Fr Brian Lucas, National Director at the Catholic Mission, discusses Dysfunctionality in Church Advisory Bodies. Fr Lucas presented on the topic Boards and Advisory Councils: Issues and Challenges at the recent Legalwise Religious Law Conference.
Issues involving church advisory councils and boards are commonplace and there can easily be a breakdown in relationships that leads to dysfunctionality in their activities.
Sometimes this dysfunctionality involves conflict between the ecclesial governor and others who may control the church’s assets. Many will be familiar with the lengthy litigation involving the Macedonian Orthodox Church. As McFarlane JA stated:
In essence, the dispute is as to who has the right to control the affairs of the St Petka Church, whether it is, on the one hand, the Bishop and his appointed priest, representing the hierarchy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church based in Skopje in Macedonia, or whether, on the other hand, it is those who are presently in charge of the Association and claim to represent the interests of the members of the St Petka parish. Central to the dispute is the question of whether the Association is entitled to act in relation to the St Petka church in accordance with its own Constitution irrespective of the laws governing the Macedonian Orthodox Church generally.
Similar issues arose in cases involving the Assyrian Church of the East and the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Another example is conflict between the church leader and the lay association who was the employer. Archbishop Spyridon Ermogenous made a claim in the Industrial Relations Court of South Australia against the Greek Orthodox Community of SA Inc for sums he claimed were due to him for annual leave and long service leave. He alleged that he had been employed by the respondent since 18 March 1970 but had never received any payment for annual leave and that, on termination of his employment, he had not been paid his long service leave entitlements.
These two examples reflect disputation that arises from the clash between the ecclesial structures, and the way they are expressed in civil law structures.
A different problem is structural dysfunctionality within the ecclesial context itself in the councils’/boards’ structures, operations, relations with senior lay executive management, and the church leader (bishop). Sometimes there is a confusion between executive and advisory functions of boards.
Advisory councils and boards of directors of companies or committees of incorporated associations have different roles in ecclesial governance of church enterprises and pastoral ministries. Within the Anglo-American commercial experience, governance of an enterprise by an individual with the support of an advisory body is rare. The paradigmatic structure is a corporation with shareholders, or an association with members, and an elected board of directors, or committee, which in turn appoints a chief executive officer or general manager.
It is not surprising, therefore, when people with this commercial background, are appointed to church “boards” they bring with them a culture of collegial governance. Some can feel a sense of frustration that their role is “only” or “merely” advisory as if this was somehow an inferior role to that of an executive function.
Furthermore, they can feel disenfranchised if their position appears to be undermined by a board composition that does not reflect either a proper delegation for executive action, or respectful willingness to receive advice. This can occur if there is dominant church executive on the body who appears to have significant “de facto” control.
Dysfunctionality can arise where:
- Advisory councils overreach into executive functions.
- Boards or committees distance themselves from the ecclesial context and seek too much independence and are not aware of, or respectful of, relevant canonical and theological principles and limitations.
- There is confusion if members of advisory councils also take on some form of delegated executive function that is not clearly defined.
- Membership is not strategically approached with a proper matrix of the right mix of skills.
- Membership is potentially conflictual with members being chosen from competing constituencies, e.g. employer and employee interests.
- Church governors do not understand or implement a strategic use of the bodies they establish.
The prevention and, where necessary, the resolution, of this dysfunctionality involves:
- Clarity in the statutes/constitutions of the relevant bodies.
- Careful consideration of the purpose of the body and the skills of the membership to achieve that purpose.
- Formation of members in a sound ecclesiology.
- Formation of church governors so that they can make proper use of their advisory and executive bodies.
Fr Brian Lucas is a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney ordained in 1980 after briefly practising law as a solicitor in a commercial practice in Sydney. Since 2016 has is the National Director of Catholic Mission (the Pontifical Mission Societies in Australia). Previous appointments include General Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in Canberra (2002 – 2015), Financial Administrator and Secretary of the Archdiocese of Sydney (2000 – 2012), and he spent 15 years as archdiocesan media spokesman. He was a Director of Catholic Church Insurances Limited (2003 – 2015). He was a founding member of the Catholic Church Professional Standards Committee from 1989 – 1999. From 1999 – 2016 he was a member of the Australian Taxation Office Charities Consultative Committee.
He was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2001 and undertook a course of study and research in pastoral communication at the Gregorian University, Rome. Fr Lucas has post-graduate academic qualifications in law, jurisprudence, general studies and theology. He is an adjunct professor of the Australian Catholic University. He is a co-author of the Church Administration Handbook and the author of Pleasing to God – The Call to Church Administration, as well as numerous academic journal articles in the areas of child welfare law, ethics, media practice and church administration. Contact Fr Lucas at [email protected] or connect via LinkedIn.
 A resource prepared for those involved in church administration The Church Administration Handbook (St Pauls Publications 2nd edition April 2018) of which the presenter is a co-author provides some additional background with a Catholic Church context.
 Macedonian Orthodox Community Church St Petka Incorporated v Metropolitan Petar  NSWCA 223 (18 July 2013) at 3.
 Attorney-General ex rel Elisha v Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church of the East (Assyria) Australia NSW Parish Association (1989) 37 NSWLR 293 and Radmanovich v Nedeljkovic  NSWSC 492; (2001) 52 NSWLR 641.
 Ermogenous v Greek Orthodox Community of SA Inc  HCA 8; 209 CLR 95; 76 ALJR 465; 187 ALR 92 (7 March 2002)