Frank McKenna speaking at The Directors’ Roundtable (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 1999) said he “has seen ‘the Stockholm Syndrome’ on some boards, where board members become so enamoured with the position, the corporation, the perks, and the management, that they gradually stop asking tough questions. Diligence and dissent give way to passivity and dependence, just as hostages often become sympathetic to their kidnappers (the origin of the syndrome” (referenced in “Women on the Board: Not Just the Right Thing… but the ‘Bright Thing'”, Report May 2002, p.9). Of course, he was speaking about corporate boards, but I suspect that this same phenomenon is operating within non-profit boards as well. In fact, it may be even more prevalent given the close relationships that often develop between the CEO of a non-profit and volunteers who are board members. When you drill down into the operational reality of church boards in particular, the relational complexity multiplies because board members are also congregational members, recipients of services, friends with the lead pastor who normally is “their pastor,” and friends with other members of the board. I think this issue is particularly challenging for church board chairpersons and their relationships with lead pastors.
Are church board members prepared to challenge “management’s,” i.e. lead pastor’s, recommendations and assumptions? “Groupthink” is an ever-present danger, particularly when the value of “uniformity” becomes pervasive. In Christian organizations the values of politeness and kindness often hinder serious and robust interaction. When “fierce conversations” do happen, such exchanges tend to be viewed negatively and evaluated as being judgmental or too critical or an attack on a lead pastor. Conversely, lead pastors themselves are often not very secure in their roles and may not be very good at handling vigorous debate about proposals they may be recommending. A chairperson gets caught in the middle of these dynamics and has to figure out good ways to enable the board to accomplish its work, while maintaining good relations with and encouraging the lead pastor.
Another factor complicating the practice of appropriate board member dissent, due diligence and sometimes opposition arises when the board is viewed as a ministry team responsible for the spiritual care of the congregation. When a church board is identified in this way, which is appropriate, it is hard to understand and practice dissent, due diligence and opposition from a spiritual perspective. Such board member responsibilities seem counter-productive in the development of spiritual community.
Conversely, some church board members only know one mode of operation and that is dissent. In their view their primary role is to keep the pastor “in check.” The automatic response to every new idea is ‘no’. However, when board members adopt this understanding of their responsibility, it is hard for the board to govern effectively and with its face to the future. A chairperson may discover both kinds of board attitudes are present in one and the same board! However, in this article we will focus attention on the first issue.
When you as chairperson perceive that “Stockholm syndrome” is operative within the board as a pervasive attitude, what can and should you do to facilitate healthy board engagement?
1. Help the board members understand the relationship between spiritual oversight, careful discernment, and risk management. They have a duty of prudence to ensure that the resources of the congregation are used responsibly and ethically to advance the mission as effectively as possible. These principles can be expressed at the annual board orientation session. Or, as you discern events within board meetings, you can take opportunity and seize the teaching moment to help the board members understand the importance of diligence, dissent, and occasionally opposition. It is healthy and normal.
2. Ensure through your chairing that diverse perspectives are being expressed in discussions and listened to carefully. The board meeting must be a safe place where board members to share their insights openly and respectfully without fear of reprisal or reprimand. As servant of the board and its members this is your responsibility. Perhaps if expressions of dissent happen too infrequently, the dissent itself becomes the issue, rather than the ideas being expressed. Some board members may feel uneasy and consider that the dissenter is not being a “team player.” You have opportunity through your chairing and your attitude towards the dissenting voice to be accepting and supportive.
3. Help both the lead pastor and board members understand that dissent is not a bad thing — it is a necessary expression in the process of spiritual discernment and also necessary for the proper fulfillment of board responsibility. Sometimes the board’s decision will be no and for good reasons. Sometimes you can diffuse tension by helping the board name those reasons so that the ministry leadership understand clearly that this decision is not personal, but based upon sound, prudent principles. Articulating these reasons helps the ministry leadership understand more clearly how and what to present in the future.
4. Sometimes it comes down to an issue of authority and power. The board is mandated by the congregation to advance the mission and has final authority within that mandate. However, it also has to realize that a significant “no” has implications and this should not be decided in a cavalier or frivolous manner. A “no” decision should not be used to discipline or get back at the ministry leadership. If there is need for discipline, then this should be handled as a separate and specific issue. However, the lead pastor does need to accept that the board has final authority. Usually the lead pastor sits with the board as such decisions are taken and has full voice in the discussion.