Called to Serve: Death by Committee

By John Pearson

Note: This is No. 9 in a series of blogs featuring wisdom from the 91-page gem by Max De Pree, Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board. (Click on the title to order the book for every board member.)

Max De Pree: “Be ruthless about terminating a temporary committee when its assignment is completed.”

Where do we start? Oh, my. Power-hungry committees, unnecessary committees, committees that never meet…it appears we’ve successfully raised committee dysfunction to an art form.

So Max De Pree’s insight on terminating temporary committees is a breath of fresh air. When asked to weigh in on the committee bucket, I usually mention three foundational issues:

#1. AFFIRM A GOVERNANCE PHILOSOPHY. Your committee structure must flow from your governance philosophy. If you lean more towards John Carver’s Policy Governance® model, you’ll have fewer committees and they’ll met Carver’s acid test: “In governance process policies, the board commits itself to use committees only when they are necessary to help the board get its job done, never to help the staff with theirs.”

#2. TRUST THE STAFF. Each committee needs a written charter, or statement of purpose—and three to five annual “SMART” goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related). Some boards in a misguided attempt to increase “board member engagement” (whatever that is!), will often give assignments to committees that should be completed by the staff. Sometimes that indicates the board doesn’t trust the CEO or the staff. Not good!

#3. TRUST THE COMMITTEE. If the board inappropriately rehashes committee reports and recommendations in every board meeting, then you must fix the committee or fix the board!

De Pree adds this wisdom I’ve never read before:

“My friend Jim Beré, who was a corporate leader, presidential advisor, and worker/advocate for many non-profits, once told me that he would serve only on boards that had hard-working executive committees.”


I’ve observed some committees that stick to their charter, assess their work, and leverage the God-given gifts and strengths of their faithful committee members. When that happens, it’s a Romans 12 practicum in action.

For more resources on conducting effective committee meetings, read Patrick Lencioni’s classic leadership fable, , and visit the ECFA Knowledge Center.

BOARDROOM EXERCISE: Rate the effectiveness of each committee on a scale of one to five—with five meaning “high performing” and one meaning “no performance at all.” List three next steps to improve our committee structure.


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.

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.