How to Build Better Boards (2 of 2: Guest blog by Dr. Liam Atchison)

Any average American who has paid some attention to national news reports of the last twenty or thirty years could probably name a least a few—too many—Christian organizations that have failed. Those of us who work in the sphere of Christian ministries can name many more. As a result, there is keen interest among boards, CEOs, and management of evangelical non-profits in better ways to govern organizations.

Most of these same people believe the Bible but are disillusioned because organiztions have been governed in unbiblical ways. Sin has too often taken hold in one of its manifold forms in many ministries that began with biblical and necessary missions—with disastrous results: moral failure, malfeasance, or even pure incompetence.

I am happy to say that the organization I work for has been relatively well governed for three decades, but it was equally apparent that we could do better. The board has always had godly members who have supported visionary leadership. But—let me be both honest and realistic—as a staff member I often felt our board did not trust my education, experience, and giftedness to exercise judgment about the personnel I was charged to recruit and develop for the organization. Sometimes I was confused about who my boss was. Was it the CEO, the board, or even a single board member? Lines were crossed and confused.

Then, in the last few years, our board has transitioned to a Policy Governance® board (hereafter “PG”), in order to be more effective in its governance and fulfillment of our mission. Everything changed, or so it seemed, almost overnight. I feel great relief. I know who my authority is, who it is that I serve, and what means are acceptable for me to use in helping the organization move toward the accomplishment of its—very biblical—purpose.

I do not claim to be an expert in PG, and I still have a great deal to learn. Nevertheless, I am impressed by a few things that seem to evidence a very biblical approach to governance. I mentioned my observations to Stan, my boss, and he thought it would be a good idea to share a few of those insights as a guest blogger.

I am under no illusions that the Carvers, developers of Carver Policy Governance®, set out to create a Bible-based model. But the model is “biblical.” I am defining “biblical” not in the sense of a divine pattern revealed in the text, but as the significance of principles in keeping with the disposition of the Bible. I see at least three biblical principles in PG that are more biblical than other models of governance. (As I develop these I will provide a few Bible citations, but these are to allow you to check the context before and after the verses to see whether these are legitimate applications or significances of the biblical text—space does not here permit me to provide the exegesis, which precedes application. Feel free to argue with me in the Comments section below.)

 

1. In the PG model, as in the Scriptures, the real leaders are those who see themselves as servants (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 20:28-35). Persons who serve on PG boards represent the interests of what are called “moral owners,” and govern on behalf of the latter. “Moral owners” are those for whom the organization exists. The organization exists as a kind of trust or provision for the flourishing or protection of a group of people and their interests.

Who are the moral owners? This last seems like what should be a foundational question for any company or ministry. It is not an easy question to answer and should not be because once the board identifies the moral owners the true big picture (or “end” of the organization) comes into focus. Because PG models seem to begin at this point another important benefit emerges: The “big picture” (our calling or purpose in life) is always in view.

In Christian management literature, some make a big deal out of insisting that God is the owner and the organization exists for him. For some (not all) PG smacks of a counterfeit for this reason. While no one would disagree God owns in the sense of possessing Christian organizations, the objection still misses the point. Theologically we would say God establishes governments, organizations, and practices. We would agree he acts for his glory. But we also see that he establishes institutions to benefit people: The sabbath was made for man; Israel was a vehicle to deliver blessings to the ethnoi (nations), the church is to be an organism of people set apart for God’s purposes in bringing the Gospel to the world, the local church is led by spiritually gifted people whose purpose is to build up believers in the church so that they move on to maturity.

To object that God is the owner is a subtle equivocation as well as a well-poisoner. Moral owners are not owners in an objective or property sense. Moral owners are ones whose interests and purposes--and as in the case of companies, whose values and principles--drive the organization, which has no reason to exist if it is not serving this population in clear and valuable ways.

 

2. PG reflect a biblical value that gifted and trained people should be able to exercise their talents and abilities without being micromanaged (Ephesians 4:7-16; Matthew 24:45-47; Daniel 1:5-19). In th PG model, the board, in acting on behalf of the moral owners, sets policies for the CEO that are broad enough for him or her to have confidence. The CEO thus has authority to accomplish the agreed-upon end (why the organization exists) by constructing means (the various activities of those who work daily in the organization) that lead to the ends.

