Effective church governance

It was a big weekend for elections. Our church was a polling station on the
Saturday and on Sunday we had the AGM. People joked about recycling the cardboard booths for the AGM.

Right now is the time to get down to business of meeting with the new parish council.

You won’t find parish councils in the bible, let alone guidance on how they should meet. Someone thought them up. They're useful. They help us order what happens at church. They help churches get on with gospel ministry.

Generally speaking, the parish council is the governing body for the financial and property affairs of the parish and each church of the parish.

The parish council is there to govern, not to lead or to manage or to do the work of ministry.

How though should parish councils work?

The default pattern of meeting seems to be one evening a month, but this is not required by the Parish Administration Ordinance. I’m not sure how this monthly culture developed but it is a powerful tradition.

I’m wondering about its wisdom though. The problem with meeting monthly is that there is a strong gravitational pull to managing rather than governing the affairs of the church. The agenda becomes cluttered with less urgent matters and the parish council can quickly find itself being drawn into management, or worse - micromanagement. Frankly, that is a waste of good people’s time and energy. They shouldn’t have to decide what color paint the kitchen should be, or who can be asked to go on the flower roster.

Here are some alternate patterns of meeting:

John Kaiser is an American Baptist who suggests a quarterly pattern of meeting for church boards.  His very provocative book on how to organize congregations for mission is Winning on Purpose

In it he suggests a schedule for having less meetings with more focus and preparation. The obvious problems with quarterly meetings are that someone missing one meeting misses 6 months and there is also less chance for relationships of trust to develop.

Zac Veron in Leadership on the Front Foot (p172) advises the parish council meet once a year to set staff salaries. Instead of a parish council, governance is done by a ‘Ministry Coalition’ appointed by the Senior Minister. This coalition is where visionaries and strategic thinkers give long term focus on ministry. Clearly this polity isn’t the culture of the diocese as Zac is the first to admit. But I think he would say it is within the rules and has proven wonderfully effective at St James, Carlton.

At St Barnabas’, Roseville East, the parish council delegated its governance to a ‘Change Taskforce’ to develop a strategic ministry plan. This met fortnightly for five months and spent time on top of that consulting the members and evaluating the current ministries. We needed more time than the parish council could give to this. The taskforce reported to the parish council then to the entire congregation through a period of major change. That taskforce ran parallel to the parish council, which carried on with other governance matters.

I'm thinking of maybe meeting six times with one of those meetings a half-day retreat. I'll put it before the parish council and see how they feel. I have a sneaking suspicion they won't mind meeting less and for those meetings to be better focused on governance.

Many parish councils are right now meeting for the first time. Has the tribe got wisdom on effective patterns of meeting? Does anyone get away for strategic retreats or have meals together? What pattern works for you?

I know few things are as exciting as committees, patterns of meeting and the Parish Administration Ordinance, but plenty of churches that are dead keen on mission fail spectacularly when it comes to organisation and implementation. There are also some pretty horrible dysfunctional parish councils that burn good members and need serious reform. We therefore do well to help each other on this.

The Rev Michael Kellahan has experienced the highs and lows of church planting. He also understands ministering in a less well-resourced context, and is currently rector of St Barnabas, Roseville East in Sydney's north.

Comments (24)

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  • Mike Doyle
    March 29, 11 - 11:16pm
    Hi Michael

    Just a minor point I want to draw to your attention. You say "The parish council is there to govern, not to lead or to manage or to do the work of ministry"

    Bear in mind that the Parish Administration Ordinance 2008 says in schedule 1, chapter 3, in section 3.4, paragraph 1, point c:

    The functions of the parish council are...to confer with the minister in the initiation, conduct and development of church or parish work including such matters as are vital to the spiritual welfare of the church or parish and to make recommendations to the minister on ministry within the parish

    Which seems to suggest that leading, managing and doing ministry (in consultation with the minister) could be a key part of the parish councils job. I suppose one of the questions is - what do you see the difference between governance, management, leading, and doing?

    Of course - your other points about the various ways parish councils can do their job are good suggestions and worth talking about.

