Ministry and Governance

Tug-of-War or Tango

by Peter Stone

[4 minute read]


My work has repeatedly brought me into spaces where the governance of ministry programs and activities is proving challenging.  I started by engaging with each of these as atomised cases.  Now I understand that what’s really going on is a deep systemic challenge which, if not properly managed, will lead to dreadful outcomes.

Here’s the pattern:

  • Christian ministry/organisation with formal corporate structure (company, association, trust) that defines its identity and purpose and holds assets and liabilities in its name.
  • Paid staff are employed by that entity. Usually working very hard, deeply committed and involved on a daily basis in its activities. A few are mission-critical due to the scale of the organisation.
  • Board of directors (or equivalent) are volunteers. Usually they are not involved every day. Especially if the entity is a company, they carry unlimited personal liability for the actions of the entity. (That is scary.)
  • The staff team are usually recruited on the basis of skill and expertise. There is probably a job description for each and an organisational chart with reporting lines.
  • The Board members are often appointed or elected with no overt selection criteria. Apart from the Chair and Secretary there are no clearly defined roles.
  • The vision of the organisation is always greater than the available resources. (As it should be!)
  • Strategy is often poorly defined or little more than mission statements.
  • There is lots of attention given to budgets and cashflow. (Short-term or crisis)
  • Risk management is driven by regulatory and compliance issues. These rarely enhance performance or advance the strategy.
  • The time availability of the Board is constrained and usually inadequate.
  • Board agendas are cluttered by operational/management issues, leaving little time or head space for significant conversations about purpose, strategy or effectiveness.
  • Staff performance is sometimes reviewed (often without previously overt criteria). Board performance is never reviewed or critiqued.

This scenario can play out in two troubling ways:

  1. The Board calls the shots, expecting senior staff to act as order-takers. Often the Chair acts as de facto CEO.
  2. The Executive call the shots, with the Board acting as rubber stamp or cheer squad. Often the CEO acts as de facto Chair.

Either of these is toxic.

Two images come to mind: a tug-of-war and a tango. In a tug-of-war enormous amounts of energy are deployed to produce little or no movement. Everything is about opposing forces in tension. There will be a winner and a loser.  In a tango it is hard to tell who is leading and who is being led.  The movement is fluid and graceful.  A lot of territory is covered in the dance. “Winning” can only happen when the two parties work together.

I’ve seen too many tug-of-war relationships between ministry and governance. Lots of energy goes in but little productive movement happens.  At the heart is an inappropriately antagonistic paradigm of governance: keep the executive under control and avoid mistakes; or keep the Board under control and avoid accountability.

The biblical truth is that we are called to embrace risk, love each other, speak the truth, leverage our gifts, act as faithful stewards and lead by serving one another.  Shrewd as snakes, innocent as doves. More of a tango!

I really think it is time for a governance revolution in the Christian world.  This won’t be easy or quick.  We need to invest in developing governance leaders as well as ministry leaders. We need to develop new language and disciplines. We need to learn what trust really means. (Hint: it’s not unquestioning delegation of authority!) We need to create leadership spaces where it is safe to tell the truth to each other.  We need to get beyond mere compliance with Corporations Law and the ACNC.

What do you think?  Start the conversation.