Stan illustrated this beautifully in his last blog entry when he showed how empowering parenting was the path of higher wisdom. As I read his article, it struck me that this is what Proverbs meant by training a child in the way he should go. Wise parents give reasonable, consistent, and well-defined limits to their children and then allow them to be children, who will occasionally mess up. Indeed they are better at being children than the adults, so micromanaging is a waste of time and energy and wreaks havoc on morale.

The PG approach  acts on behalf of moral owners but respects CEO and management as infinitely valuable, not only as resources but as persons worthy of having trust put in them. This value is consistent with the biblical truth that God has created all in his image and thus each person has worth. However, there is accountability as we will see in the third principle, but there is one final, significant observation about Stan’s child training example.

The reason Stan’s example of children works so well in helping us frame the best way boards can encourage and motivate management is not because the CEO and those he hires are childish. Stan means that, like CEOs, children are image-bearing and creative people who can wither under the oppressive weight of parents who are hovering Pharisees—parents who practice, as the Australians say, cutting tall poppies down to size.

Nurture and admonition must never include the kind of micromanagement that produces bubbling resentment. Thus, Paul says in Ephesians 6:4 that parents should not stir up anger in their children. So, freedom with accountability strikes me as another example of grace’s superiority to law. By law I mean an entire specific list of regulations analogous to what Moses delivered to the nation Israel to govern every aspect of their lives: when to eat, what to eat, when not to have sexual relations, when to wash their hands, when and how much to give, acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices, how to celebrate holidays, and so on.

While good and right, the law shouted failure, sin, and death to those who were under the Mosaic covenant. However, when Jesus brought grace and truth, he also brought freedom without abolishing rules of upright conduct. The CEOs role and responsibilities in PG has more of the character of grace than traditional forms of governance where the lawgivers are dealing with divergence from whatever is the acceptable path.

In an extreme, but an illustrative case, I once worked for an educational institution in which the largest donor insisted that the board monitor the daily work of the president to make sure he carried out every step of this “head honcho’s” detailed program for the school. When the president fell short, the donor said he would end his substantial giving unless the hapless board chose as their new president one of the only three candidates the big donor was prepared to back! This governance behavior was not only unethical, but it put the accreditation (as well as the public reputation) of the school in jeopardy.

 

3. It is inherent in the PG model that (in the case of a Christian organization) unbiblical and unethical means of accomplishing the ends are unacceptable (Ephesians 4:17-32; 1 Corinthians 6:7-11; Matthew 25: 48-51). The board builds policies and gives freedom to the CEO to work toward the accomplishment of the end in any reasonable way. An unreasonable way would undoubtedly be to lie, cheat, steal, and hoodwink one’s way to accomplish the end. These are sinful.

However, equally unacceptable in a Christian organization is for CEOs to act in self-interest or to otherwise usurp authority by acting in a way that policies have reserved for the board. We could imagine that a CEO may claim that such short-cutting makes it easier to do one’s job, but in PG as in the Bible, the end does not justify just any means. The board has circumscribed its policies as being in the best interests of the moral owners. Even an “understandable” taking matters into one’s own hands on behalf of the owners by the CEO is by definition not in the best interests of the moral owners. PG spell out these critical limitations and thus provide discipline and accountability.

 

So we have seen that PG, while not claiming to be biblical, has principles that are consistent with the sense we get in the Bible about leadership, service, management, and ethics. It is no wonder that Christian organizations are increasingly adopting this approach to governance.

 

[Note from Stan: Dr. Liam Atchison holds a Th.M. from Dallas Theolgoical Seminary and a Ph.D. in History from Kansas State University. Before joining Global Scholars as our Academic Vice President he was a professor at both public and Christian univesities, a university dean, a church planter, a pastor, and the director of a center for spiritual formation. He recently co-authored a new book on American history and politics: Civil Religion and American ChristianityHe regularly blogs at Mossbunker.Review]

 

For further reading see “What is Biblical about Policy Governance?” by Dr. Richard Biery. Dr. Biery is one of the leading experts on Policy Governance®, having trained under John Carver. He is the founder and President of The Broadbaker Group, providing governance and performance consulting.