Reflecting on the role of board and staff in congregations

Recently, I’ve been reviewing The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994; now superseded by the second edition). In the essay titled “Board Leadership and Board Development,” I was struck by this passage on the roles of board members and staff:

“One of the conventional pieces of wisdom in nonprofit governance is the adage that policy should be made by the board and implemented by the staff. While the underlying principles is sound, the aphorism itself is an oversimplification. In The Board Member’s Book, Brian O’Connell (1985, p. 44) states the following objection: ‘The worst illusion ever perpetrated in the nonprofit field is that the board of directors makes policy and the staff carries it out. This is just no so. The board, with the help of staff, makes policy, and the board, with the help of staff, carries it out…. Also, it is naive to assume that the staff doesn’t have considerable influence — usually too much — on policy formulation.’ [pp. 131-132]”

This argument is developed in more depth, and is worth reading. But it confirms two assumptions that I make as a staff member of the specialized nonprofit organization which is a congregation:– (1) Since board members are ultimately the ones who are legally liable for actions of the board and the organization, therefore I assume that as a staff member one of my primary obligations is to be sure that the organization complies with the law. (2) I assume that the best way for me as a staff member to aid the board in setting policy is for me either (a) to be a sort of organizational archaeologist and help identify a mission and goals that are already present in the congregation but not clearly visible; and/or (b) since Unitarian Universalist congregations tend to have similar missions and goals, to be a sort of organizational field anthropologist and report on the best missions and goals that can be found in other similar Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Obviously, in all Unitarian Universalist congregations, there will certain commonalities; and obviously, as a minister trained in Unitarian Universalist practices and values, I am in a position to educate a given board about such practices and values. But no matter what I say or think, it is ultimately the board’s responsibility to implement Unitarian Universalist values and practices in a specific local congregation — which I should let them do, even if I disagree with them — because “the board, with the help of staff, makes policy, and the board, with the help of staff, carries it out….”

Next post in this series on ministers as leaders.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on the role of board and staff in congregations

  1. Bill Baar

    Is there a difference between “policy should be made” and making decisions?

    I’d argue there is, and maybe it’s a big difference.

    Boards are good at making decisions among policy options set before them.

    (The one I’m on now does it admirably and with discipline).

    But constructing policy and policy options, a broader thing.

  2. Dan

    Bill Baar @ 1 — Yes, big difference between making decisions and making policy.

    Most experts on the subject agree that a primary task of nonprofit boards is making policy, and making sure policy is carried out. Most experts seem to believe that nonprofit boards should construct policy, or at least should be wary of merely choosing between policy options set before them by staff. The way nonprofits are set up in the U.S., boards are legally and morally responsible for constructing policy.

    Now, having said that, let’s remember that most boards inherent a basic framework in which they have to work — incorporation papers, bylaws, existing mission statements, existing long range plans, etc., all drive policy in nonprofits. In my experience in UU churches, what boards are mostly doing is setting priorities on various policies and policy options that are already pretty much in place. In your church, for example, you’ve got a 100-year-old covenant, a good set of bylaws, long-range plans, and a strong sense of mission — your board’s policy decisions are nicely constrained by a long history of good-to-excellent policy-making.

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