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11 Jun '08

Big Rocks, Pebbles and Sand

Posted by T.J. Addington in church boards, church leadership


One of the most frustrating aspects of church leadership is the tendency of boards to deal with minutia and present-day details rather than the truly significant issues that drive ministry forward. Leadership boards are not supposed to handle all rocks and pebbles, only the big rocks.

Big rocks are values, mission, vision, ministry initiatives, the spiritual leadership of the congregation, policies and church health. What characterizes the big rocks is that they affect the whole church, have to do with the spiritual health of the organization and are more related to how we can do ministry more effectively (future focused) than they are to day-to-day management.

Pebbles and sand are day-to-day management issues, staff management, the development of specific ministry plans or strategies, and details of church life that can be delegated to others.

When boards think of their work, there are always more rocks than they can effectively handle in the time available. But here is the good news. Leadership boards are not supposed to handle all rocks and pebbles, only the big rocks.

Some principles for effective board work include:

Build agendas around big issues, not small ones
Some issues are board issues: many issues that come to boards are not. When building agendas for board meetings, it is important to ask, "Is this a big rock or a small rock? Is this an issue that others can deal with, or does it need to be a discussion of the board?"

Concentrate on direction, spiritual health and policies - not management
Boards do not exist to manage but to exercise broad leadership for the congregation. Full-time staff members or volunteers manage day-to-day issues of church life - not the board. When management issues arise, before they become board issues, ask, "Is this a management decision? Who should be empowered to deal with these kinds of questions? And do we need to develop a policy so that others can make the decision in the future?"

Spend more time on future plans than on present issues
Leadership is about the future and leading your congregation into greater ministry effectiveness. Leaders think ahead of the congregation. If you are spending the majority of your board time on day-to-day issues, you are probably deep into management rather than directional issues, spiritual health, values, mission, vision or ministry initiatives. Keep track of the time that you spend in a month on current issues compared to future plans and opportunities.

Delegate regularly
Here is a general rule: Don't do anything as a board that others could do. We give staff members and volunteers far too little credit for what they are capable of doing. If an issues comes up that others can figure out, either delegate it outright or, if necessary, ask someone to come up with a proposal and bring it back to the board.

Always use a written agenda for board business meetings
Boards use agendas as a tool to prioritize their work. A carefully written agenda provides a road map for board work and requires the discipline to place big rocks first and pebbles later.

Stay within agreed-upon time parameters
Church board meetings can proceed endlessly. When you ask leaders to serve, you are asking them for their most precious commodity: their time. If your meetings regularly run longer than 2 1/2 hours, you are probably not exercising discipline in the conduct of your meetings or the size of the rocks you are dealing with.

Meet twice a month - once for business and once for prayer
One of your gatherings ought to be a business meeting where decisions are made and the business of the church can be conducted. With rare exceptions, the business of a church should be able to be done in 12 scheduled meetings per year. Because the spiritual level of the congregation will rarely rise above the level of its leaders, wise leaders invest half of their time in praying for one another and for the church, studying Scripture together and dreaming about the future.

Agree on principles of decision-making
Healthy boards are made up of people who can engage in robust dialogue that can result in creative solutions. Boards often make one of three mistakes: (1) They don't honestly engage in creative conflict due to conflict avoidance; (2) they engage in healthy conflict but don't seem able to resolve that conflict, leading to difficulty in decision-making; or (3) they allow one or two board members to create and perpetuate conflict that holds the rest of the board hostage from moving forward. I recommend the adoption of a board covenant that clarifies how the board will work together.

Communicate board work to your congregation
The trust of a congregation in its leadership is essential for a healthy church. Too often, work of a church board is shrouded in secrecy or mystery. While some issues must remain confidential, most work should be regularly communicated to the congregation, especially general directional issues.