves as ambassadors for the ministry or the church on whose board they serve. If you are an ambassador you represent your country overseas in another country. So it is with a board member. It is very important that board members help drive the planning process. It is essential that Christ-centered organizations have a strategic written plan and the board has a responsibility to be architects of that. They are not tradesmen, they are not the plumber or the carpenter they are the architects. They need to be involved at that higher level but they need to ensure that there is a strategic written plan for the organization. Obviously boards are also involved in policy setting, decision making. They have an important role in the area of providing spiritual leadership; prayer should be a very important component of their job description and responsibilities. They should be prayer warriors for the organization and they should stimulate and promote prayer among their various constituents for the ministry. They need to set a standard of excellence. Personally I believe that for every Christ-centered organization, one of their core values should be excellence. Those organizations and churches that have high reputations in their communities have adopted excellence as one of their top, core values. There are also some legal responsibilities in the area of maintaining accurate government standards, tax documents. Boards need to be in obedience to the law of the land. Where some boards fall into dysfunction is when they think that because they are Christ-centered organization they are above the law. One person told me that he was only accountable to God. I told him: “No you are not”. You are accountable to the tax department, to the government, to your wife, to local media. So a requirement for the board is to make sure all the proper reporting is carried out. They need to have assurances that those things are being properly cared for.

Bert: John, you talked about the fact that at the church level, the board sometimes has a shepherding role. This feels a little different than what David has been talking about. Maybe you would like to talk about that.

There comes a point than as a church is growing you don’t want the staff to be isolated and only coming to the board for certain issues. They need to feel like a team. This can be a really healthy thing. If they are isolated it becomes “Us, and them” rather than working together as a team. Isolation of either the staff or board can lead to mistrust. There can be some risks involved in the relationships between boards and staff. I remember when I was pasturing a church in Europe we working on breaking down the barriers between board and staff. One day the board chairman (a rather high-powered individual) asked me, ‘What makes you any different from me?’ Clearly he was challenging who I was as a pastor and how he saw himself. I remember he went on to say: ‘This idea of ‘first among equals’ doesn’t make any sense to me.’ So I had to decide: ‘Where are the boundaries? Who am I? What is a senior pastor? What is a board chairman? How are their roles different?’ We had to dig down and define the difference.

Bert: So what was a couple of difference you came up with?

I remember; one is that whether you like or not, a pastor is on call 24 hours, 7 days a week whereas for a board chairman it is a secondary role. They get their notes and come to a meeting once or twice a month while the pastor is living out the ministry daily. Also part of the call of the pastor is the shepherding role which is a little bit different from the board’s role. There is also the pulpit role. Also the pastor is sorting out direction. There are clearly defined roles for the pastor and the board chairman yet there is a tension because they want to do things together as a team.

Bert: So it is a delicate balance they need to keep. It’s almost a hybrid relationship.

John: That’s right, I think the relationship of the senior pastor and the board chair starts there. As I have told almost every board chairman I have worked with: ‘Our relationship is probably the most important relationship in the church, and therefore the adversary will probably do as much damage as he can so we have to work at our relationship really hard.’

Bert: I think that is such a crucial thing. I would guess that is probably true in Christ-centered organizations too.

David: Yes, I would echo what John has said. When situations develop like he has described, typically it is because the board member does not know what his responsibilities are, and the organization has not clarified areas of accountability. For example: who has the authority for different areas. So assumptions are made or maybe in some cases nobody has authority in those areas. That’s why it so important to have roles of authority and responsibility clearly written out so as to avoid confusion, Plus when you bring on new board members you can present something to them in writing that will hopefully prevent difficult situations from occurring.

Bert: We need to move off this first mark but before we do, what are a couple of things which from your experiences are really critical to not having a board move into that realm of dysfunction? So that they are clear with their roles and responsibilities? What would be a couple of tools?

John: I would say that we have to all understand, ‘What is a Christian Leader?’. A lot of the dysfunction is when you get into issues of power and control. If we can come together to say first and foremost: ‘We are servants, we are here to serve God first of all, we here to serve the Body and we are here to serve each other.’

Bert: So that’s not just understood?

