Policy Governance: Adapt, Don’t Adopt
Since Lincoln Christian University’s board of trustees made a transition in governance several years ago, I have been an advocate of John Carver’s model of Policy Governance for churches and Christian organizations. Now that I have helped several churches in their leadership transition, I have come to appreciate the importance of adapting these principles.
However, I have some concern about adopting the Carver model without thinking theologically and biblically about church structures and governance process.
From more than 30 years of working with churches and church leaders, I know that governance structures and decision-making systems are especially slow to change. But left unchanged, these factors often become a hindrance rather than a help in accomplishing the church’s mission. Paul Borden, in his book Direct Hit: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field, lists “the polity of the congregation” as one of the barriers to leading a church through transformational change. He writes,
Most congregations in the United States are designed to be small, remain small, and function ineffectively in the twenty-first century. These structures, from their inception until now, reflect the cultures in which they were created. Unlike in the Scriptures, authority is divided from responsibility to act. There is little if any accountability for results, and the little that does exist is not applied with consistency throughout the system. (p. 21)
He advocates a more comprehensive, consistent, holistic process for a governing group. In this system, the board or eldership appropriately oversees the church’s fulfillment of mission while empowering the minister and/or ministry staff to lead and manage the details of ministry. The model often adopted is some form of Policy Governance.
My purpose in this article is to define Policy Governance, demonstrate where its principles are compatible or incompatible with Scripture, and offer some suggestions for how it might be adapted in a church context.
Policy Governance: What Is It?
Policy Governance was created by John Carver in the 1970s and is described in his book, Boards that Make a Difference, first published in 1990. In the “Foreword” to The Policy Governance Fieldbook, edited by Caroline Oliver, Carver tells why, after years of serving on boards and with boards as a CEO, he devoted his life to improving board governance: “There was no model for governance.” By model he means, “a collection of principles and concepts that make sense as a whole.”
Thus, he defines Policy Governance as “an integrated set of concepts and principles that describes the job of any governing board. It outlines the manner in which boards can be successful in their servant-leadership role, as well as in their all-important relationship with management” (see www.carvergovernance.com).
The goal of this governance model is to empower the board or governing group to focus on the “big picture” vision of the organization and to empower the administration to focus on carrying out the vision through appropriate and acceptable means within the limitations set by the board. By applying the Carver model, a board is better able to distinguish between governance and administration through the use of four different kinds of policies: (1) ends (or vision) policies; (2) executive limitations policies; (3) board-executive relationship policies; and (4) board process policies (Boards that Make a Difference, pp. 38, 39).
Some churches and ministry-based organizations have modified this four-part model into a three-pronged approach based on John Kaiser’s book, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission. Kaiser calls this approach “the Accountable Leadership” strategy (p. 43). Within this ministry-
modified model, boards develop policies—or, as Kaiser calls them, “guiding principles”—that address three key issues: (1) defining responsibility (comparable to vision/ends policies); (2) delegating authority (comparable to limitations policies); and (3) determining accountability (comparable to some board process policies and to relationship policies).
It is readily apparent that boards of nonprofits and even Christian organizations would benefit from a clearer definition of the board’s role, responsibilities, and relationship with the director or president. But should it be adopted as the model of governance in churches?
Policy Governance: Is It Compatible with Scripture?
A study of such texts as Acts 20:17-31, Hebrews 13:7 and 17, 1 Timothy 5:17, Titus 1:7, and 1 Peter 5:1-4 may help to clarify the biblical functions of what elders do individually, but still begs the question, what do they do collectively as an eldership? While much church leadership literature focuses on the functions of elders as individuals (shepherding, equipping, mentoring, teaching, etc.), very little has been written to address the eldership’s corporate function of governance.
Consequently, such key texts as Acts 15 are often overlooked. In this passage, commonly referred to as the “Council of Jerusalem,” Luke describes the collective work of the apostles and a body of elders. He describes how they worked together to establish guiding principles through a scripturally informed, Spirit-guided, consensus decision-making process of open discussion and debate that they ultimately put in writing and communicated to the churches.
This process reflects in many ways the essence of elder governance. In his book Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church, Richard Swartley uses the term “elder council” to describe how elders fulfill “their collective oversight responsibilities . . . through the decisions they make in the elder council” (p. 76).
