en·trench verb \in-ˈtrench, en-\
: to place (someone or something) in a very strong position that cannot easily be changed
Full Definition of ENTRENCH
a : to place within or surround with a trench especially for defense
b : to place (oneself) in a strong defensive position
c : to establish solidly
: to cut into : furrow; specifically : to erode
Governance and Ministry
How Congregations Organize
Adapted from Chapter 3 of Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership by Dan Hotchkiss, Alban Senior Consultant
While congregations are remarkably diverse in many ways, they tend to be organized under three common structures: Board Centered, Committee-Centered, and Staff Centered. These patterns have less to do with church “polities” (i.e., congregational, episcopal, and presbyterian), cultural or ethnic make-up, or intention. Inherited traits and the size of the congregation tend to drive the way congregations organize.
The Board-Centered Congregation
Congregations usually start with a cadre of highly energetic and committed members. When the group grows to the point off wanting anything so formal as a board, it naturally calls on those who have taken charge of pieces of its practical work: music, education, building, finance, membership, and so on. This is a good, workable board structure for small congregations. Board members have earned their leadership status by taking responsibility; they work closely together and everyone who needs to know and make decisions is already in the room. However, even as a congregation grows, this structure often persists beyond its effectiveness.
The Committee-Centered Congregation
The committee-centered model of governance is so common that many people assume that it is the only proper way to run a church or synagogue. The essential trait of the committee-centred model is that both governance (deciding “what” and making sure it happens) and ministry (deciding “how” and doing it) are in large measure delegated by the board to its committees.
Typically, committee-centered congregations adhere to the Map Theory of Committees, that every programmatic decision resides with a committee. So, for example, if an idea involves music it has to go before the music committee. The Map Theory creates a bias against change by putting standing committees in a position to veto change.
The committee-centered structure often emerges out of a board-centered structure as a congregation grows. Instead of shifting decisively away from a board-centred structure to something else, boards make small adjustments over time. Committee “liaisons” may replace committee chairs on the board, and decision-making power shifts to committees. The board spends more of its time responding to requests—for permission, for approval, for comment—from the committees.
The animated illustration below shows how “supercommittees” such as finance and property can emerge. Triangle relationships come into play as committees report to the board as well as petition or attempt to influence other committees. This triangulation becomes more complex when staff is added and/or when the board has not clarified its working relationship with the main clergy leader. This leads to tensions. Added staff can lead to a new “supercommittee” of personnel that might have another name like “staff-parish” or “mutual ministry.” When the personnel committee’s role with the staff team is not clearly defined especially problematic triangles result. The personnel committee becomes an alternative boss for anyone who does not like the real boss. The triangles can multiply.
Here are some common less-helpful features of the commitee-centered model:
A passive board that spends most of its time listening to reports, responding to proposals, and arbitrating conflicts rather than envisioning the future, creating long-term goals and policies, and ensuring organizational performance. The board has no agenda of its own—only the sum of the agendas of its committees.
A miserly approach to delegation, in which boards and committees approve projects provisionally and then bring them back repeatedly for criticism, reconsideration, and approval of next steps. This can be a highly frustrating process. It also can be a crutch for people who want to avoid accountability.
A fragmented staff whose members connect more strongly with their natural consitutuencies—educators with parents, musicians with the choir, administrators with the finance committee—than to the staff as a team.
The Staff-Centered Congregation
A response to the shortcomings of board- and committee-centered governance has been the staff-centered governance model that sometimes goes under the names of “permission-giving” or “purpose-driven.” It starts with a charismatic clergy leader who articulates the congregation’s mission and vision and recruits “ministry teams” of paid and unpaid staff to carry it out. This structure encourages a pastor and staff to say yes to new ideas and helps ensure that deliberative processes do not get in the way of ministry. One congregation that adopted this structure coined a slogan to describe its governance reforms: “Fewer meetings, more ministry!” So what’s not to like?
Dependence on one leader. If the leader leaves or is discredited, the institution can take a long time to recover. This risk can be mitigated by a succession plan.
Decisions are limited to a few, or even one person. It does not take advantage of the power of a committed group of people to make better decisions. It is not participatory nor does it take advantage of every member’s gifts for discerning the congregation’s mission. A community willing to be patient with people’s differences and indecision will correct and improve the insights of even the most gifted individuals.
Some Even Worse Ideas
Usually people who utilize these governance practices have the impression that denominational polity requires them, or that they are widespread. The fact that one or both of these impressions may be correct does not make the ideas any better.
Elected committees and committee chairs. The congregational meeting elects every committee chair and sometimes every committee member as well. Who is empowered by voting on a slate of 30 or 130 nominees? It might seem to be the nominating committee. In practice, the de facto leader of each committee (who may be a staff member) ends up doing most of the recruiting, thus the official nominating process is as empty as the election.
Staff reporting to committees. While this may seem a natural way to describe the relationship between staff and committees, what happens when there are conflicts between clergy, staff, or committees? Who is equipped to supervise, evaluate performance, or arbitrate issues?
Multiple governing boards. In some congregations, a board of trustees control the money while the program board does most of the work. Sometimes one board is said to be responsible for the “business” aspects of the congregation while another board takes charge of the “spiritual” part. This can be a set up for conflict, for a strong bias against anything new, and for creating an excessive dualism between mission and money.
Jumbo boards. Congregations that grow sometimes expand their board proportionally, perhaps on the vague theory of proportional representation. If a board’s job is to make sure the congregation adheres to its mission and purpose, it’s important that it be the right size for the task. Large boards (more than a dozen members) find it difficult to think imaginatively as a group or stay focused on a finite set of board priorities. As a rule, large boards tend to be more passive and less able to engage the staff as strong partners.