John: No, because a lot of men I’ve worked with on boards come out of a world where many of them are leaders. That is why we elect them to our boards, because they are established leaders. But their understanding of leadership in the world where they work is different to the idea of leadership in Christian organizations. Sometimes board members find it difficult to make this switch in their thinking. Also if a leader is not experiencing success in leadership in his work he may look at the church as an easier place for him to exercise leadership and control. Foundationally we have to look carefully at our definition of leader starting with Mark 10:45.

David: I think an important tool is being extremely, extremely intentional about who you bring on a board, and then make sure there is some training. For example in the business world, people who serve on a board expect to have a job description, and before they join the company board they are told this is why you are on the board, this is what is expected of you. Often in churches and Christ-centered organizations people join the board and they are just not clear about why they are there and what they are supposed to do. They may ask: ‘How do I know if I am being effective? How do I know if I am fulfilling my responsibilities?’ So it is really important that on a frequent basis the board pause and talk about: ‘Why are we here?’

Bert: Absolutely! So spell it out and make sure we get the Biblical and theological pieces correct. Well, there is much more that we will talk about that’s a great start on the first mark which is that boards need to have an accurate understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Now kind of like the great commandments where we have one that says love the Lord, and another one that says love people we have two great commandments here. We just did the first one but the second is kind of like it. That is, that a good board, an effective board, is mission focused. So let’s take a different route for just a moment. What does a board look like when they are not mission focused?

John: I think that one of the issues is that a non-mission focused board will be focused on bringing a budget instead of a ministry plan, they will get stuck talking about less important matters and forget what the church’s ministry is really all about.

Bert: So how do we get at this ministry focus which is really highly important?

John: We need to help the board think about this by going back to asking: ‘What is our mission? What is our vision? What are our strategies?’ Thus we lift our language from the ordinary. So we are not bringing a budget, we are not having an annual budget meeting. Instead we are bringing a vision we are saying: ‘Here’s what it costs, are we on-board with the vision?’ That’s a radical departure for a lot of churches who are putting these things in front of the vision and missing the point. I don’t want people arguing with whether we can afford it or discussing what percentage increase over last year’s giving we will need. But: ‘Is this the vision we believe God has given us?’ If we believe the vision then we are going to support it. That gets back to making sure that the board is mission /vision focused.

Bert: It sounds like that if you are not careful everything sinks to the lowest common denominator which may well be money.

John: Right. I think just about every church has a mission statement. We didn’t necessarily invent it we were given it by God so we are all on the same mission. But I am surprised how many don’t think beyond that to ask: ‘So what is our particular vision, what is our dream, why has God put this church here for this time, for what purpose, and what are the strategies that are going to help get us there?’ Most churches don’t necessarily ask those questions so their language gets reduced because there is a void there.

Bert: Do the evangelists you work with struggle with this same thing David?

David: Yes I think it’s a struggle for Christ-centered organizations in general where the leader assumes that everybody knows what the vision and the mission is. They think that because it is in all the literature and because the person has joined the board they will know what the organization’s vision and mission are. This is not always the case. I’ve seen that on church boards that I’ve served on, some people don’t really understand the mission of the church. You would think that they would understand as they are a member of the church, they are there every Sunday, they are at the annual business meetings but they don’t understand. Mission needs to drive everything a board does. Mission should drive the agenda of board meetings. I don’t think you can repeat enough what the mission is. I agree with John that if you don’t do that, boards, especially boards made up to male leaders, it seems to be more of male tendency, they want to drift into money, into budgets. I think a sign of dysfunction on a board is when the majority of a board meeting is a discussion on money.

3. Mission, Vision, Strategy and Objectives

Bert: Well, in our previous discussion in terms of roles and responsibilities that has the feeling of them drifting down into the management pieces instead of that higher perspective and moving the whole thing forward. So vision does what, mission does what for an organization? What does it primarily do?

John: Well I think that the mission says: ‘Why are we here?’ and the vision says: ‘Where are we going?’. The strategies ask: ‘What is our game plan /how?’ and the objectives gets down into: ‘Who, when and where?’

Bert: Can you take us through that again? That’s very good. Take the vision and walk right through it.

John: The mission, which we don’t have to create, it is given to us by God, asks the question WHY? Why is the church here? We know pieces of that: we are here to worship God; we are here to reach lost people; we are here to disciple; we are here to love one another. But the vision forces us to think beyond the obvious to where, where are we going; what do we dream; what do we want to look like in 5 years/ 10 years?