One could conclude from the various New Testament references to a plurality of elders that three roles may be implied. First, each elder serves as an individual member of the body of Christ to fulfill the role of an elder as gifted by God and affirmed by the congregation. Second, the elders function collectively as a group “to guide God’s flock,” “guard God’s family,” and “govern God’s people,” as Rick Thompson suggests in E3: Effective Empowering Elders (pp. 21, 22). Third, on occasion (as in Acts 15:22), individual elders may fulfill an additional role, and that is to speak or act on behalf of the eldership or elder council as directed by the group.
So how does Policy Governance fit into this picture? In the “Foreword” to The Policy Governance Fieldbook, John Carver identifies “the four philosophical foundations of Policy Governance” as:
1. Accountability. Given its owner-representative role, the board’s obligation to the true owners is to see to it that the organization achieves what it should while avoiding unacceptable activities and situations.
2. Servant-leadership. As owner-representative, the board is both servant to and leader of the ownership.
3. Clarity of group values. The board is vested with group responsibility and group authority whereas no single member has any.
4. Empowerment. Although staff members are empowered to serve the board’s will, both productivity and humanity are better served if the staff’s latitude to make decisions, to try new ways, and to make mistakes is maximized.
Even with this brief introduction to Carver’s model of Policy Governance and elder governance, some comparison can be made between the two approaches.
First, both Policy Governance and biblical governance see the governance task as an expression of accountable stewardship, and acknowledge that leaders govern on behalf of an ultimate owner. According to Carver, the congregation is the owner (see his article “Ends and Means: Nurturing the Relationship between a Congregation and Its Governing Body”). From a biblical perspective, Christ is the head of the church, which is his body (Ephesians 4:15), and as such he is the owner who paid the ultimate price for the church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 1:18, 19). Since elders “manage God’s household” (Titus 1:7), an eldership serves on behalf of Christ, his church, and those he desires to reach through his church, and must see to it that the church achieves what God desires and avoids what is unacceptable.
In Carver’s model, the board holds itself accountable for its performance and holds the chief executive accountable to approved policies. In Scripture, the first line of accountability for all leaders is to God, which is something missing in Carver. For Christian leaders, mutual accountability flows naturally out of living in a reconciled relationship with God and others in an authentic, accountable, covenant community.
Second, Carver promotes servant leadership, which is consistent with a biblical perspective on leadership (Matthew 20:25-28; Luke 22:24-30). A primary difference between the two is that Carver focuses on the activity of servant leaders, while the New Testament focuses first and foremost on the character and the humble, servant attitude of the leader, and secondarily on the conduct or activity. In Policy Governance there appears to be an absence of adequate attention to the character of the leaders, as the quality of governance policies and processes seems to take precedence over the quality of the people who govern.
Third, in Policy Governance as well as in biblical governance, leadership is shared. Carver recognizes the importance of a diverse, yet unified group (board) that provides governance, and does so most effectively through one individual (the CEO). Even though the New Testament presents leadership as corporate in nature, the early church obviously knew nothing of boards and CEOs. The New Testament authors are clear that Jesus Christ is the supreme leader (“that great Shepherd” in Hebrews 13:20 and “the Chief Shepherd” in 1 Peter 5:4). It is also evident that within this plurality of elders and shared governance, there is flexibility in assigning roles and responsibilities (see Acts 6:1-7 as an example).
Fourth, both Policy Governance and biblical governance place a value on empowerment. However, healthy governance in a church does not merely address the relationship between a board and a CEO, but empowerment of the entire congregation to engage actively in fulfilling the church’s mission. Replacing “board” language with the phrase “leadership team” is more than semantics in a culture when boards often have a negative connotation. “Leadership team” implies both what this group does—it provides leadership—and how it does it—as a team. Even Carver uses this phrase when he says, “The board and CEO constitute a leadership team” (Carver Guide: Basic Principles of Policy Governance, p. 19).
In the church context, this leadership team, comprised of elders and the senior minister, and depending upon the situation, perhaps other designated ministers, provides the overall direction and “big picture” perspective for the church. The senior minister is the one who primarily casts the collective vision to the congregation and coaches the rest of the staff toward the common task of accomplishing that vision.
This role and working relationship are certainly consistent with Paul’s reference to equipping “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers” in Ephesians 4:11, and to those elders who are “worthy of double honor” and “whose work is preaching and teaching” in 1 Timothy 5:17. In a healthy leadership team, a preaching minister serves and leads alongside elders as an equal among equals, whether or not he is an elder.
