Skip to main content
Listen to Acton content on the go by downloading the Radio Free Acton podcast! Listen Now

Sirico Parables book

by Rev. Jamé Bolds

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
— Colossians 1:15-20


As we know from experience, Christians disagree (often quite loudly) when it comes to the prudential application of Christian doctrine to public policy issues. Questions pertaining to corporate governance are among some of the more substantive discussions presently because they concern the definition both of biblically adequate and business savvy principles of leadership. What does it mean to confess Christ as Lord whether of our lives individually or of our institutions socially? Is there a different set of principles 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 distinguish principles of governance along the fault line of faith such that some principles will norm “faith-based” organizations and others will norm all other types of organizations?

While it is true that some traditional faith-based organizations (such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and even some local chapters of the Salvation Army) have weakened, or weakening, Christian identities, it seems the proper response to this state of affairs is still to affirm with the apostle Paul that Christ is “the firstborn of all creation,” the One through whom all things “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” were created, and through whom all things are reconciled to the Father. Thus, if God through Christ has reconciled all things to himself, then it seems that a Christian theory of governance must by definition be a universal theory applicable to any given governance structure. It is from this starting point that any universal theory of governance, theologically speaking, must begin.

For this reason, then, Carver’s “Policy Governance ® Model in Nonprofit Organizations” is appealing for it purports to develop a universal theory of governance. It seems that Carver’s model could be adapted both for faith-based nonprofits and, to a lesser degree, for local church governance structures once due consideration is given to the authoritative inputs of scripture, ecclesiology, and tradition. With this said, however, it is possible to affirm the necessity of a universal governance theory but also to acknowledge that thorny prudential issues may arise in what may be referred to as the penultimate (or secondary) purpose of a church or faith-based nonprofit. It is important to distinguish between the primary purpose of the church (salvation) and its secondary purpose, expressed through subsidiary organizations such as a church day care or food pantry. Such distinction in purpose provides a functional framework for grasping the notions of ownership authority and governance structures within these organizations.

Distinctions of the Church

The role of the church is best explained in terms of the primary and secondary roles of the faith (or ultimate and penultimate). The ultimate role of the church is to make disciples and teach (hence, in the passage, the reference to “making peace through the blood of his cross”). The story of scripture is the story of fallen humanity in need of a savior who is the Christ, who is both man and God. Preaching Christ and Him crucified is the ultimate goal of the church (in the sense, again, according to the passage quoted above, of Christ—as head of the church and firstborn from the dead—coming to have first place in everything).

Where Carver’s model is extremely helpful is in the governance of the secondary (or penultimate) role, which is to care for the widows, orphans, and the marginalized. The outreach of the church’s secondary goal is one means for expressing just how in Christ “all things hold together,” which is a natural outgrowth of the church’s primary goal mentioned earlier. The reason that Christians are motivated to be involved in the life of the marginalized is to show the love of Christ. The call to embody Christ’s love is a principal motivation for the creation of many nonprofits in the first place. While biblical Christianity shows us why we are to love, specifying even at times how we should love, it does not give us an apparatus to do so. The Scriptures instead prescribe a range of teachings from direct commands, to principles, to precepts but there is flexibility in the choice of means used to act in conjunction with Scripture. Another way of making this point would be to say that theological virtues such as faith, hope, and love are put into operation through the careful employment of such cardinal virtues as prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice.

Churches, in their ultimate role, operate in a multitude of different ways, often times based on a tradition of how denominational representatives have interpreted certain portions of Scripture and experiences. Yet even within church traditions as diverse as Anglo-Catholic and Congregationalist-Baptist governance models must be drawn up that, in the end, cohere with that church’s broader ecclesiology. Yet these diverse traditions may, at times, use similar governance procedures in their subsidiary ministries (such as the food pantry, social justice and benevolence ministries, and so forth) because they view them as an apparatus, the means, to accomplish the discipleship of their members—the ends.

Ownership Authority

Hence a church can use Carver’s governance model as an effective apparatus to further the dual nature of its work. In the ultimate sense God is always “owner” of the church in much the same way as humans are always stewards of God’s creation, whether that role is acknowledged or not. Yet, like human stewardship in general, the church’s penultimate role is to operate (“doing all things decently and in order”) in the here and now. To be effective with earthly things it must use earthly tools and governance models that—to some degree—have been theologically recalibrated for particular uses. Notice the distinction between governance models and the principles that guide those models. Hence, Carver’s understanding of ownership authority is not an ownership that is free to do what one likes, but rather is free to perform the responsibilities that have been entrusted to us by the One who has dominion over all things. Such an entrustment should be seen in terms of being good stewards, of what is given to us first by God and second to what is given to us by the leadership of an organization.

Carver sees “ownership” not in terms of exploitation but rather in terms of a board having a vested interest in the ends (effectiveness) of the organization. To Carver the way a board accomplishes ends is to work via the means. This ends/means distinction is critical. It demands organizational achievement and simultaneously empowers the staff, leaving them with freedom to innovate and avenues of expression for their creativity. In short, Carver’s understanding of ownership authority is a method for creating results.

Methodology (Universal Principles)

Those results are the application of what Carver calls universal principles. As mentioned before biblical Christians think in terms of faith, hope, and love. These theological virtues characterize the ultimate ends of the church. To be effective communicators and practitioners of these ultimate ends faith-based nonprofits must utilize forms of practical wisdom drawn from scriptural teaching (particularly from the OT wisdom literature and NT pastoral epistles), human experience, reflection, Christian tradition, and common sense. At this point, the church looks for a way to operationalize its penultimate vocation. Carver’s model is helpful because he uses classical virtues as a foundation for his governance policy. These foundational universal principles assist boards in being “servant-leaders” as Carver commends. Servant leaders are then stewards, or “owners,” because they have the vested interest to be effective.


When a conversation is initiated about how best to govern a church or a faith-based organization distinguishing between its ultimate and penultimate vocation is the first matter of priority. While a church’s ultimate role points beyond this world to the next, its penultimate role places it squarely within this world. To assist churches and faith-based nonprofits with their mission to the world, the Carver model, which synthesizes virtue ethics and solid management principles, provides a helpful framework to assist boards in the effective and efficient accomplishment of their ends.

For Further Reading

  • Carver, John and Miriam. “ Carver’s Policy Governance ® Model in Nonprofit Organizations.
  • Olasky, Marvin. Renewing American Compassion . New York: Free Press, 1996.
  • Olasky, Marvin. The Tragedy of American Compassion . Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1992.
  • Ross, Phillip A. “Biblical Governance for Christian Churches and Nonprofits.”
    Unpublished paper
  • Sherman, Amy L. Sharing God’s Heart for the Poor: Meditations for Worship, Prayer, and Service . Charlottesville, Va.: Trinity Presbyterian Church—Urban Ministries/Indianapolis, Ind.: Welfare Policy Center of the Hudson Institute, 2000.