  • Michael Kellahan
    March 29, 11 - 11:59pm
    Mike - you've actually gone straight to the most important point. I didn't quote the section of the PAO you did but agree they clearly have a 'ministry and not just property/financial' function.
    I'd break it down like this:
    Ministry is done by members - Ephesians 4.11.
    Management is done by staff (paid or unpaid) who equip and co-ordinate members
    Leadership is done by a pastor who leads. He works to set vision, direction and teaches the members. Leading a team well will mean he will confer with the Parish Council in the initiation, conduct and development of church or parish work etc
    Governance is done by the Parish Council who provide accountability and support. Like a Council at a school, they are not there to second guess the headmaster in the day to day running of the school. I think a good Parish COuncil should function like Zac's Ministry Coalition (which is why I wouldn't personally go that route.) As they do they'll rightly bring matters of spiritual welfare and minsitry in the parish to the table.
    In the real world there will be an overlap of people and functions. So Parish Councillors are also members (so do ministry) and may well lead teams (so do management) - but what I'm talking about is Parish Council as Parish Council.
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 30, 11 - 12:00am
    It goes without saying that all of this is taken from a corporate model of governance. You won't find it in the NT. But I'd argue you don't find a particular church polity or organizational structure in the NT.
    So I think we have a bit of freedom in how Parish Council's work but this seems to me a wise way...
  • Ernest Burgess
    March 30, 11 - 3:10am
    I may be stretching a low bow but I think the appointment of the seven in Act 6 is the beginning of church governance to show equity and fairness to every member of the gathering and as I said in a previous blog "I would rather a church at a vestry meeting or parish meeting say we have been ethically sound this year in all our dealings". I would also add that whatever form your Parish Council takes there is an absolute need for transparency. I agree with you on a ministry coalition run and selected by the minister alone would provide for a mushroom effect on the gathering and reminded of the old joke about the reformation "we got rid of one pope only to find we created a pope in every parish".
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 30, 11 - 4:18am
    I've been in contact with Zac Veron & wanted to correct a couple of mistakes I've made:
    1. the relevant page are 159ff (but the whole book is good!)
    2. In those pages Zac describes what they did in the context of a disfunctional Parish Council rather than prescribing it for everyone. So he is not saying annual meetings of Parish Council will be for for everyone. Most Parish Councils are not as dysfunctional as the one he describes. Once they got more gifted & converted people interested in serving, the Parish Council started meeting quarterly. Going to once a year is Zac's advice only for others who find themselves in a dysfunctional situation. It breaks a vicious cycle, and allows the minister to re-frame that side of the ministry. In short, if the parish council of Church X is not broken, don't fix it.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 9:36am
    Thanks for this timely topic. Some thoughts.

    Role of PC
    In one sense, functionally it can be what the Minister and members make it, more like a diaconate, or an eldership, or a ministry coalition or strategy group, or rubber stamp!

    But I don't think it wise to be less than lawful in our approach, and so was pleased to see the PAO mentioned. This gives clear responsibility to PC for the administration and policy re. property and finances and related matters.

    They may confer with and make suggestions to the Minister about the gospel ministry, but this is not the same as leading it themselves. Rightly or wrongly, all ministry appointments remain with the Minister, although when appointed paid staff, the PC/Wardens must concur since finances are involved.

    Further in Anglican polity, the Minister-in-Charge is clearly the elder, since he is the only ordained presbyter (= elder), unless there are Assistant Ministers who are presbyters.

    In addition, from a biblical point of view, I do not think the requirements for election to PC match the requirements for appointment as an elder. Further, my view is that elders are appointed by existing elders in the Bible, not elected by the congregation.

    So I do not think the PC should presume that its job is the eldership/leadership of the parish, though a wise Minister will consult and respect their advice. I view them more like a diaconate for property and finance, and deacons of course can do gospel ministry as well.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 9:45am
    Practical Operations

    I am not as much of an innovative thinker as Michael and Zac. We seem to operate reasonably happily and effectively.

    Assorted things I have found useful over the year.

    1. Start on time.

    2. Time limit discussion. So for example, we finish strictly by 10pm, unless someone has successfully moved to extend the meeting by 9:40pm. This means we only go past 10 when we really need to and makes us more disciplined in discussion as time goes by.

    3. Make sure there's a good agenda published in advance. Although we are not strict about this, if a major decision is required (that is not genuinely urgent), and members of PC have not received the details or briefing material more than 24 hours in advance, they can request the decision to be postponed to the next meeting. So if you really want a decision, you get your briefing or supporting papers circulated in advance.

    4. Maintain an action register: date of item decided, brief description, name of person responsible, space for follow up progress.

    5. Always read the Bible and discuss it at the start, then pray. Not a full study, and not a token either. Just a reminder of where it all the business starts.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 9:54am
    6. I always list the church's mission and vision categories first on the agenda after preliminaries. Often there's not always something to report or discuss in all these areas. But it reminds us of why we bother making sure property and finances and so on are well done. This keeps the main game stays the main game. It also makes sure I fulfil my responsibility to confer with PC about the conduct and initiation of ministry. I often receive valuable feedback or advice here.

    7. Don't be bound by a traditional agenda order of business arising then correspondence then other business. Obviously some grouping of business makes sense, but I was advised generally to list:
    * strategic items before operational items, and
    * items requiring a decision before items simply being discussed.

    8. Keep reminding members (at least in a relatively healthy PC environment) that one of the best members of PC is the person who is brave enough to disagree with the Minister or the majority, not in a negative carping way, but by not just being a 'yes man' (or woman). Make room for discussion and exploration of issues.