Bert: So this is God’s place for us.

John: What is the reason for this church at this time? Just like in our own personal lives; we all have the same mission: to glorify God. But if I ask you what’s your dream for your life? It’s going to be different from my dream, which is great. We don’t want to have the same dreams. But even there when we’ve answered that question, we shouldn’t just file it away. We need to ask: ‘How are we going to see that dream become a reality?’ Once we start agreeing together as a board and staff those are the things that ought to drive what we are doing instead of other lesser things.

Bert: Including giving us points of assessment in terms of how we are doing.

John: Yes although you can’t get to assessment until you’ve answered these questions.

David: Often times I think boards are good at explaining: “This is what we do.” And they give you a list of activities but they can’t tell you why they are doing those things. That comes back to mission. They need to answer the ‘Why’ question first and then discuss what it is we do. What we do is in response to the ‘Why?’ issue.

Bert: Now you have a particular challenge because I would guess that for you and for many of the evangelists you work with that their board members come and go. They are not in church every Sunday with the evangelist of course. So how would you keep them linked to the mission? That seems like a particular challenge.

David: I do believe that most people join the board of an evangelistic team or an evangelist because: one, they are passionate about evangelism about seeking and saving the lost. Often times they are passionate as well about the evangelist, the founder of the organization and they want to help him reach as many people as possible for Jesus Christ. Again where the dysfunction can come in is when that passion doesn’t translate into helping this evangelist accomplish his mission. I’ve seen it with evangelists too. It’s easy to drift into a discussion on money every time an issue comes up. So these twelve marks are really applicable to evangelists and to non-profit organizations. The ‘Why’ question which is the mission ‘Why do we exist?’, ‘Why are we here?’ It has to drive all the decision making, all the strategic plans, the strategic direction for where the organization is going. The temptation is to drift into these peripheral areas that basically are staff work. Now for some evangelists who have very small organizations, the challenge for them is that often times their board members are also volunteers. This can be a problem to work out when the individual is being a board member and when they are being a volunteer, non-paid staff member. Sometimes you might have a board member who is also an non-salaried staff member. My counsel is to move away from that as quickly as you can. Of course every organization is different and one model does not fit all. There are hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations in America of every different size and scope. For example there are some non-profits whose annual budget is only $50,000 per year and there are others that have a billion dollars a year coming in. Obviously board governance issues and structure, and organization are quite different in those two organizations.

I would say with churches for example a church plant, a brand new church will have quite different board issues than in a well-established, dynamic, growing church. Obviously board issues at a church of 50 people and a church of 1500 people will be quite different. But at some point even with a start-up entity, a smaller church or a small evangelistic team, Lord willing, there is going to be a period of some growth. During that period of growth it’s so important to quickly move into solid, good governance. Frankly, I think if that doesn’t happen the entity, no matter what kind of entity it is, it’s not going to grow. It will always stay in that start up phase, that infant, baby phase. If it really wants to see some growth and accomplish its mission as quickly as possible it has got to move towards having a board that understands that its primary function is in the area of governance and providing that missional direction, that strategic direction.

Bert: We are going to wrap up but we have 10 more points to go!

John: Make sure there is really good communication, that we have sat down and come to an understanding together. Ensure that the congregation understands that as well so they have the right expectations. Also, with mission and vision and strategies, you really give yourself to them so you can keep coming back to them. If we, as board and staff, can get our main focus around mission, vision and strategies, that will get a sense of great purpose. Otherwise if we get reduced to minor things that’s when you can start getting into issues of control. For example if you are focused on resources there is a limited amount of that.

4. Summary

David: In summary, healthy boards are very intentional in understanding their role. They have a proper understanding of that because you can have a wrong view of what your role is too. They have a proper understanding of their role and the mission of the organization they are serving. They are committed and dedicated to making sure that everything is about mission. A healthy board will avoid dysfunction at all costs, they will avoid micro-managing, they will avoid getting involved in issues which are actually the staff’s territory. Healthy boards focus on mission, mission, mission!

Bert: So healthy boards know their roles and responsibilities and healthy boards stay focused on mission, vision, strategy and objectives and in that order.

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