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.

    • says

      I am very sympathetic with your point, Mr. Wonderling (and Jeremy’s) . . . I too am very hesitant to change from representative boards for efficiency solely or because of fear. However, I do think it is helpful (for me anyway) to remember that Methodist polity as first preaching points or chapels, then congregations, and then Conferences have changed significantly over time. John Wesley and the founding generation of Methodists in America were far from believers in a Jacksonian or even a Jeffersonian Democracy when it came to church polity or church politics (as I think you may suggest, although I may be reading you wrong here). John Wesley didn’t run things by representative boards, he ran it himself . . . having the first, middle, and final word! In the first generation of American Methodists, Bishop Asbury resented this “tyranny” of Wesley, but ran things the same way in the Colonies and then the United States. Even after this first generation, from Bishop Cartwright and the “western” evangelists, to Bishop Soule and the Civil War, it was a very strong “top-down” organization. The separation of powers between the Bishops (executives), legislature (General Conference), and courts (Judicial Council) was there . . . but always within the ever-vigilant purview of strong-willed Bishops. It wasn’t until the early to middle 1900s (in convergence with the strong “layman emphasis” influences happening within other Mainline Protestants) did we come to the structure we are now more familiar with today. Needless to say, John Wesley and the founding generation of Methodists did not like the “mess” of representative boards . . . they much preferred the “trains running on time” approach! :) As I begin to think about this excellent point Jeremy raises, I am trying not to think of what we could lose, but instead how we can take the positives of the last 50 years of congregational polity and mold it into a new and better expression for the purpose of making disciples and transforming the world in the time in which we find ourselves . . . a post-Christendom, post- White Mainline Protestant dominant, post-modern culture. It may need to be more efficient and less messy so as not to bog down the hands-on ministry needed to be done by our smaller congregations, yet we must also keep to the vision of fair representation we have inherited.

  8. says

    Don’t forget that our system and BoD is created for the large church setting. Small churches are crippled by the weight of our complex system of governing. volunteer basis and leadership are worn out because everyone serves on 3 to 4 committees at a time. in a small church the current system is both a waste of time and a waste of resources. I would say that single boards our preferred for the day today business of the local church – especially the smaller church. Call a church conference for the bigger decisions that need a more representative voice.

    Our structure with all of its overly cumbersome facets is literally killing small churches. I love you, bro, but what you’re advocating here isn’t progressive at all – it’s grasping to preserve a long held system that is largely antiquated at the local level.

    • says

      Ben, I’m curious if you kept reading to the “practical suggestion” section? Rendle’s suggestion actually serves as an effective way to include progressive theological convictions alongside making sure you have the most competent single board around. I don’t see how you can read that section and still claim that I’m attempting to preserve a long held antiquated system.

  9. Ryan says

    I was at the training event too. Coming from the perspective of working in a new church start I see using the single board structure as a godsend. We’ve been racking our minds over how to organize the church now that we have a regular attendance of 40 or more per week. At the moment decisions are handled by committees that answer to the pastor. Most of the decisions really only get discussed in the committees and all of the decisions get executed by the pastor or the apprentice minister (me).

    We are looking for a way to organize ourselves that won’t lead to burnout and that will empower people in our community to be leaders and have the power to take things on without getting approval from 5 different committees. I remember when I was a youth coordinator in Eugene. Before the church moved to a single board structure it would take months before anything would happen. Once we moved to a single board structure it made it much easier to do my job.

    Trinity UMC in Eugene wasn’t a struggling church by any means. They are still financially sound and are one of the stronger UMC’s in the metro area. This model wasn’t implemented out of necessity, rather out of a realization that things weren’t happening at the rate they needed to happen. We live in a fast moving world and I think we need a church organization model that can move with the times. That’s not to say we should be hasty in our decision making process, but we should be able to move through issues in a more efficient and effective way.

    Not sure if the model presented at the training is the best possible answer, but I do think it is a whole lot better the the prevailing organizational model.

  10. says

    For almost 20 years in two very different churches I have led/participated in the single board governance style. We never entered this from a crisis standpoint. The opportunity was to free as many people as possible for ministry, to streamline decision making, and to raise the expectation of leadership. We have sought to continue to be representative in our application process. One must apply to be on the board, go through an interview, be invited to serve a term, and off we go.

    This frees the leadership to have on average 10 meetings a year. Early in my ministry when the church I served had a traditional structure we had nearly 40 meetings a year. Both structures can work and be representative. Both have downfalls and challenges. Choose the leadership structure that allows the most kingdom work in your setting.

    peace, Duane

  11. John Tucker says

    I agree with all the comments that support the Accountable Leadership Model. As a white male who returned to Christianity largely because of feminist and black theology and who has frequently been in trouble for speaking up for the marginalized I value the same things you value but think your concern over “single board” is an example of liberalism turning against itself. Just about every church I have encountered is held hostage by bullies, enablers and the least healthy 10%. Accountable Leadership presents the opportunity for the most mature 10% to lead. Also, a church is not a nation. We cannot tax or draft. I see no oppression in not permitting everyone to have a say in what color to carpet the youth room or whether to have coffee in the sanctuary. Give me some nontrivial examples of how a single board deprives people of justice.
    Lastly, I frequently say that while the Governing Board should not have representatives of constituencies it should be representative or look like the congregation. Age and gender, years of attendance are all taken into account.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, John. The need to overcome the 10% who are unhealthy is an important one, even moreso in smaller churches. I think Rendle’s “practical suggestion” above is a way to have that same group be representative as well as competent.

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