In church governance

In church governance

John Truscott continues his new series on working with volunteers – but with a special twist. Each article will focus on one area of church life where volunteers serve rather than looking at volunteering in general. The series is designed for all church leaders.

So far the series has covered worship services and church finance. In this third article John considers those asked to serve as church Trustees, PCC members, Deacons and on various committees. Future articles may look at volunteers in areas such as the church office, and children’s and youth work.

The word ‘volunteer’ brings two different ideas to mind. One is someone who offers to fulfil a role rather than being forced into it. The second is someone who receives no money to carry out a task as opposed to a person who is paid for the work. Churches of course depend on such people, in both meanings of the term.

Much is written on how to motivate and support volunteers and I train in this area myself. But in this series I want to experiment with a slightly different approach: starting with specific tasks within church life that require volunteers and seeing how that might affect our thinking.

What roles are there?

First consider the church offices we might cover under this general ‘governance’ heading. Here are three categories – you will see that I am taking the meaning of the term quite widely.

Church Trustees or Council

These may be elected by the trustee body itself or by a church meeting. In Church of England churches this will be the Parochial Church Council (PCC), elected by those who attend the Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM).

Committee members

These include those who serve on a Finance Team, a Worship Working Group, and other similar bodies responsible for strategy, usually sub-groups of the Trustees. Some such groups may have day-to-day management as well as governance responsibilities. Some may have a limited life.

‘Leadership Team’ / ‘Deacons’ / ‘Elders’

These are terms used in different ways in the various denominations. The distinction between what is or is not a governance body is not always clear within some church structures. But some groups with titles such as these have a clear, governance role as in the Diaconate in many Baptist churches.

The second point to note is that this group of volunteers will include those in any or all the following five categories:

  • those who have been selected for the role – head-hunted or recommended and approached and persuaded to take this on;
  • those who have offered to undertake this responsibility knowing the offer will be immediately accepted, who have actively volunteered themselves in that sense of the word;
  • those who have been elected by a church body or, more likely, a whole church meeting, in a competitive setting;
  • those who have stood for such elections when there have not been sufficient offers for a ballot and those who have stood have automatically been appointed;
  • those where a specific church responsibility automatically puts them on a governance body (such as an Anglican Church Warden on the Standing Committee and PCC).

There is overlap between these categories but at heart there are two areas of contrast: those who offer v those who are asked, and those selected v those elected. The first contrast is common to all volunteering posts, the second only applies in governance and similar settings where there are elections.

As with the previous two articles we now consider four issues of volunteering that have a particular application to the particular area; in this case of governance.

Applying four principles of volunteering
1: Check motives

Why do people volunteer? There has been research on this in several studies over the years giving a range of reasons, mostly altruistic but sometimes questionable, as to why people offer their services without pay.

The pattern in churches is not that different from society as a whole, although there are special issues in church work where volunteering is seen in a context of practical service which is the privilege of all Christian disciples.

Many who offer for a church role on a council or committee will be seeking to give their expertise and their time to ensure that the church functions effectively. For many this will be part of an offering of themselves to their Lord in glad response for the blessings they have received from him.

But that does not mean that some more questionable motives can creep in – and none of us is free from such temptation. Consider the following possible reasons for volunteering.

Status

Successful election as a Trustee can be thought to bring with it a measure of status in the church community – although this is quite contrary to the idea of servant leadership. Some may offer or stand for election for this reason.

Power

Appointment to any committee can lead to some measure of power, whether through the ability to influence decisions, to exert authority over others (such as church employees) or to have access to confidential information. Some value the power that comes with governance positions.

Opposition

An election as a Deacon can enable someone with a grudge to oppose the church’s Minister or leadership team, or to ensure ideas for change are neutralised. Some stand for this reason, perhaps with others, as a pressure group.

When training on volunteering in churches I usually include a section on motivation because it is important that, just because someone offers for service or stands for election, this does not necessarily mean that all their thinking is generous and sacrificial. This becomes particularly relevant for governance positions. It is wise to be aware of this and stress that service in this form is not about status or power.

Check up the notes, Why some offer, why some don’t, at TN100 on the Training Notes page of the Resources section of my website.

2: Share and agree vision

Few volunteers are motivated by working at something trivial that seems to have no context. They may have been told the ‘What’ but it helps to know also the ‘Why’.

It follows that someone plugging in data to a spreadsheet works better if they can see what this spreadsheet can do for the church’s work. The person reading a lesson on Sunday needs to have a sense of the power of Scripture to change lives, to help them be excited at the possibilities of their seemingly straightforward task. One principle of volunteering is to help people get a sense of the vision and not just the routine detail; to let them see where their contribution fits into the great scheme of life.