Policy Governance: How Should It Be Adapted for Churches?
First of all, any discussion of governance for God’s people should begin with a biblical worldview, which means seeing the task from the Creator’s view (creation) and Christ’s view (redemption), not Carver’s view (fall). John Kaiser’s “accountable leadership” approach to applying governance in the church is consistent with God’s original intent for governance that is “safe and effective” (Winning on Purpose, p. 71). The Carver model dictates introducing terminology that requires learning a new vocabulary. But church leaders in fulfilling their governance task must define responsibility (in terms of ends, outcomes, vision), delegate authority (within boundaries and limitations), and demand accountability (of themselves as leaders and others).
Second, applying Policy Governance in a church context requires rethinking the issues, processes, attitudes, and behaviors of those who lead and govern. There are practical reasons for the concepts and principles of Policy Governance to be adapted, not adopted. God’s intention was not to create a board of directors and a corporate CEO, but, rather, a community of mutually accountable servant leaders who work together in fulfillment of their distinct roles by allowing for diversity in equality and unity.
Third, through a careful study of Scriptures, leaders should frame the discussion biblically to keep the focus on guiding, guarding, and governing for God’s glory and the good of the kingdom. Many of the good elements of policy making can be incorporated, but not at the expense of other critical functions that must be carried out for a congregation to be faithful and fruitful. Elders and ministers dare not minimize the importance of fulfilling such vital tasks as shepherding, equipping, and mentoring, nor overlook the obvious need for spiritual leadership.
For an excellent discussion of “the four primary functions within elder governance,” see the chapter “Elder Governance” by Gary Johnson in Answering His Call. From this writer’s perspective, church boards and often elders are too involved in managing or micromanaging the ministries of the church while no one is effectively leading the overall ministry of the church. The critical need in many churches is for clearly differentiated roles for elders who govern, ministers who lead, and ministry staff and teams who manage the ministries.
As churches adapt Policy Governance in some expression of elder governance, it is my prayer that they would develop a healthy leadership team comprised of elders and the senior minister, whose collective responsibility is to govern the church through necessary and appropriate policies or guiding principles. When a leadership team fulfills this vital role, the ministry staff and entire congregation will benefit from their defining responsibility, delegating authority within boundaries, and determining accountability. And, ultimately, Christ will be served and his kingdom will be advanced.
Don Green is director and professor of leadership at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.
Read More about Elders, Boards, and Governance Principles
Paul Borden, Direct Hit: Aiming Real Leaders at the Mission Field (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006).
John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).
John Carver, “Ends and Means: Nurturing the Relationship Between a Congregation and Its Governing Body,” Practice of Ministry in Canada, February 1995, 17-19.
John and Miriam Carver, Carver Guide: Basic Principles of Policy Governance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996).
James Estep, David Roadcup, and Gary Johnson, Answer His Call (Joplin: College Press, 2009).
John Kaiser, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in Their Mission (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006).
Aubrey Malphurs, Leading Leaders: Empowering Church Boards for Ministry Excellence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005).
Caroline Oliver, The Policy Governance Fieldbook (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999).
Randall Richards, How to Build an Effective Board (Washington, D.C.: American Society of Association Executives, 1997).
Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership (Littleton: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995).
Alexander Strauch, Meetings that Work: A Guide to Effective Elders’ Meetings (Littleton: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995).
Richard Swartley, Eldership in Action: Through Biblical Governance of the Church (Dubuque: ECS Ministries, 2005).
Rick Thompson, E3: Effective, Empowering Elders (St. Charles: ChurchSmart Resources, 2006).
How Your Church Can Adopt Elder Governance
After giving it prayerful thought, your church may want to adopt elder governance as its internal structure. In doing so, consider the following process:
Step 1: Pray for Three Things. Pray for (1) a desire to make the transition, (2) discernment to make the change effectively, and (3) for the congregation to understand the need for change.
Step 2: Analyze Your Current Structure. Is it a traditional board structure? Is it an elder board that micromanages?
Step 3: Know Your Bylaws. What is required for changing the internal structure? Will the bylaws need to be amended?
Step 4: Develop Your New Structure. Study elder governance and learn from others. Put the proposed structure in writing. Reach consensus that elder governance is for you.
Step 5: Teach Your People about Elder Governance. Prepare an information packet. Hold informational meetings.
Step 6: Adopt Elder Governance. Amend the bylaws, if necessary.