Can a Single Board govern a diverse church?


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?


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  1. says

    Jeremy, Thanks for your thoughts as our church explores an alternative model of decision making than exactly what is prescribed in the book of discipline. I agree that representation is good, however, I wonder if the churches who are seeking a smaller board had the representation you mention. Look at your finance committee for example. The book of discipline states that the finance committee is predominantly made up of leaders or representatives from the other committees that exist. Our Ad Council and our Finance Committee are nearly identical. Does it serve anyone that these two committees meet regularly and finance sends recommendations to themselves as the ad board.

    I appreciated Mike Slaughters suggestion at EPA Annual Conference this year that suggested a 12 person board – with four functioning as finance, four as SPRC, and 4 as Trustees. My question is where the pastor, Lay Leader, and Ad Chair fit in this if 3, 3, 3 and those three then added would be better/worse.

    I am in a church where the active people are on the committees and they serve well but there time is devoted to committees. There is little person-hours left for ministry. We need to find some way to separate the idea that the best/only way to serve through the church is by serving on committee and free people up for ministry/small groups/witness.

  2. Julie A. Arms Meeks says

    I’ve said it before & will say it again: I’d kill to get some Bishops here in the SEJ that come from the North, North Central, or West. To shake up the Episcopacy would shake up the Church and bring change far faster.

  3. says

    Jeremy, I see your point about the dangers of non-representative governance and I agree to a certain extent. However, the traditional UMC model of Administrative Board and Council on Ministries also has significant drawbacks over a single Administrative Council.

    Our congregation, St. Stephen UMC in Mesquite, TX, voted last year to create a single council and a church conference. The single council is intended to eliminate the “silos of management” among various committees that were leading to conflict in the church, particularly over lack of communication. The church conference is intended to bring before the entire congregation all issues that require our collective, representative discernment.

    While the transition has been rocky, I’d have to say I think the model is working six months into the change. It requires preparing a detailed agenda in advance of monthly meetings, and it requires that committee chairs submit reports in writing (via email). The reports are NOT reviewed during the meetings; only those agenda items that require the council’s collective discernment are brought forth.

    This model will be put to the test in July, when our pastor and I will bring back to the church conference the results of our research into whether St. Stephen should proceed with the second phase of the North Texas Conference’s Small Church Initiative. The first phase was six months of training in leadership, evangelism and intentional spiritual development skills. The second phase involves an “outside” consultant’s review and assessment of the congregation’s identity and key areas for growth, which is not merely numerical growth.

    One last thing: I don’t care for Gil Rendle’s management philosophy at all, and I particularly don’t like his 7-member board idea. Efficiency isn’t the be-all and end-all of church; that is — or should be — the building of strong relationships, first with God and then with one another. Relationship building is a time-consuming, messy process, kinda like life. In fact, it IS life, and more suited to church than the business models that are currently all the rage among church experts.

  4. Dan Moseler says

    To answer your basic question, yes, but…only if the members have a shared vision for ministry, act with integrity, and hold each other accountable for their actions. If those conditions are not met, it really doesn’t matter how many committees you have. I kind of like Mike Slaughter’s model, where three subcommittees exist to address specific management or functional issues and come together to oversee the management and direction of the ministry. As I understand it, they accomplish this by meeting one evening a month. Everything else is handled by ministry teams, accountable to the board, which have permission to function, expand or contract, and even cease to exist when their purpose is served.

  5. says

    The church I am currently serving (for a few more days), adopted what we called the single+ board structure. Our Church Council has 16 members on it, 8 of which form the “guiding council.” This model has served well the small church (75 avg attendance) I serve. In the old model, there were over 110 nominations (more people than were regularly attending worship!). And, most “leaders” were holding 2-3 positions. In the single+ model there are 16 nominations (and a strong push for everyone to voluntarily join a ministry team which is represented on the Church Council). No one is allowed two positions. In the small to medium sized church, I think the single board structure can help free people up for hands on; however, I think you raise some valid concerns when the single board is applied to medium to large congregations you can lose some valuable and diverse perspective.

  6. Cesie says

    We were having a similar conversation just last night at our Ad Council meeting. We have not gone with single board governance — and (shock!) our church is still moving forward. However, keeping such a large group attending and engaged in overall strategic thinking is a leadership challenge. The success of a board is highly dependent on the leadership skills and talent of the Ad Council chair. Fortunately, we have a good one now.

  7. David Wonderling says

    One thing no one seems to want to address is that chruches are political institutions. In a perfect world they would not be so. Of course, we do not live in a perfect world.

    I think one of our founding fathers said deomcracy is a very messy thing. Sometimes changing things, moveing forward, and making decisions seem painfully long. One thing I always loved about the Mehtodist church is that it was born into a time that coincided with a fledgling democracy, the United States of America.

    Some have said in time of crisis democracy should be suspended. Well some Methodists who are in tune with history remember that Hitler made the trains run on time and Stalin made changes depending on who he felt threatened by at the moment.

    So, we devise a centralized board, who may be hand picked by some one with a political agenda. Or maybe someone who wants to stir the pot of schism or maybe wants to build a super church and evolve away from Methodism. I think democracy is messy, time consuming, and sometimes contentious.

    I would rather be governed by a resprestative group and I would rather trust their judgement than to put power in the hands of a few. The history of Christians if filled with plots, macninations, and positioning that would rival any king or princling.

    And, heaven forbid, some Methodist clergy are both power seekers and want to be king.

    I remember in the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas said when you strip away all the rules and all the laws in pursuit of the devil, when you come face to face with the devil where do you hide?

    A single board, I am sure can make the trains run on time, but I think John Wesley and our founding fathers would have said give me the mess of representative goverment and representative boards. There are pastors among you who want to split up the Methodist church. Give them a single board, and you will help pave the way.

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