In Batman: The Dark Knight (2008 – IMDB), Harvey Dent is at dinner with Bruce Wayne and their respective love interests. They start talking about what role Batman plays in Gotham. Dent recounts what happens when a community is in crisis (script link – PDF):
Natascha: But this is a democracy Harvey…who appointed the Batman?
Dent: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered public service.
Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up his power.
Dent: Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Thus, Batman represents a failure in the system to deal with a crisis. Since democratically-elected people couldn’t change the tide, Batman stepped in and seized authority as judge, jury, and punisher (not executioner, of course). When the people can’t fix a problem, an executive steps in who uses power without much accountability to fix the problem. Done and done.
What kind of church in a crisis?
I share this illustration because many churches that are seeing dwindling dollars and ministry bloat are turning from representative boards (boards whose members represent various constituencies in the church to give a holistic perspective) to single governing boards whose members are not elected based on representative politics. Like the Romans dealing with crisis, they sacrifice perspective in order to navigate through a crisis–one that may never end.
Indeed, it’s all the rage these days to be highly critical of representative boards. Representative boards are made up of people who represent different constituencies in the church or community. A member from the youth. A member who has joined in the past 2 years. Equal numbers of men and women. Detractors say the people who create representative boards have checklists and get all the ethnicities, demographics, and tenure’s balanced…at the expense of people who may be more competent to solve the problems being addressed. It leads to inefficiency as the people “represent” their constituency and you have a war of interests rather than a common mission.
So Gil Rendle and many other church governance experts promote the Single Board model: instead of a representative group of people on the Finance committee, you have a single Finance chair. Instead of a representative group making decisions about building rentals, you have a single Building Superintendent. The positions are chosen for competency instead of representation. The argument is that a smaller group has the capacity to represent the whole church (in all its diversity) without having them at the table.
Everyone’s Voice Matters
However, that assertion doesn’t fly with progressive theology or with the current state of the United Methodist Church.
Every contextual theology asserts the need to have minority voices at the table. Feminist theology asserts the need for women’s voices in a male-dominated culture. Queer theology asserts the need for LGBT voices in a straight-dominated culture. Liberation, Womanist, Asian and other contextual theologies have varied perspectives but a common sentiment: if representative voices are not at the table, the table is unjust.
In theological terms, we have a conflict between our systems theory and our theology that leads to a troubled ecclesiology.
As if our ecclesiology needed more troubling. During the Call To Action process from 2010-2012 in the United Methodist Church, one of the commissioned reports by Towers-Watson talked repeatedly about a lack of trust in the denomination. From top to bottom, we are a denomination that doesn’t trust each other. It’s from the bottom-up as laity don’t trust where their apportionment dollars go. It’s institutional as jurisdictions keep the south from getting an untrustworthy northern (or–egads–western) bishop. From the caucus groups sowing discontent to the average Methodist middle, trust is a currency that is not being used as often as it should.
So, in short, while a single-board model seems to be the best way through a crisis, it is divergent from two aspects of United Methodism: theological need for minority perspectives and a lack of trust in our ecclesiology.
One practical suggestion
It is true that shrinking resources force hard decisions. When resources are increasing, you can keep the many voices. When there’s shrinking resources, you actually have to make decisions. Someone has to be able to say “this is more important than that.” But how?
I actually appreciate Gil Rendle’s suggestion. I was at a church training event with him and he entertained my persistent question on this topic and said that there’s a better way to do Representative boards. Here’s his suggested process for a 7-person Representative Governing Board:
- The Leadership or Visioning Team (whoever would not be part of the governing board) comes up with a list of qualities that they want in a board. Vision, able to see big picture, inclusive in perspective, attending more than 2 years but less than 20, etc.
- The Team takes the list, prays, and makes nominations based on those qualities. They get together again, rank the list and draw a line after the top seven. Those are the list.
- Then, after the board slate is drawn up, the Team looks at it and says “It’s all men–we need a woman.” Then a woman who is at #9 gets moved up to replace one of the Seven.
- Rendle didn’t have any suggestions as to how many members of the 7 person board would be up for representative replacement but in my mind so long as the pool includes only those people that fit the “competencies” the Leadership Team has discerned, it might work out.
This may or may not work. But a church lucky enough to have a representative board that has the common gifts and skills–what a powerhouse that would be!
Building Justice into the System
In a time of change, churches that do turn to executive management to navigate their problems and sacrifice perspective along the way must wrestle with these questions:
- The critical question for those churches is how do they discern when they are “through the crisis” and can return more power to the people, and how do they create within the system to do that–be it term limits or a expiration date of this church governance in the future.
- The critical question for the governing boards is how to be in a listening mode to the congregation and build trust.
- The critical question for persons who value representative politics is this: We need new tools of social justice moreso than merely having voices at the table. When the system goes backward and rejects representative voices, how do we seek to make sure the system is more just?