But this principle applies in a rather different way to a church council or committee. If a group of people meet together to take decisions that will involve change, and if they want to do so with wisdom and sensitivity, it is vital they all agree on where the church, and therefore they as a group, are heading.

If a group responsible for the church’s pastoral ministry have different ideas as to what this ministry might look like in two or three years’ time, the group is not going to function effectively. If a council is split between those seeking radical change to make the church accessible to those living in the area and those out to ensure no change takes place so that they remain comfortable, there are problems ahead.

So one key need for any governance group is to define and agree the vision, to come to a common mind on the destination they are seeking to move towards. A vision is not a purpose (why we are here) or a set of values (how we do things) but a destination, a point in the future to aim for, whether that is one year ahead, five years in the future, or in eternity.

At heart the vision should be what the group is fervently praying for. It is concerned with their faith as to what God might do through them.

The real purpose of a church’s council or any trustee group is to agree and then hold the church to its vision, to ensure all its activities are working towards that. So both purpose and vision need to be understood and agreed for the group to work well.

3: Clarify character

For many roles in church life the person profile, defining character, gifting, experience, etc., might be described as the most important feature of those appointed. This is particularly so for those in governance roles. The Pastoral Epistles make this explicitly clear.

But church practice often finds this too much of a challenge. In some churches the task is seen of finding anyone prepared to stand for such bodies, or that offers are gladly accepted without any form of testing.

This is a principle for all volunteering roles. If you are looking for people to serve in a retail establishment, the way they treat customers matters. If you need people to be part of a team, the willingness and ability to submit to this discipline is key. Safeguarding is now rightly seen as a major issue for all work with children and vulnerable adults.

If you are seeking volunteers to govern a church, Scripture makes it very clear that character matters. Trustees, Council members, Deacons or whoever are, whether they like it or not, role models for the Christian faith. How can you serve on an Outreach Group without having a passion for evangelism? How can you offer for a leadership team if you do not display the fruit of the Spirit in your life and a clear understanding of Christian belief?

So what does your church do to help people elect new office-holders? You should describe the task they are expected to carry out, but also the kind of people they need to be. I cover this point more fully in Training Notes TN87, What to look for in your leaders, in the Resources section of my website. That draws lessons from various Scripture passages and then lists possible requirements under the headings of:

  • Essentials
  • Church membership
  • Gifting
  • Competence
  • Experience
  • Teamwork
  • Availability
  • Legal requirement.

But within all this it is character that matters most of all. Churches should not be frightened to face this issue. Just because people are volunteers does not mean such matters can be side-lined.

4: Work as a team

It is surprising how few people see a church committee as any form of team, but if you look at it through this lens you get a completely different view of your meetings. I covered this idea in a Maintenance and Equipment News series on meetings 18 months ago. I also mentioned it in the previous article about volunteering in finance.

But here let me take the idea and apply it to all volunteering. Most people find any task more enjoyable when performed as part of a group. Team-working takes this idea one step further when the group grows into a team which has learned to take off their masks and be real with each other.

Volunteering should, wherever possible, be seen in a team context. Church councils and committees should seek to play as teams as much as they can. Even if they have been elected rather than selected, they can seek to play like a team (purists say teams have to be selected).

Even if volunteers work solo, they can take encouragement from seeing themselves as part of a team. Lesson readers, intercessors, flower arrangers all do their jobs solo. But there can be real value in knowing you are part of a team which meets regularly for encouragement, for training, for learning from each other, for owning the team concept.

This is especially true for governance groups. If their focus is on meetings then each person will be trying to get their way. If their priority is on playing as a team the focus moves to problem-solving together, valuing one another, working in harmony with each other, even though people come with differing ideas.

It makes a meeting a special event in the ongoing life of a team, rather than the be all and end all of what this group is about.

So consider your governance groups and apply these four principles of volunteering to them: checking out the motives for serving, knowing and being passionate about a common vision, being tested for Christian character, and seeking to work together as a team rather than thinking just in terms of meetings.

John Truscott photoJOHN Truscott is an independent church consultant and trainer who champions the ministry of creative organisation. Visit his website and check out the Resources section for a growing range of over 140 items which you can print out and/or download. Note in particular the Management section page which includes working with volunteers. You can follow John on Twitter @johnnvtruscott. Church Administrators should join the UK Church Administrator Network (UCAN) which John co-ordinates. See www.church-administrator.net