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

One key to answering this question lies in understanding the crucial distinction between a religious group's ultimate and penultimate vocations. While a church's ultimate role points beyond this world to the next, its penultimate role places it squarely within this world. Christians disagree (often quite loudly) when it comes to the prudential application of Christian doctrine to public policy issues. Corporate governance questions are among some of the more substantive discussions 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 some traditional faith-based organizations (such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and even some local chapters of the Salvation Army) have been criticized for a weakened Christian identity, our response to this state of affairs should be clear. We must 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 (Col. 1:15-20). If God through Christ has reconciled all things to Himself, then 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.

One currently popular guide used to assist churches and faith-based nonprofits with their mission to the world is John Carver's policygovernance model for nonprofits. Carver, an Atlanta-based consultant, has synthesized virtue, ethics, and solid management principles. He provides a helpful framework to assist boards in the effective and efficient accomplishment of their ends.

The Carver model is appealing in its claim to develop a universal theory of governance. 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 with respect to the penultimate (or secondary) purpose of a church or faith-based nonprofit. This secondary purpose is often expressed through subsidiary organizations such as a church day care or food pantry. This distinction in purpose provides a functional framework for grasping the notions of ownership authority and governance structures within these organizations.

Where Carver's model is extremely helpful is 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 for expressing how in Christ “all things hold together,” which is a natural outgrowth of the church's primary goal. 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 based on a tradition of how denominational representatives have interpreted certain portions of Scripture and experiences. 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 (a means) to accomplish the discipleship of their members (the ends).

A church can, then, use Carver's governance model as an effective way 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 temporal 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 does not imply the freedom to do what one likes, but involves the freedom to fulfill the responsibilities that have been entrusted to us by the One who has dominion over all things. This trust should be understood 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 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 and practitioners of the virtues of faith, hope, and love, faith-based nonprofits draw on the practical wisdom available in scriptural teaching (particularly from Old Testament wisdom literature and New Testament pastoral epistles), human experience, reflection, Christian tradition, and common sense. At this point, the church looks for a way to put its earthly vocation into action. Foundational universal principles – the classical virtues – assist boards in becoming 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.

Rev. Jamé Bolds is a programs associate with Acton Institute's Center for Effective Compassion and the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship. He is a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God.