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Centerboard: Which Model Are You?

April 2009
By: Tom Lothamer

Is it a "working" or "policy-setting" board?

In discussions with a prospective board member, I was outlining her responsibilities. At one point in our conversation, she promised that, if her membership on the board were approved, she would be a "working" member.

I knew from her past history what she meant. But I needed to clarify a few things with her.

Carla is a very active member of the local pro-life community, and has been for many years. She'll be a tremendous asset on our board for that reason. We'll encourage her to continue in that capacity and welcome her involvement in the activities and programs of our ministry. However, we don't have a "working" board.

What do I mean by that? Don't our board members participate in our programs and activities? Don't they "work" on committees? Yes, but primarily they are a policy-setting board, and any services they perform—whether it be hosting a table at our annual banquet or speaking in a church on behalf of the ministry—are subordinate or incidental to that role.

As I've spelled out in previous articles, a policy-setting board is one that governs. They do not carry out the daily functions of the ministry or even oversee the staff. That is my job as the executive director.

The role of this type of board is limited to creating policy and charting the course of the ministry within the bounds of our mission and vision statements—approving the budget; hiring, firing, and evaluating the executive director; and providing counsel and support to the executive director. We also expect them to give sacrificially, pray regularly, and attend meetings faithfully. Without their guidance, Baptists for Life might drift from one emergency to another or be distracted by a myriad of good opportunities that arise but don't fit our mission.

I am under the authority of my board, but whenever one of our board members steps into another role for the ministry—such as hosting a table or filling a speaking engagement—they actually temporarily come under my authority, or even under the management of some of my staff members.

Let me give you an example. This past Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, we asked one of our board members to step in at the last minute when one of our speakers was unable to fulfill his commitment. Chester was willing, ready, and able. He's an accomplished speaker and well-versed in pro-life issues. But he submitted to my guidance when I asked him to speak for us, and he even requested input from our staff so that his information would be up to date. We all appreciated the humble way he worked with us, and he did a very good job for us on short notice.

That momentary submission to a "working" role did not diminish his capacity as a member of our governing body. We all recognize that, as a whole, our board is the authority for this ministry. So, yes, our board "works" by volunteering at our banquet or golf outing, speaking in the community, serving on the committee to draft our strategic plan, recruiting prospective donors, advising on legal or financial matters, etc., but that is not their main function.

It might be helpful for me to point out that our board has evolved over the years. In the early days we had much more of a working-style board. We met more often, and individual members took on more of the urgent, daily tasks because the ministry was just getting off the ground, and there was no one else to do what needed to be done. (In fact, many of us who eventually came on staff were originally board members; our service roles turned into jobs.) But a ministry will, and should, outgrow that phase. The board should expect to pull back and take on a policy-making approach as the ministry becomes more established and grows, and as staff members undertake more of the day-to-day roles.

Since the '90s, our board has met on a quarterly basis. Because it's a policy-setting board, and we're a pretty well-oiled machine, that's all the attention that's needed. Your ministry will be greatly relieved when your board can graduate to that level.

If your board is still a "working" board, let me suggest this topic of discussion for your next meeting: How long will it be before we become a policy-setting board, and what do we need to do to get there?

If you'd like to know more about the policy or governance style of board leadership, feel free to email me or consult these previous articles from this column:

The Board Chairman's Role
Doing My Part
The Role of the Board Member
Who's My Boss, Anyway?

Because our board is "self-perpetuating," Carla still has one more hurdle to go through before becoming a member: a vote of the current members. I expect she will be approved, and I look forward to her partnership in ministry. And she can look forward to joining a vibrant group of like-minded, similarly motivated board members.

Tom Lothamer is President of Life Matters Worldwide in Grand Rapids, Michigan.



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