Age brings wisdom — or at least it is supposed to according to biblical principles. We know this does not always happen. When a congregation appoints people to a church board, usually they select them because they discern evidence of spiritual maturity. Often additional competencies come into the picture as well, i.e. financial expertise, human resources competence, construction experience, or theological acumen.
One of the duties of board members involves the application of special competence or expertise to assist the board in making prudent decisions. If a board member who is a chartered accountant fails to warn the board that it is making an imprudent financial decision, he or she is doubly at fault, both as a general board member, but also because he or she had the financial competence to help the board make a better decision, but chose not to exercise it.
The chairperson seeks to orchestrate and facilitate the application of this diverse knowledge that is present among the various board members, so that the board together makes the best possible decisions. At least two issues emerge for the chairperson in managing this knowledge. First, what types and kinds of knowledge, experience and competence do the various board members bring to the table. Second, how does the chairperson encourage board members to apply their “talents” to the questions at hand?
Within the corporate world knowledge seems to be the indispensable element and most important resource that a company possesses. Capturing this knowledge and applying it creatively and effectively to develop productive and competitive corporate strategies and innovations preoccupies the attention of CEO’s and corporate boards. The board members individually and collectively through their actions are expected to “create value” for the company and its shareholders.
I think that something of an intimidation factor comes into play within church boards which hinders the application of their knowledge, experience and competence. Most board members have little or no formal theological education or experience as a vocational church leader. They try to speak into discussions about complex church matters, but feel they have little to offer and so gently probe around the edges of the issue, but rarely jump in with both feet. If a board member does speak forcefully with respect of an issue, “those that know” will quickly demonstrate the board member’s lack of expertise, however kindly it may be couched. Next time the board member will be less willing to participate meaningfully in the discussion. Such exchanges tend to shut down robust debate. I am not saying that lead pastors, for instance, intentionally function like this, but the results are often the same.
I think church board members struggle to discern how they might bring their knowledge, expertise and competence to bear upon the critical issues listed on the agenda. They may know how to tackle an issue within their business context, but they understand that the church is not a business and this complicates their participation. When does their competence or knowledge speak directly to an agenda issue and when does it not?
I am presuming that there is an uptapped reservoir of knowledge, experience and competence within a church board that if accessed and recognized would help the board to make better decisions. Concurrently, if recognized and used, it would make the individual board member’s work within the board much more satisfying. They would recognize their contribution.
What kinds and types of knowledge and competence might be present within the church board you chair?
1. Professional and business leaders are constantly attending seminars, workshops and conferences to keep on top of their game. As well they are interacting with other leaders in their fields about many issues involving leadership, organizational development, use of technology, etc. They bring this diverse knowledge and competence into the board meetings.
2. Some board members will have particular skill in analysis and problem solving. They can help the board analyze and consider various solutions to problems that the congregation or pastoral leadership may be facing. Such people have ability to weigh evidence and discern process that leads to good decisions.
3. Other board members will bring ability and understanding of action knowledge, i.e. how to communicate well or how to measure performance or expertise in handling conflict constructively.
4. All board members bring “habitual knowledge,” i.e. knowledge gained through their business, personal or professional experience in which they have had to deal with similar issues many times. It often will be a specific kind of knowledge, e.g. financial, communications, strategic planning, facilities management, etc.
5. As well, all board members will bring cultural experience and/or perceptions to the table that enable them to empathize with particular people and develop mutual understandings. This is why it is important to have diversity in the boardroom.
6. Procedural knowledge may be the particular interest of one or two board members. They know the institution’s history, bylaws, and policies. As the board engages issues, these are the people who remind the board of the collective memory and experiences that have guided the board in the past. In some cases this may include knowledge of how the denominational family has developed.
You can probably think of other kinds of knowledge pertinent to a church board. The point is simply that within the board you serve as chairperson there already exists a significant array of knowledge, experience and competence that has potential to enhance the board’s work together.
So this leads to the second issue — how do you as chairperson learn about this expertise and then encourage its appropriate usage within the board?
1. I think one of the key ways you can do this as board chair is to ensure there is a good orientation process for new board members. During this interaction you can explore with the new board members what specific expertise they bring to the board. Take note of their responses and keep this information accessible.
2. During the annual board evaluation ask the board members in what way during the last twelve months they think their particular expertise has contributed to board decisions. Conversely explore with them whether they think their expertise has not been employed and what might be done to correct this in the coming year.
3. As you prepare the board agendas be thinking which board members might contribute to specific discussions. You might even approach specific board members prior to meeting and ask them to think carefully about the issue from the perspective of their knowledge and competence.
4. If you have regular conversations with your lead pastor, you might ask his opinion about who on the board might assist in specific issues. He may be aware of board members’ expertise or experience of which you are ignorant.
5. At the annual board retreat build into the agenda an informal time where you explore with the board members creative ways to employ their knowledge, experience and competence more effectively within the board’s operations.
The goal of this is twofold: to help you as chairperson understand the board’s potential and then facilitate the board’s use of its resources to fulfill its responsibilities with excellence.