    9. Encourage PC to resist micro-managing (e.g. colour of new paint, details of tech upgrade, etc), by referring to smaller groups of one or two to make decisions.

    10. Seek feedback on how you go as chair. After 4 years, I asked my rector's warden to ask current and former members of PC to comment (anonymously) on how I was going as the chair, and any suggestions for improvement.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 10:04am
    Induction of new members

    Perhaps this is obvious to some, but it took me ages to work some of it out!

    After the AGM, I email new members, copying continuing members, to thank them for willingness to serve on Parish Council, and to remind them of normal meeting dates, times, and the finish time mechanism mentioned above.

    I encourage them to update their address book with the emails of the new PC in a PC group.

    I circulate the minutes of the AGM for their attention. Also separately just to new members, I send copies of the last 3 minutes of PC, because joining a committee like PC can be like joining a conversation which has already been going for some time. This will at least give a bit of a sense of what has been on the recent agenda.

    I note that there can be confidential matters in the Minutes and discretion should be used.

    I let them know there is a physical 'pigeon hole' for each Parish Councillor, and explain where it is located and say It's good to get into the habit of checking it regularly.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 10:09am
    I also let them know about the ordinances and resources we have on line. In particular I say...

    1. The main church law or 'ordinance' that governs Anglican churches in our dioceses is the Parish Administration Ordinance, and in our case, indicate we operate under Schedule 1...

    2. Details about the job of Parish Council can be read directly here... (then scroll thru to read about the Wardens' particular jobs; and then the Minister's responsibility)...

    3. More broadly the diocesan website has lots of helpful resources and other materials available to Parish Councillors here...

    4. Lastly, all office bearers in an Anglican Church, whether paid or voluntary, are bound by our national code of conduct, Faithfulness in Service. You can download a PDF version of it with the link below, but I will put a paper copy in each of your pigeon holes. It calls us all to the highest standards of conduct as we seek to serve Christ in leadership roles.

    I basically cut and paste the details of this email to new members of PC from the previous year, so it only needs minor updating. But I think it makes it much easier for new members to settle in, and I encourage people to try it.

    Sorry for these long posts. I hope they have not hijacked Michael's post!
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 30, 11 - 10:10am
    Thanks Sandy - v helpful stuff
    on the handover to new members SDS does have a checklist that looks useful. (In case that link doesn't work you might cut and paste this to your web browser thingy
    http://www.sds.asn.au/assets/Documents/churchwardens and parish councillors/Handover Checklist (2010) - web version.pdf )
  • Craig Schwarze
    March 30, 11 - 10:11am
    Great topic Michael, once again. Like Sandy, I believe that Anglicans should embrace their polity, and work within it. I've seen things go terribly, terribly wrong when people have tried to be inovative in this area.

    I believe the major church polity models (episcopalianism, congregationalism etc) are all Biblically permissable. Furthermore, I believe this models are still around because they've all shown themselves to be essentially stable. They are battle-tested, and have essentially come down to us via a process of natural selection. I think it's unwise to depart too far from any of them.
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 30, 11 - 10:12am
    Ooops - sorry cross posted from same source
    no hijacking at all - generous stuff
  • Martin Paul Morgan
    March 30, 11 - 8:59pm
    The issue of Church governance is an extremely important one. There is strong criticism of the Anglican structures of Wardens and Parish Council by some because these are not "biblical". However as Michael and Craig point out above, this can help us- as we see that there is no proscriptive formula of local church governance in the Scriptures. It is really in the realm of general revelation and what is culturally consistent. So, in our context, we really should be thinking carefully about best practice in governance of voluntary associations with a few trained and qualified paid staff. That is: do what is standard practice in good governance.

    Overlaying this is the Biblical teaching on eldership, ecclesiology and the mission. I think "eldership or leadership" needs to be worked out locally in a way that does not send mixed messages. That is, being careful not to equate being on Parish Council or Warden as being an "elder" in the biblical sense. This can get tricky, as sometimes those people who fill these positions may very well be functioning as "elders" or "ministry leaders".

    Its tricky.
  • Philip Griffin
    March 30, 11 - 10:30pm
    Some years ago Matthias Media published a helpful book entitled 'Fellow Workers'. I still follow some of the suggested ideas in this book, including setting the agenda to allow for discussion on policy issues early in the meeting, and not allowing minutae that often come in guise of 'business arising from the minutes' dominate the meeting.

    I'm not sure if this book is still in print, but it is very helpful.
  • Mark Earngey
    March 30, 11 - 11:04pm
    Thanks very much for the above post, and comments on advice for Parish Council and governance. As a young ordination candidate, this is really helpful stuff to begin to get my head around! Please do post more thoughts if they pop into your head - my head will be grateful!
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 11:09pm
    My single biggest practical need at PC is to find people who can take minutes properly (at least what I consider to be properly).

