Big Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand

Ministry boards have a natural gravitational pull toward issues that should be reserved for the staff.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


The board is to hold the [ministry] to its biblical ministry direction . . .
The problem for [ministries] is that they tend to get lost in the minutiae
and thus are sidetracked from their mission. [1]

Aubrey Malphurs


Stephen Covey, in First Things First,[2] tells the story about a seminar instructor, a gallon jar, fist-sized rocks, small pebbles, sand, and water. The seminar instructor placed the fist-sized rocks in the jar until seemingly full, and then asked the obvious question, “Is that jar full?” The quick answer was yes, but then the instructor proceeded, in turn, to add in smaller pebbles, which easily fit around the rocks, and then sand, which fell through the cracks. Eventually, water was added, and there was room for all of the elements, large and small.

The instructor asked, “What’s the point of the illustration?” Someone said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.” The instructor quickly responded, “No, that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you have gotten any of them in?”[3] Applying this illustration to ministry boards, if you haven’t identified the big rocks, and instead allow the jar (the agenda) to be filled first with pebbles, sand, and water, the board will miss the opportunity to focus on the major issues.

Think back over the last several board meetings you attended. Count the number of “big rocks” that the board considered in those meetings. If you can’t think of many “big rock” issues that were discussed, this suggests that the board probably dealt mostly with minutiae that would have been better left off of the agenda.

Big rocks for your ministry board to address could include: mission, vision, values, the spiritual health of your ministry, major program evaluation (drop, keep, add), facility enhancement or replacement for more than “X” dollars, and how you measure Kingdom results and outcomes. Big rocks might also include planning assumptions about the budget—and how budget performance is monitored, and much more.

Pebbles and sand are the ministry’s operational issues, staff supervision, specific ministry plans or strategies, and details that other people should handle. Follow the basic rule of delegating everything possible to the ministry staff.

Ministry boards do not have to handle every rock—only the big rocks! When you see a rockpile, you can be assured that you are seeing the largest rocks in the pile. This is because the smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand have sifted toward the bottom of the pile. If rocks, pebbles, and sand are analogous to the various issues that ministries must address, they are all important at some level, but it’s just the big rocks that should be on the agenda of the board.

Know that your board, in all likelihood, would welcome “big rock” agendas. According to ECFA research, 91 percent of board members “understand their role and God’s role in goal setting and kingdom outcomes.” Further 96 percent of board members agree that “our board understands the core programs, products and services of the organization.” Are they ready for you to unleash them on some big rocks?[4]

So, how does a ministry board target the big rocks and allow the staff and volunteers to handle the smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand? Here are five essential governance concepts:

  1. Start with a sound governance philosophy. It starts with a governance philosophy at the CEO and board chair level (of course, if the CEO is the board chair, we have narrowed the responsibility to one person). The board chair, vice chair, and CEO must build into the board’s DNA a stewardship conviction that big rocks are their focus. If not done with intentionality, minor issues will inevitably tempt board members to build sand castles—not Kingdom structures.

Is there a “glass ceiling” that impedes God’s work in your organization? Many smaller ministries fail to grow because their boards are populated with pebble-pickers! We know. We know. It is very challenging to move a board from a sand and pebbles mindset to a robust big rocks mentality. But you must do it, with God’s grace.

  1. Enforce the big rocks philosophy. During the meeting, the board chair must be alert for small rocks, pebbles, and sand finding their way onto the table.

Beware the board member who sidetracks a big rocks discussion by dragging you into the sand! Or, someone may introduce a motion that deals purely with operational matters. Either way, the board chair must have the courage to gracefully move the meeting back to focusing on the big rocks. A big rocks philosophy will be nullified without continual enforcement and reinforcement.

  1. Develop a big rocks agenda. The big rocks philosophy must be evident in the board agenda. If the board agenda includes smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand, there is no hope (or time!) for the board to focus on big rocks. The agenda will drive the focus of the meeting. And the use of a so-called “open agenda,” where board members can suggest agenda items “on the fly,” will inevitably take the board onto the sand dunes or into sand traps!

This is where collaboration on the agenda is so important. This is a wonderful opportunity for the CEO and the board chair to meet and identify the big rocks to be considered at the next board meeting. If the CEO is the board chair, the CEO can meet with the vice chair to map out the agenda. If the two leaders decide there are no big rocks to address at the next board meeting, perhaps it is time to consider moving to a less frequent meeting schedule.

  1. Encourage all board members to “sound the alarm” when the discussion goes too far off topic. Protecting the board ship from running aground on a sandbar should not always be left to the board chair. Any board member should have the courage to adjust the sails when another board member is taking the meeting into minutiae.

When individual board members develop the practice of recognizing and tactfully “calling out” the pebbles and sand problem, it will encourage the board chair to be mindful of these issues.

  1. Refine—don’t design. The boardroom is not an appropriate or effective venue to design programs or address complex issues from scratch. Boards are much better at responding to recommendations from staff or a task force than crafting a plan from zero. Let the staff design and the board refine.

Ministry growth alert! It is very difficult for a ministry to grow beyond the small nonprofit “glass ceiling” unless it gives up a pebbles and sand approach in the boardroom. Reason: Focusing on minutiae destroys a board’s focus on the most significant Kingdom issues.



Ministries of all sizes must inspire their boards to address big rocks—
substantive Kingdom agenda items— and create “minutiae-free zones”
where “pebbles and sand” topics are eliminated. Alert! As ministries grow,
the need for boards to focus on big rocks multiplies exponentially!

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Review: Review your board minutes for the last 12 months. What percentage of the items covered in these meetings represent “big rocks” compared to smaller rocks?

  2. Plan and commit: If smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand frequently appear on the agenda of past board meetings, decide what it will take to move board deliberations to a higher level. Commit to make the changes necessary to keep the focus on the big rocks.

  3. Re-evaluate: At least once every six months, evaluate whether the commitment to focusing on major issues is occurring. If not, return to action step #2.



Lord, thank You for the wisdom that You give us
to keep our attention on issues that truly matter in the life of the ministry.
Give us courage—and grace—to avoid living in the land of board minutiae. Amen.




[1] Aubrey Malphurs, Leading Leaders: Empowering Church Boards for Ministry Excellence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005), 69.

[2] Stephen R. Covey, First Things First (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 88–89.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Warren Bird, Unleashing Your Board’s Potential: Comprehensive Report from ECFA’s Nonprofit Governance Survey (Winchester, VA: ECFAPress, 2019), 35, 39.


From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019,

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.