Good governance is essential for all organisations

Gary Williams, the National Director of Christian Ministry Advancement and Founding Chair of CMA Standards Council reflects on Hillsong’s governance woes and changes.

It is sad to see the unfolding heartache at Hillsong just now, and it’s interesting to observe the comments being made in various online discussions about the role that governance plays in situations like this. Certainly, the changes to their policies just announced by the Hillsong board indicate that they recognise that something could be improved, and good on them for swiftly taking such steps. What a pity, though, that it took a public crisis like this to stimulate the changes.

This is an area I have devoted much of my life to. Seeking – alongside others – to try and help churches and ministries avoid these kinds of pitfalls, where individuals experience pain and stress, organisational effectiveness hits a speed bump, and the name of the Lord is associated with either poor behaviour, or at least the appearance of it.

The CMA Standards Council www.cmasc.net.au – a division of the charity Christian Ministry Advancement (CMA) – was formed five years ago for this very reason. It exists to provide a basic set of governance, accountability and transparency standards for Australian churches and ministries, and to act as an independent third party to inspect and accredit compliance with those standards.

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In forming our standards, we examined in great detail ten sets of for-profit, not-for-profit, and ministry governance standards from Australia and around the world, both secular and Christian.

We continue in close contact with a small but growing group of countries where a Christian ‘Peer Accountability Group’ like the CMA Standards Council is emerging.

The challenges of good ministry governance and accountability are real, and it is becoming more apparent, both here and around the world, that there is an advantage for churches and ministries in having some objective, external standards to measure against that are designed for ministries, rather than for publicly listed companies!

Further, our experience so far shows us that just self-evaluation against external standards is only partially effective. We’ve encountered a number of instances where an organisation believed that they met a standard until an external inspection revealed that it wasn’t quite the case.

Under its previous governance policies, Hillsong could not have met our standards because of our prohibition on the roles of CEO and Chair being filled by the same person. We recognise that this is common and considered perfectly acceptable in some parts of the ministry world, but we also noted, when researching the sets of established not-for-profit governance standards (secular and ministry), that this prohibition was universal.

When the CEO also runs the board as chair, the CEO is not fully accountable to anyone. You may be able to make decisions quickly, you may trust that one person implicitly, and you may even go for years without any problems. However, it creates the potential for disaster, and often, sadly, it’s only the actual disaster that prompts a change, and the disaster could have been averted altogether with a simple policy change upfront.

I note with interest that the just-announced governance changes at Hillsong tend towards the standards which are more generally accepted, which is heartening.

We have 21 accredited partners (the list is here) with more making their way through the process, and our deepest desire is to see Christian organisations avoid this kind of grief, as much as possible, so that they might instead be the exemplars of the kinds of behaviour that build faith and trust in our sector.

We are not naive enough to suggest that this can solve every problem, but when people or organisations are considering what can be done to reduce the risk of governance failures leading to internal and external pain, they don’t need to start from scratch or try to make secular systems fit the church context. Some of us are devoting ourselves to helping churches and ministries in this very area.

 

Gary Williams is the National Director, CMA and Founding Chair, CMA Standards Council