[In all case studies the names and incidents are fictional and have no connection with any specific persons, board or congregation.]
As chair you thought the church board meeting was going quite well. The basic items on the agenda were discussed with good interaction and reasonable decisions agreed. There were two items left. One was a discussion about the agenda for the Annual General Meeting that was scheduled in four weeks. The other was an item that Tom, the board vice chair had asked to be added to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. He had called it “new ministry opportunity.” You were curious as to what Tom had in mind, but you had worked together for a number of years on the board and so you did not really give it a second thought.
So after the board had settled matters related to the AGM’s agenda, you turned to Tom and gave him “the floor.” About two minutes into his presentation you realized that Tom was about to present to the board for immediate decision a major issue. Tom was friends with the owner of a Christian pre-school which offered it services in rented quarters two blocks from the church. However, the owner of that facility wanted to evict the Christian pre-school. The operator had contacted Tom and pressed him to bring to the church board a plan for the Christian pre-school to rent part of the church facility. Time was of the essence because the pre-school operation had to vacate in less than ten days by the time the church board met. Tom urged the board members to approve his motion to rent part of the church facility to the pre-school operation.
One of Tom’s more persuasive arguments was that the income from the Christian pre-school would provide much needed funding for upgrades to the building facility. They needed to replace the roof and this would cost almost $75,000. The congregation already was 15% behind in its giving towards the budget and had no reserves. Tom stated that “this was God’s provision” for their need. It would be a good ministry and help the congregation connect with the community. According to Tom very little change to the facility would be needed to allow this to go forward and he was willing to donate time to get the changes done.
You raised several questions about liability, whether or not this ministry was in alignment with the mission and vision, and what implications this would have for other ministry uses of the facility. However, Tom seemed to have an answer to every objection and when he called for the question, the board supported his motion 6 to 3. Throughout most of the discussion the lead pastor said very little, but in the end did vote to support the motion. The board authorized Tom to confirm the arrangements with the Christian pre-school.
As the meeting drew to a close the various board members gathered around Tom and thanked him for his proactive proposal and seemed to be encouraged that the congregation might finally receive some financial help towards the facility repairs. You were not so sure.
Two days later Tom emailed you a note that he had finalized the arrangements with the Christian pre-school supervisor and had a signed, written understanding.
That Saturday you were browsing through the local paper when your eye caught the words “pre-school being sued….” As you read through the first paragraph you realized that the article was about the Christian pre-school that now had a written agreement to use your church facilities. Two of its teachers were being accused of child abuse.
What options did this chairperson have in handling this situation?
1. One issue this case study raises concerns the addition of items to the agenda. On the one hand, it is important for board members to know they have the privilege of shaping the agenda. On the other hand, board members also need to add items in a responsible manner. Just because a board member wants to add an item to the agenda should not determine how the board decides to handle the item. These are two separate items. The board members should feel no obligation to act upon an item just because another board member has asked that it be added to the agenda. Similarly the chair should exercise appropriate leadership on behalf of the board and ensure that normal operational procedures are followed. In this case the chairperson would appropriately recommend to the board that it ensure it has all of the necessary information in hand before it arrives at a decision, lest it incur unwise risk.
2. A second issue relates to policy that guides the manner in which the church board will enter into a formal, legal relationship with another agency. Such a policy, for example, might stipulate that all such agreements receive a legal review, be limited in term, and define the basis upon which the agreement becomes void. It probably should also require the church treasurer to evaluate the proposal and assure the board that the projected financial projections do indeed represent reality. The agreement should also stipulate what position within the church is responsible to give oversight to this arrangement. Will this responsibility fall under the lead pastor’s position description, or the facility manager’s or the board chair? As churches grow the potential for these types of inter-agency relationships will become more frequent. This is a matter of risk management that the board has to exercise judiciously.
3. Tom seemed to make some general arguments that establishing this relationship would contribute in some ways to the advancement of the congregation’s mission. However, did he make the case that this was a strategic move? Church boards receive many different proposals for ministries and many different opportunities to engage in various enterprises, but in every case the board members must determine whether any of these truly are strategic for mission advancement. Often these proposals are good, but not strategic, i.e. are not the two or three key things that the church leadership must embrace and drive for the mission is to advance intentionally and consistently.
4. As chair you should never allow someone in the congregation, not even the lead pastor or another board member, to sign an agreement on behalf of the board without the board first seeing, reviewing it and officially approving it. The board’s liability in such matters cannot be shifted to the person who signed. The board is responsible for all legal agreements made by the agency it is leading.
5. What can you do as board chair to limit the potential damage to the church that might arise because of these impending legal issues with the pre-school? I think one of the first things I would do is talk to the pre-school CEO and determine as clearly as possible what the situation is. Then I would call an emergency board meeting to inform the board members and seek their counsel. One of the things I would recommend is that legal advice be sought regarding the suspension or annulment of the agreement. If the press hear that this pre-school is about to occupy your facility, undoubtedly an enterprising reporter will be seeking comment. Ensure that the board members, staff members and church members are advised not to talk to the media, but to refer the matter to the board chair or the lead pastor. Limit the number of voices speaking to the media about this.