“For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” – (Great Ektenia of the Divine Liturgy)
How do we assist parish councils to transition from being tactically oriented to being strategically oriented? From a watch dog mentality to a service oriented mentality? From passivity to active engagement? From a management focus to a governance focus?
Within the past 25 years the process of developing the nonprofit board (parish council) has moved from guess work and art to proven methodology and science. The proper focus of a parish council is governance. It is the priest who manages staff and the key staff and volunteers who run programs within the parish. So many leadership problems arise when parish councils try to manage or priests try to govern. Though it should be noted that in small parishes that have limited staff, the parish council of necessity is often involved in management and staff-like tasks. Even so, an effort must be made to rise to a governance focused parish council.
The Governance Committee’s key responsibility is to ensure excellent parish council performance. It is responsible for ongoing review and recommendations to enhance the quality of parish council activity. The work of the Governance Committee revolves around six key areas; fidelity to the Orthodox faith, advocacy, policy formulation, strategic intent, fiduciary oversight and developing resources, usually manifest as personally meaningful giving and fundraising.
One significant challenge to an ongoing and effective parish council development process is the rather rapid turnover of parish council members, as typically mandated in jurisdictional requirements. Parish council members are oriented in the process and “poof” they rotate off. Two possibilities exist to ensure an ongoing presence on the parish council of a well- trained governance or parish council development leader – the priest, who might wish to consider “leading from behind” on this issue and a non-elected, non-voting, appointed chair of the governance committee – a person who deeply understands the process and has informed himself or herself of the best ways to assist the parish council to enhance their performance and who is invited to all parish council meetings. Obviously, this person should closely coordinate their activities with the parish council chair and the priest.
Parish council members are faithful to the teachings of the Orthodox church when they worship regularly, confess the Nicene Creed, participate in sacramental life, attend to their own relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit and when they conduct their personal lives and public lives as best as possible with the radical ethic of the New Testament. This personal commitment must be carried into each and every parish council activity.
Parish council members advocate for the primacy of the gospel as expressed in the mission of the parish. They advocate for the programs and services of the parish. They advocate for life in communion with God through the sacramental realism present in every Orthodox church. They advocate for the consoling, healing and sanctifying presence of the parish within the community.
Parish council members formulate policy in the specific way in which the gospel radiates out from the church into the believing community and beyond. They formulate policy when they deliberate and frame a motion pertaining to a proposed line item in the budget for outreach and evangelization. Policy is formulated when a discussion arises concerning to whom and under what circumstances the hall will be made available or rented. Policy is formulated when the parish council addresses the question of adult education or if a second priest or secretary will be retained. All of these policy formulations should be conducted with reference to the primacy of the gospel and the mission of the parish.
Parish council members fulfill the essential governing attribute of strategic intent every time they pause to ask themselves, “What do we wish to become?” or “How do we exercise a choice for a preferred future?” When parish council members move to committee a discussion on a maintenance contract so that there is time for a meaningful discussion on how the parish can attract more new members they are exercising strategic intent. If parish councils, together with their priest, are not thinking strategically, who will? Remember: those who fail to exercise a choice for a preferred future are given a future not of their choosing. And in an increasingly secular culture with church attendance down all across America, a default future appears quite grim.
Parish council members exercise fiduciary oversight when they insist on understandable and complete financial reports, financial transparency, independent audits, good bookkeeping procedures, background checks on all those who handle money in the parish and ensure the use of appropriate financial management software.
Perhaps it is developing resources that make most parish council members squirm. Me raise money? Me ask fellow parishioners to give? Make phone calls? Was this really in the requirements for parish council service? Are you sure? Developing resources may mean identifying, cultivating and involving a talented volunteer in parish service. Developing resources may mean quietly providing for the parish in one’s estate plans. Developing resources comes easily when we love the parish and want it to grow in service and grow in capacity. We go forward fearlessly, bold in our faith, knowing that God will guide us. Once again, if parish council members are not leading the way here, how can occasional parishioners be expected to volunteer and give generously?
The Governance Committee is the steward of the governance functions of the parish council. There are six major ways in which the Governance Committee may discharge its duties:
1) Help create parish council roles and responsibilities
a) Lead the parish council in regularly reviewing and updating the parish council’s description of its roles and areas of responsibility and what is expected of individual parish council members b) Assist the parish council in periodically updating and clarifying the areas of focus for the parish council, and help shape the parish council’s agenda for the next year or two, ideally, based on a strategic plan
2) Pay attention to parish council composition
a) Lead in assessing current and anticipated needs related to parish council composition, determining the knowledge, attributes, skills, abilities, influence and access to resources the parish council will need to consider to accomplish future work b) Develop a profile of the parish council as it should evolve over time c) Identify potential parish council members and explore their interests and availability to serve d) Nominate individuals to be elected to the parish council (note: often the nominations committee and the governance committee are combined) e) In cooperation with the parish council chair and the priest contact each parish council member eligible for re-election to assess his or her interest in continuing parish council service and work with each member to identify what or how he or she might be able to contribute time, talent and treasure to the parish
3) Encourage the parish council development process
a) Provide candidates with information they should review prior to election to the parish council, ideally this is a parish council member’s manual b) Design and oversee a process of parish council orientation, sharing information, and team building c) Design and implement an ongoing program of parish council information, education and team building d) Seek opportunities to include exercises in parish council development in the agenda of the parish council meeting or organize a one-day or half-day parish council retreat
4) Assess parish council effectiveness
a) Initiate periodic assessments of the general parish council’s performance, and propose, and as appropriate, recommend changes in parish council structure and operations b) Sponsor parish council member self-assessment help each parish council member to learn where and how their service could be improved upon c) Provide ongoing counsel to the parish council and other parish council leaders on steps they might take to enhance parish council effectiveness d) Regularly review the parish council’s practices, regarding member participation, conflict of interest, confidentiality, and so on, and suggest needed improvements e) Periodically review and update the board policy and practices
5) Prepare parish council leadership
a) Take the lead in succession planning, taking steps to recruit and prepare for future parish council leadership (the transition to a new parish council chairperson) b) Nominate parish council members for election as parish council officers