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The Strengths of Committees

Dan Hotchkiss at the Alban Institute wrote an interesting piece on the strength of committees. Committees, he argues, are instituted to reduce decision-making from a large group to a small group. Most “committees” he sees in congregations are actually in charge of a particular activity, and thus work as leading and organizing the ongoing needs of that activity. Instead, committees should be small groups of people instructed to work through a particular problem by assessing the problem at hand, examining the pros and cons of various solutions, and recommending a solution to the church council or board. He writes,

Some boards refer business to committees in a more or less frank effort to evade responsibility. A board might, for example, create a committee to choose new carpet for the sanctuary. Such a committee’s job, of course, is mainly to take some of the heat for a decision that is guaranteed to be controversial. The board approves the recommended color (puce), piously intones its gratitude to the committee, and moves on to something else.

One wonders, in such cases, why the board doesn’t simply delegate authority to choose a carpet color. But by going through these motions, the board reassures itself that it is in the driver’s seat. Nothing is lost but a good chunk of everybody’s time, as each decision gets discussed three times or more.

Fine. But it’s not so fine when boards do the same thing with the annual budget, or the building plan—passing the buck to a committee on decisions that affect ministry priorities over months or years. Boards are especially keen to brush such matters off, not only because they are complex and time-consuming, but because to make them well, the board would have to understand and discuss subjects boards rarely talk about—like worship, education, music or social action.

How do committees function in your congregation? Do important decisions get placed in the hands of a committee so the board avoids having to discuss major issues? Or rather can the committee be entrusted in asking difficult questions, prompting deep discussion about the goals and needs of the community, and recommending suggestions for future paths? In what ways have the “way things get done” in your community become rote? Has, as Dan Hotchkiss argues, “the committee” “become an all-purpose organizing tool. Like the person with a hammer who sees only nails, we assign every kind of task to a committee.”

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org