The Sober-Judgment Board

By Dr. Philip Graham Ryken

?As nonprofit organizations come under increasing public scrutiny, their governing boards are giving more focused attention to periodic assessment. In order to find out how well they are achieving their mission, they use various tools to evaluate the effectiveness of their organization.

Sooner or later, a wise board will want to assess its own work and evaluate the quality of its oversight. So, what is the biblical way to think about board self-assessment?

A good place to start is Romans 12, where Paul writes: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

The context for this exhortation is the effective use of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. To use our gifts well, the apostle is saying, we need to examine ourselves soberly—that is, with serious integrity.

Notice that seeing ourselves the way we ought to see ourselves is an outworking of grace. The reason we can be honest about our failings is because we know there is forgiveness for us in Christ. And because we are accepted in him—just as we are—we do not need to exaggerate our accomplishments. The ability to see ourselves the way we really are is grounded in the gift of God’s grace. 

When we apply these principles to the trusteeship of a Christian ministry, we recognize that self-assessment should be a regular, faith-based exercise that is characterized by sober, grace-filled judgment.

What are some practical guidelines to follow as a board evaluates its work? At Wheaton College, where we have recently instituted a comprehensive process, we believe that board assessment should include the following:

Carefully structured. Ad hoc assessment is rarely effective and tends not to address potential problems until they are too big to ignore. The trustees at Wheaton use a brief survey to assess meetings at the close of business. This survey addresses both our participation in the meeting itself and our preparation leading up to the meeting.  The results are reviewed by the Governance Committee and then distributed in a timely manner for every board member to see. 

Each board member also completes a self-assessment every other year. The rubric is closely tied to our agreed-upon statement of expectations for service on the board. So, at least every two years, all our trustees are asked to evaluate whether they are fulfilling their commitment to God’s work through the College and to consider areas where improvement is needed. 

Mission driven. The questions that governing boards ask themselves should be closely tied to the organization’s mission, including its spiritual commitments. In other words, board members should hold themselves to the same high standards that they are duty-bound to hold for every member of their organization.

Good questions to ask include: Does our work as a board clearly reflect a desire to honor Christ? Are our meetings conducted in a way that ensures open communication and meaningful participation by every member, in an atmosphere of openness and trust? Do our deliberations reveal a concentrated effort to keep decisions consistent with our God-given mission and vision? Are disagreements addressed in ways that build up relationships rather than tearing them down? Do we measure our final decisions by biblical standards?

Mutually accountable. If assess­­­­ment begins with self-assessment, it does not end there. In Romans 12, after telling us to examine ourselves with sober judgment, the apostle Paul proceeds to talk about the varied gifts that God has given us for Christian ministry. Many of these gifts are invaluable for the governance of Christian organizations: faith, leadership, service, generosity. None of these gifts belong to us as individual Christians. Since we are “individually members one of another,” all our gifts belong to the body of Christ.

This implies that, by itself, self-assessment is not sufficient for making the best use of our gifts. We also need the input of other believers—our brothers and sisters in Christ. Often they see us better than we see ourselves. Thus we need their sober judgment to help us understand what gifts we have and how we can use them most effectively. 

One good way to get this kind of input is to ask board members to assess one another. Our goal at Wheaton is to do this every five years—halfway through a ten-year term of service, and then again at the end, when a trustee may be eligible for re-election. Mutual assessment is handled confidentially, with every member of the board asked to comment on the greatest strengths of the trustee who is being assessed, as well as any areas of concern, as measured against our shared expectations for board service. These comments are then discussed privately with the board member by both the chair of the Governance Committee and the chair of the board. 

The goal of this entire assessment process is to honor God by improving the effectiveness of the board. In some cases, it may become apparent that it is time for a board member to step away from this particular avenue of Kingdom service. Most of the time, however, assessment interviews will serve primarily as positive affirmation of a board member’s work, while at the same time identifying areas for personal growth (provided, of course, that a board has done its job in the first place by choosing the right members). In any case, assessment should be carried out with the kind of sober judgment we read about in Romans, as a living demonstration of the grace of God.



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.