Shared Governance

Within the world of graduate education and accreditation, we often use the language of “shared governance.”   Two things here:  first, I would suggest that there is wisdom here for how all organizations, including churches, function – that is, this is not merely an approach to governance that is particular to theological schools.  And second, it is essential that we speak to what shared governance means but also, and just as quickly, what it does not mean. 

On the first, the essential wisdom is captured in two perspectives  First, that wisdom and leadership is never so focused on one person or agent or role for the very simple reason that no one person has all the wisdom we need so that the mission of the organization happens.   We need many voices and perspectives, internal and external and we need the voices of those who we might typically think of or see as being at the margins.  We need an approach to governance that does not assume that the president or senior pastor or whoever is the CEO has all the wisdom needed to lead.   We need to hear from those who are at the heart of the mission [faculty in a university, or field workers of a development agency]; we need to hear from minority voices and from those whom this agency seeks to serve – the students in a university, the townspeople for a congregation.  That is, shared governance speaks of the need for diversity of perspective that finds a way into the decision-making process of the organization. 

And second, shared governance is also about accountability:   thus, for example, the president of the United States is accountable to Congress; the Prime Minister of Canada to Parliament; the president of a school to the Board of Trustees.   

But then, to speak to what it does mean and does not mean.   It is so often assumed that “shared governance” means that everyone is equally involved in the governance and has not only voice but vote and, indeed, veto power in that we are all “sharing” in this process.   The consequence, of course, is that there is no leadership and only the most vocal or insistent then actually in effect “lead.”   Rather, shared governance is about acknowledging and respecting the voice of and the perspective of at least three distinct agencies. 

For a typical non-profit, this would mean recognizing the role of (1) the board – who function as a board and not as management; (2) the leadership who are appointed to provide essential management; and (3) a third entity that necessarily has a voice and role in the process:  the faculty of a theological school or the Annual General Meeting for a local church.  In a school, the board is distinct from the leadership which is then in turn distinct form the faculty.   Each has a role to play but they must necessarily respect the integrity and authority of the other.  And it all only works if there is genuinely empowered leadership – the president or senior pastor who leads with formal and intentional accountability to the board but is still able to lead while attentive to the “voice” of the faculty [and for a local church leader, I would just substitute “congregation” for faculty].

The genius of an effective institution is that we are able to find the sweet spot between these three – and leverage both voice and vote, influence and authority, so that the mission of the organization happens.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.