Who owns your congregation?

Who owns your congregation?

A congregation's owner isn't its board, minister, or members; it is its mission.
Dan Hotchkiss


As a conversation starter, I sometimes ask church board members, in my work as a consultant, to tell me what their job is. I hear a variety of answers. Someone usually says, “We represent the members of the congregation. They elected us, and we should do what they would do.” The board, in this political perspective, is like a city council or the U.S. Congress: representatives elected by the people to make law on their behalf. But “doing what the people who elected us would do” is no simpler for a board than for a legislator.

Should a board do what its constituents want, or what they would want if they understood the issues better and had spent more time thinking deeply about long-term implications? A problem with democracy in congregations (and elsewhere) is that future voters do not vote. Since most congregations plan to be around for more than a short time, the board must represent not only current members but the disenfranchised future also. Clearly, this responsibility requires an understanding of the board’s job that goes deeper than “we represent the members.”

Board members sometimes say, “Our job is to give the members what they want.” This idea depicts members of the congregation as customers and the congregation as a store. The customer is king, and the chief end of the congregation is to please the customer. The key metrics of success are quantitative: membership, attendance, contributions, and participation. This perspective on the board’s job explains quite a lot of what an effective board does—especially when it pays attention to the changing culture, tastes, and demographics of its service area and leads the congregation to refresh its program and recharge its appeal. But is this really the point of a congregation?

Congregations do some of their best work when, instead of giving people what they want, they teach them to want something new. It is not unusual to hear a person thank a congregation for the fact that he or she now volunteers to help the needy or takes risks for social justice. The idea of “giving the members what they want” fails to grasp the value of a congregation that intends to influence, not simply to reflect, its members’ preferences and values.

Another answer I occasionally hear is, “We are ministers alongside the pastor.” This is a powerful idea, personified in Reformed theology as the ruling elder, ordained to lead along with teaching elders, also known as pastors. In current Presbyterian practice, ruling elders are elected and serve terms like most other board members, but the rite of ordination (and the lasting honorary status it confers) makes ruling elders more than simple representatives. Elders, as scholar Edward LeRoy Long Jr. put it, rule “according to the guidance of their own nurtured consciences and not merely as spokespersons of particular interest groups.”

The idea that a lay board member’s work is a form of ministry is worth considering in any congregation. Making a board member part of the congregation’s ordained leadership recognizes “gifts of the spirit” in the individual, and acknowledges that boards sometimes need to lead constituent opinion rather than reflect it. While the idea of board-member-as-minister deepens our understanding of an individual board member’s role, it does less to clarify the work of the board itself.

A  board is not simply the sum of its members. It has a role to play and products to turn out collectively. In order to work happily and in harmony, board members need to know with some precision what role they are to play and what results they should produce.

Sometimes when I ask, “What is the board’s job?” someone (often a lawyer or banker) uses an obscure word that speaks rather deeply to the nature of the board’s role: “The board is a fiduciary.” Many people connect this word exclusively with money, but the concept actually is much broader. A fiduciary (in Latin, fiduciarius, “trust,” from fides, “faith”) is anyone whose duty is to act in faithfulness to the interest of another, even at cost or peril to himself. A parent, for example, is a fiduciary for his or her children and must care for them, no matter how much sacrifice that might require. The board of a business corporation holds the corporate assets as fiduciary for the stockholders. Since the stockholders’ main interest, ordinarily, is to make money, the duty of a corporate board is to increase stockholder value.

A congregation’s board is a fiduciary, also. Like a for-profit board, it controls property on behalf of its real owner. But who is the owner? Who owns a church? Or a synagogue? Often board members answer this question too quickly: “The members are the owners!” And the owners’ interest? Satisfactory worship, education, social action, and so on.

The fiduciary duty of a congregation’s board, in this view, is to know what the congregation wants and to provide it—a concept not so different from the political and commercial concepts of the board described above. This way of thinking sometimes produces good results, but it is based on a false assumption. A congregation does exist to serve its owner—but the members of a nonprofit corporation do not “own” it as stockholders own a business. Corporate stockholders can vote to liquidate the corporation’s property, pay its debts, and divide the proceeds among themselves. A congregation—or any other nonprofit—that did likewise would be violating several state and federal laws.

The most fundamental legal principle of nonprofit corporations is that they must use their resources exclusively for the specific purposes for which the state has chartered them. In the case of congregations, the charter purposes are relatively broad. For that reason, and because a congregation is exempt from many of the tax reports required of other charities, it is easy to forget that there is any limitation at all. But a congregation may not distribute its resources for the “personal benefit” of anyone—especially an officer or board member—except as reimbursement of expenses or fair compensation for services provided. For-profit corporations are required to benefit their stockholders, while nonprofits are forbidden to benefit their members. To call the members “owners” under these conditions stretches the idea of ownership quite far.

Who, then, is the owner of a congregation? Who plays the role of the stockholders in a business? Not the members. Not the board. Not the clergy or the bishop or the staff. All these are fiduciaries whose duty is to serve the owner. Symbolically, we might say God or the divine is the owner, and that might be the correct interpretation. But this concept is too big to guide decision making helpfully. The “owner” that the board must serve is the congregation’s mission, the covenant the congregation has set its heart to and the piece of the Divine Spirit that belongs to it. Or to put it differently, the congregation’s job is to find the mission it belongs to, the real owner for whose benefit the leaders hold and deploy resources.

Any effort to improve the governance of a congregation begins by recognizing that its primary measure of success is not the balance in the bank, the shortness of board meetings, or the happiness of congregants. A congregation’s “bottom line” is the degree to which its mission is achieved. The mission, like stockholders in a business, has the moral right both to control the congregation’s actions and to benefit from them. Because the match between a congregation’s mission and a corporation’s stockholders is so close, it seems to me helpful to say that the owner of a congregation is its mission.

An interesting corollary of this line of thought is that when members of the congregation vote, they, too, are fiduciaries for the mission. When a member’s interests conflict with the congregation’s mission, the member’s duty is to vote the mission. Like the board, each member has a duty to make sure the congregation serves its mission—to vote as a fiduciary for the owner—even if that goes against the member’s private preferences or wishes.

And what is the mission? The great management consultant Peter Drucker wrote that the core product of all social-sector organizations is “a changed human being.” A congregation’s mission is its unique answer to the question, “Whose lives do we intend to change and in what way?” A congregation that limits its vision to pleasing its members falls short of its true purpose. Growth, expanding budgets, building programs, and such trappings of success matter only if they reflect positive transformation in the lives of the people touched by the congregation’s work.

Adapted from Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership by Dan Hotchkiss, (Alban Institute, 2009).

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