    In my years of chairing PC I've only ever found one person who could do it really well. (I am sorry if this is discouraging to various ones who have served this way). That person was an experienced PA, who had served multiple staff.

    * She could get material down quickly.

    * She worked out which bits were essential to record, and where she was not sure, she knew to ask as the meeting went along, and easily picked up a good intuition for what mattered.

    * She could lay the material out well for the eye; spell and write properly; and she noticed details, so did not let very many typos through.

    * She was efficient in getting minutes distributed the very next day.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 11:15pm
    Being blunt, Too often minutes secretaries fail in one of more of these areas...

    They cannot keep up with getting stuff down, or perhaps they just do not notice it, as I often find record of important matters entirely omitted.

    They record material that frankly is irrelevant, like who moved (and even seconded) every single motion. This is useless information, except perhaps for very large and significant decisions with a need for an historical record of where the impetus for the decision came from. Another mistake is to try and record what everyone said in a discussion. This is rarely done effectively at a PC level (although I've seen it well done by diocesan staff). In fact, sometimes it just records badly, what someone has already recorded well in a report/memo tabled at the meeting and which can just be attached.

    They cannot spell or write very well. Or maybe they do not think it's worth their time reading back over draft minutes to check they've written things clearly, laid them out well and to pick up errors/typos. Of course it is harder to edit your own stuff (often easier to spot the mistakes others make, while we fail to see our own)

    These people are also often very busy. They can't stay up after PC to write up/edit minutes. They often start early next day with family roles or getting off to work or both. So often minutes do not get written up or distributed till days after the meeting, by which time memories already fade especially for details.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 30, 11 - 11:20pm
    The result for me - perhaps an indication of my own personality weaknesses - is that I have often done the minutes for PC myself rather than have them badly done. I believe this has come at a cost to me not getting to other things. Seems crazy! But it has also meant we have a high quality of record keeping and accountability for carrying through on matters, which I have found very useful. I have asked PC to consider paying someone qualified to take minutes, but that's a conversation that's never quite got to resolution.

    What prompted these last posts was someone asking me privately how software development could help in this.

    I guess providing good templates for minutes, an associated action register, and for efficient distribution and storage could help.

    In my view, the Minutes secretary would ideally recirculate a personalised version of the action register to each member of PC about a week before the next meeting, only showing their individual actions listed (along with any actions for all members).

    I think this would be a very helpful prompt for busy members of PC. I can only think of doing this manually. Perhaps others know how to do it better.
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 30, 11 - 11:53pm
    Sandy, we've had similar issues on minute secretaries. Training has to be important, doesn't it? I notice there is some training being done for new treasurers at the moment by Northern Region. Mission Areas might be able to get their admin staff together for a half day training and share best practices.
    You've also made me think of the broader issue of how we do administration in churches.
    Administration is a pretty skilled ministry and people who can do it are usually working full time.
    I've had a few people tell me that Anglican churches are much slower to put on administrators than Pentecostal churches. Now I don't know if this anecdotal evidence is right or not but they were sugesting there is a different staffing strategy at work.
    Certainly it is hard for a smaller church where you might only be able to put someone on a couple of days a week. This isn't the most attractive financial proposition for someone.
  • Sandy Grant
    March 31, 11 - 1:02am
    Yep, to your first comment about training. And that means I have failed, either in providing it directly, or in sourcing it effectively. It's the old easier-to-do-it-yourself thing. So I am the chief blockage here. Not the good hearted, very hard working and gospel-loving people I have had the privilege of serving alongside on PC in the parishes I've served

    Someone just wrote to me and said...
    There's a book that very neatly sets out good principles for minutes-taking: "Taking Minutes of Meetings" by Joanna Gutmann. I recommend that you grab a copy of that book for yourself, or for whomever takes up the duty of minute-taking.
  • Michael Kellahan
    March 31, 11 - 1:11am
    The Gutmann book is here
  • Craig Schwarze
    March 31, 11 - 7:52am
    Regarding minutes, if you want that done really well, I would suggest you make it part of your church administrators job. I suspect it would be hard to motivate most laymen to work so hard at such an unrewarding task.
  • Philip Charles Gerber
    April 5, 11 - 12:07am
    Years ago Ken Short told me, when I ended up secretary of a body of which he was Chair, that the secret to good minutes is to write them asap i.e. the next day. he was dead right, which i leant to my peril onseveral occasions. Even if you write them roughly and in detail the same or next day you can polish up the layout and presentation later. Detailed memory fades quite quickly but within 24 hours it is surprising just how much you can recall even if you didn't write it down at the meeting. 2 or 3 days later it's gone.