Generative Governance: Purpose & significance in the boardroom

Used with permission.

Volunteer directors of Christian ministries want the gift of their time in service on the board to have significance. And ministry leaders are always looking for great ‘blue sky’ ideas to find fresh, innovative opportunities. The desires of both staff and directors can be satisfied with an exciting, relatively new, concept of governance which adds significance to board work in spades and unleashes wide-open creativity! It’s called Generative Governance, and both directors and management should love it.

It can also be fun, playful, and memorable!

Generative Governance

The quickest way to explain generative governance is the following scenario:

Unfortunately, the roof of your church caved in. How does the board respond?

  • A board operating at the fiduciary level will ask, “Was anyone hurt? Are we covered by insurance?”
  • A board operating at the strategic level will ask, “Should we take this opportunity to build a balcony to meet our anticipated growth?”
  • A board operating at the generative level will ask, “Why do we need a roof? If we had no building at all, how would we do church?”

How generative governance differs

Fiduciary governance asks, “Is everything is okay?”

Strategic governance asks, “What’s the plan?”

Generative governance asks, “What’s the question?”

Fiduciary governance is absolutely necessary, and helps ensure the ministry is safe and complies with all laws and regulations. Strategic governance is necessary if the ministry is to remain healthy and viable into future years. Generative governance is a crucial support to the accomplishment of the ministry’s mission.

It is different from both fiduciary and strategic governance, because they both assume that there are answers already existing that just need to be researched and found. They are designed to narrow options down so a decision can be made. Generative governance is quite different. It asks questions that don’t typically have ready answers. They need to be explored. Its goal is to expand the range of options and lead to further exploration. When it has done its work, then strategic and fiduciary governance can come into play to pick the option that best serves the ministry.

Generative governance is…

Generative governance:

  • Searches for meaning and understanding
  • Asks catalytic questions designed to open up our thinking so we can generate new alternatives
  • Is playful and creative
  • Leads to discovery
  • Is unpredictable
  • Thrives in a retreat-like environment

Design a generative governance retreat

Three questions will help you design a generative governance retreat:

  1. What are the priority issues we should use generative governance to investigate?
  2. What information sources do we need, especially that are independent of management? This guarantees fresh thinking.
  3. How do we create time for generative discussions? Likely you will have a board retreat, but you could also dedicate a half day of a day-long meeting to generative discussions, or if you have monthly board meetings, you might dedicate one meeting to generative governance.

Download personal reflection guide

CCCC Experience with Generative Governance

To help you plan a generative governance retreat, I’ll share how we constructed our first experience with generative governance at a CCCC board-staff retreat in June.

Our answers to the three questions were:

  1. The priority issues are: a) how are the changing demographics and times affecting the ability of Christian ministries to raise funds? b) What is happening in the Evangelical Christian world and how might that affect us and our members? and c) What is happening in the association world that we should be aware of?
  2. We wanted to hear from experts in the field and have some time to interact with them.
  3. We decided to have a separate day dedicated to a retreat the day prior to our board meeting.

In designing the day, here’s what we did and how it worked.

  • The CCCC board meets three times per year.
    • In September 2016, the board was given a presentation on what generative governance is and how it works, developed from Richard Chait’s chapter in Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. The board decided to discuss generative governance at the February meeting to decide if it would form the basis for a board retreat in June. The topic would be decided in February as well.
    • For the February meeting, the board was given several articles to read which describe how generative governance is done.
    • At the February board meeting, the board decided the topic to explore would be “10 things worth exploring for possible focus in Vision 2025.”
    • The one day retreat in June was broken into two parts: the morning was dedicated to receiving outside perspectives on the three topics related to our future; and the afternoon was devoted to prayer, reflection, and creative thinking. Our facilitator was fantastic – Jill Malleck of Epiphany at Work.
      • In the morning, we had three 30 minute presentations by Skype with 15 minutes in between each to reflect on what we heard and write some notes in a guided journaling exercise. We heard from:
        • Larry Matthews, of KMA Associates, on Trends in Charitable Funding for Christian Ministries. We chose this topic because fundraising is the lifeblood of our members, and we must understand the world in which they live.
        • Rick Hiemstra, director of research for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, on Evangelicalism in Canada Tomorrow. We chose this topic as it will greatly affect the shape of our ministry sector over the next decade. It gave us a sense of where we as a community are going.
        • Jim Pealow, principal of Association Management, Consulting & Evaluation Services (AMCES) on Trends in Association Life. CCCC is essentially an association, so we needed to learn what is happening in our own sub-sector.
      • In the afternoon,  we had a guided individual reflection period followed by sharing (in groups of three) our observations, questions, and things we’d like to explore further.
      • We then spent time in listening prayer, followed by the whole group developing a list of themes, topics, and ideas that might warrant further exploration. The list had 41 items.
      • Once we had the list, we shared how our thinking had shifted during the day so far, and then did a creative small group exercise to develop stories of our future.
      • We ended the day with a guided discussion about the list of ideas and then voted on the top ten.
      • The output of the day was given to the staff to develop its thoughts, and then report to the board.

I was very excited by the list we came up with, particularly the top ten items, and really look forward to exploring them further. Everyone, both staff and board, thought the day was quite valuable and enjoyed the creative exercise. It was a very good day!

Okay, you’ve heard about generative governance. Now why not try it out for your ministry!

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