Five Marks of High Functioning Elder Boards

Five Marks of High Functioning Elder Boards
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read
You’re driving home from a typical board meeting, and you say, “That was a great board meeting today!”  Tell me, what happened at the board meeting to provoke that positive response?--Dan Busby 

Having driven home from several hundred Elder Board Meetings, I’ve asked myself this question a lot.  And sadly, my answers were more subjective than objective.

“We didn’t get into any big arguments.”

“My budget proposal passed.”

“It was a fun conversation that ended in prayer.”

“The elders said everything at the church seemed great.”


It’s easy to look at these responses and assume the Elder Board functioned as intended.  

But did it? 

I have been grateful to have worked with and led Elder Boards with some of the wisest, most integrity filled, good-hearted elders in my 25 years of church leadership.  

Yet, wisdom, integrity, and good hearts do not always result in High Functioning Elder Boards.  And you can get by with low to medium functioning Elder boards for a while…until the crisis hits, and the stuff your Board is made of is revealed.

How can you build an Elder Board that functions at the high level your church needs?

Identify in these 5 Marks of a High Functioning Elder Board:

1. A High Functioning Elder Board Achieves Clarity of Mission and Roles.

Clarity is the Holy Grail of Board development.  Clarity of what we are here to do, how we do it, and the role each Board member plays in that mission.

I once worked with a Board of a church that had a clear 4 part vision.  In an initial meeting, I asked the Board to tell me the 4 parts.  The bewilderment rolled off the Pastor’s face as he watched his Board struggle to come up with more than three.

Can each Board member clearly explain the mission?  Not just parroting the words on the webpage, but actually telling what the church does and how that makes a difference?  Clarity of Mission becomes a powerful yes/no filter for Board decisions.

And can each Board member clearly explain the expectations for them as a Board member?  Most Elders joined the board because they believed in the cause, but are unclear about what the expectations are.  Are they there to reign in the Pastor, to protect the church from risk, to make congregants happy, or to Monday-morning QB decisions?  

Just like a successful football team knows that coaches coach and players play, a successful Board knows what their job is.  That meetings matter, and their presence has purpose.  

Action Point:  Does your Elder Board have one page job descriptions, outlining expectations  around attendance, financial impact, and Board service?  Are these job descriptions reviewed as part of an annual Elder evaluation?

2. A High Functioning Elder Board Pursues Ongoing Onboarding and Development. 

“A greeter at Walmart gets more orientation than most board members do.”--Patrick Lencioni. 

Most onboarding consists of a few lunches and then handshakes at the first meeting.  The Board member is then thrown into the deep end, forced to fend for themselves as they try to catch up to the culture, practices, and workings of the board.  

And once on the board, the urgent trumps the important.  So time spent developing and equipping Board members gets shoved aside for the need-to-get-done agendas or the current crisis.

How are Board members selected?  How are they brought up to speed?  How are you identifying where the Board needs to develop to meet the ever changing needs of the next season?

Honest assessment of where the Board is deficient in skills, experience, and expertise,  intentionally assigning new members a “buddy” on the Board, and investing time regularly in developing the Board are ways to move this ball forward.

Action Point:  Does your Elder Board have a clear description of the next Elder you need to bring on?  What is the plan used to bring new elders on board?  Have you identified the next area of development your Board needs?

3. A High Functioning Elder Board Adopts Strong Policies and By-laws

Policies and By-laws are boring…until they are not.  Until the crisis hits, the pastor leaves, the question arises that no one remembers the answer to.

Honestly, the biggest culprit here is institutional knowledge.  I once worked with a Board with a long time Elder, named “Steve.”  Steve was the go to with any question about past decisions or unofficial policies.  He was a living Board Policy Manual…until his job took him to another city, and took his institutional knowledge with him.

While it often is the bottom of the priority pole, adopting strong policies and by-laws make a Board much more effective.  Some examples:

  • Frees the board from relying on individuals’ memories.
  • Gives existing clarity when a situation arises without having to start from scratch.
  • Protects the board from legal and financial challenges.
  • Saves time from adopting conflicting policies while unaware policies already exist.
  • Guides discussions as questions arise.

Action Point:  Where is your current Board Policy Manual?  Does it even exist?  The gold standard on putting a Board Policy Manual is Good Governance for Nonprofits by my friend Bob Andringa.

4. A High Functioning Elder Board Pushes Towards Unity 

Larry Osborne lays out three key areas of Elder Board unity:

Theological/Doctrinal unity. What won’t we fight over?  This question helps prioritize the key theological or doctrinal truths that come to bear in practice and decision making.

Relational unity. How will we treat one another? Do we have mutual respect, friendship, and vulnerability with the team? The goal is not to have the team become best friends, but to have relational ground rules that we operate by.

Philosophical unity. How do we do things and make decisions? This centers around the values, priorities, and methodology that the team will practice. It drives the goals and decisions of the organization. For example, when it is budget time, this is the area that will help navigate where the money goes.

In my experience, philosophical unity is the toughest to maintain, as well as the toughest to suss out in a new Board member. This is why the selection process has to be dialed in.  One of the most important decisions a Board will ever make is who they bring on to the Board.

Action Point:  Where is your Board unity the strongest?  Where is it the weakest?  How are you pushing to uncover areas of disunity?

5. A High Functioning Elder Board Follows a High Functioning Board Chair.

The key relationship to a High Functioning Board is the Pastor-Board Chair.   They need to be in a high level of conversations planning each Board meeting.  And they need clear lanes around their roles with each other.  The Elder Chair can make or break a meeting, and in some ways, the Board itself.   

My first question to any Pastor when we talk about their Boards is, “Tell me about your Board Chair.”  Often their frequency of meeting, nature of conversations, clarity of lanes, and level of unity tells me all I need to know about what the problem is.

Action Point:  How would you describe the relationship between your Board Chair and the Pastor?  What is the difference between what they do in a Board Meeting?

Low to medium functioning Boards can frustrate a Pastor, leaving more and more weight on his plate. And they can fail the church when the time of crisis comes.  But when you get intentional about Elder Board Development, you can move towards High Functioning, and good governance.

I'd love to talk with you more about this. Shoot me an email and let's start moving your Board towards High Functioning today.

Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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