“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved.” (II Timothy 2:15)
In the vast majority of parishes parish councils remain the greatest undeveloped asset and ally of every priest and parish. Undeveloped boards drain energy, meander through interminable parish council meetings, wander away from the mission and purpose of parish life, concern themselves with operational issues, seeking to manage the parish rather than to govern, which is their proper sphere of action and concern. Unfortunately, unfocused and meandering parish councils sometimes become watchdog and adversarial parish councils. Most of the causes for this lie with the priest himself, who has never received training in the professional process of board development. Hundreds of books and articles are dedicated to this topic. The process illustrated above with the explanations below describe one aspect of the science of board development – recruiting and engaging the best candidates for parish council service.
1) Identify the needs of the parish council: the skills, knowledge, perspectives and connections needed to effectively fulfill the mission. Identify prospective candidates with desired characteristics. Make this an ongoing process, not just when the General Assembly is happening in a couple of days.
2) Cultivate potential parish council members. Ask current parish council members, senior staff and others to suggest potential candidates. Find ways to connect with those candidates. Build interest in them for the mission of the parish and keep them informed of progress. Meet with them personally and never assume that they have an active personal spiritual life or that they understand the basic mission and ministry of the church. Dare to gently ask open questions along these lines and shift into effective listening mode. You will very likely be surprised at times by what you hear. Here is pastoral opportunity.
3) Recruit prospects. Deftly and wisely utilize a nominations committee. If possible, ensure all nominees are vetted by the nominations committee prior to the General Assembly and that they receive the full version of duties and responsibilities. DO NOT downplay these. If a formal nominations process is not used, random people are nominated with whom there has been no conversation regarding membership in good standing and whether or not they are prepared to fulfill the requirements for service that are expected for all parish council members. Avoiding random nominations from the General Assembly floor may mean a delicate process of modifying nominations procedures. With the full support of the parish council Chair and the parish council announce and publish six weeks ahead of time that all nominations must be presented to the nominations committee no later than one week prior to the General Assembly. No nominations will be accepted from the floor. Carefully explain this new procedure and why it is important. When names are brought to the nominations committee, explain expectations and responsibilities to prospective parish council members. Do not minimize these. It’s better to have an attractive candidate decline because they are unable or unwilling to serve than to gloss over these than be disappointed by their performance at a later date. Invite questions, elicit their interest, and ascertain if they are prepared to serve.
4) Orient new parish council members to the parish following their election (history, programs, pressing issues, finances, facilities and bylaws.) Give them a copy of the parish council member manual, if you have one. Also orient them to the parish council (committees, schedules, responsibilities, a copy of the strategic plan, names of other parish council members and staff).
5) Engage all parish council members. Discover their interests and availability. Involve them in committees or task forces. Call new members and inquire how they are feeling about service. Solicit feedback. Hold everyone accountable. Express appreciation for work well done.
6) Educate the parish council. Provide information concerning the mission of the parish. Promote exploration of issues facing the parish. Hold a board retreat and encourage board development activities by distributing short documents for discussion. Encourage the parish council chairperson to read a book on board development. Ensure every parish council meeting has an element of strategic intent and that members have an opportunity to assess the meeting. Don’t hide difficulties from them.
7) Rotate board members. Almost all jurisdictions make term limits a requirement to ensure that one large family or certain strong individuals don’t control the board for extended periods of time. One drawback on this requirement is that board-development educated and highly-performing parish council members are automatically rotated off. Do not automatically reelect members for an additional term; consider parish council needs and each parish council member’s performance.
8) Evaluate through an assessment process the performance of the parish council as a whole. Also evaluate through a self-assessment the performance of each parish council member. Examine how the parish council and priest work as a team. Identify ways in which to improve. Consider having the nominations chair suggest to inactive members that they make room for members who are prepared to be more engaged. Develop new leadership by beginning the entire process again at “Identify”.