Acton Commentary

A Church or a Business? Governing Faith-based Organizations


One of the toughest questions currentlyfaced by faith-based organizations is how their modes and structures ofgovernance relate to those practiced in the secular sphere. In other words, asfaith-based organizations go about the business of charitable work, to whatdegree should they look and act like any other business? Are secular models ofgovernance appropriate for religious organizations?

One key to answering thisquestion lies in understanding the crucial distinction between a religiousgroup's ultimate and penultimate vocations. While a church's ultimate rolepoints beyond this world to the next, its penultimate role places it squarelywithin this world. Christians disagree (often quite loudly) when it comes tothe prudential application of Christian doctrineto public policy issues. Corporate governance questionsare among some of the more substantive discussions because they concernthe definition both of biblically adequate and business savvy principles ofleadership. What does it mean to confess Christ as Lord whether of our livesindividually or of our institutions socially? Is there a different set ofprinciples that govern Christ's rule over the church (and its various agencies)and the institutions of society (schools, businesses, government at all levels,and family life), as many Christians suppose? Ought Christians distinguishprinciples of governance along the fault line of faith such that someprinciples will norm “faith-based” organizations and others will norm all othertypes of organizations?

While some traditional faith-based organizations (such asCatholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and even some local chapters ofthe Salvation Army) have been criticized for a weakened Christian identity, ourresponse to this state of affairs should be clear. We must affirm with theapostle Paul that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation,” the One throughwhom all things “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” werecreated, and through whom all things are reconciled to the Father (Col. 1:15-20). If God through Christ has reconciled all things to himself, then aChristian theory of governance must by definition be a universal theoryapplicable to any given governance structure. It is from this starting pointthat any universal theory of governance, theologically speaking, must begin.

One currently popular guide used to assist churches andfaith-based nonprofits with their mission to the world is John Carver's policygovernance model for nonprofits . Carver, an Atlanta-based consultant, hassynthesized virtue ethics and solid management principles. He provides ahelpful framework to assist boards in the effective and efficientaccomplishment of their ends.

The Carver model is appealing in itsclaim to develop a universal theory of governance. Carver's model could beadapted both for faith-based nonprofits and, to a lesser degree, for localchurch governance structures once due consideration is given to theauthoritative inputs of scripture, ecclesiology, and tradition. With this said,however, it is possible to affirm the necessity of a universal governancetheory but also to acknowledge that thorny prudential issues may arise withrespect to the penultimate (or secondary) purpose of a church or faith-basednonprofit. This secondary purpose is often expressed through subsidiaryorganizations such as a church day care or food pantry. This distinction inpurpose provides a functional framework for grasping the notions of ownershipauthority and governance structures within these organizations.

Where Carver's model is extremely helpfulis in the governance of its earthly role, which is to care for the widows,orphans, and the marginalized. The accomplishment of these goals is a means forexpressing how in Christ “all things hold together,” which is a naturaloutgrowth of the church's primary goal. The reason that Christians aremotivated to be involved in the life of the marginalized is to show the love ofChrist. The call to embody Christ's love is a principal motivation for thecreation of many nonprofits in the first place. While biblical Christianityshows us why we are to love, specifying even at times how we should love, itdoes not give us an apparatus to do so. The Scriptures instead prescribe arange of teachings from direct commands, to principles, to precepts but thereis flexibility in the choice of means used to act in conjunction withScripture. Another way of making this point would be to say that theologicalvirtues such as faith, hope, and love are put into operation through thecareful employment of such cardinal virtues as prudence, fortitude, temperance,and justice.

Churches, in their ultimate role, operatein a multitude of different ways, often based on a tradition of howdenominational representatives have interpreted certain portions of Scriptureand experiences. Within church traditions as diverse as Anglo-Catholic andCongregationalist-Baptist, governance models must be drawn up that, in the end,cohere with that church's broader ecclesiology. Yet these diverse traditionsmay, at times, use similar governance procedures in their subsidiary ministries(such as the food pantry, social justice and benevolence ministries, and soforth) because they view them as an apparatus--a means--to accomplish thediscipleship of their members--the ends.

A church can, then, use Carver'sgovernance model as an effective way to further the dual nature of its work. Inthe ultimate sense God is always “owner” of the church in much the same way ashumans are always stewards of God's creation, whether that role is acknowledgedor not. Yet, like human stewardship in general, the church's temporal role isto operate (“doing all things decently and in order”) in the here and now. Tobe effective with earthly things it must use earthly tools and governancemodels that--to some degree--have been theologically recalibrated for particularuses. Notice the distinction between governancemodels and the principles that guide those models. Hence, Carver'sunderstanding of ownership authority does not imply the freedom to do what onelikes, but involves the freedom to fulfill the responsibilities that have beenentrusted to us by the One who has dominion over all things. This trust shouldbe understood in terms of being good stewards, of what is given to us first byGod and second to what is given to us by the leadership of an organization.

Carver sees ownership not in terms ofexploitation but rather in terms of a board having a vested interest in theends (effectiveness) of the organization. The way a board accomplishes ends isto work via the means. This ends/means distinction is critical. It demandsorganizational achievement and simultaneously empowers the staff, leaving them withfreedom to innovate and avenues of expression for their creativity. In short,this understanding of ownership authority is a method for creating results.

Those results are the application of whatwe understand as universal principles. To be effective communicators andpractitioners of the virtues of faith, hope, and love, faith-based nonprofitsdraw on the practical wisdom available in scriptural teaching (particularlyfrom Old Testament wisdom literature and New Testament pastoral epistles),human experience, reflection, Christian tradition, and common sense. At thispoint, the church looks for a way to put its earthly vocation into action.Foundational universal principles - the classical virtues — assist boards inbecoming servant leaders. Servant leaders are then stewards, or “owners,”because they have a vested interest in being effective. In this sense,faith-based organizations, like businesses, should strive for--not fear--success.