What is it about non-profit boards and church boards in particular that make them so challenging to lead? Why is it that developing an effective church board seems to be so difficult? I think the essential reason is quite simple — developing an effective and productive board culture is all about developing people, individually and collectively. People who chair church boards have to see their task ultimately as the development of people. Relationships are critical components for effective board operations, particularly in the case of church boards which function essentially as ministry leadership teams within the congregation.
A chairperson can work diligently to ensure that the board has good agendas, receives appropriate information, develops appropriate policies, makes decisions expeditiously, engages in various educational opportunities, and occasionally evaluates its work. However, if board members participate in a passive,compliant, or reluctant way, or if they think that such elements are just the stuff of board meetings, but do not really engage their responsibilities with deep commitment and a heart to advance the congregation’s mission, then the work of the board will be mediocre. Encouraging each board member to embrace their “board work” as a significant part of their personal ministry for Christ is a necessary part of a chairperson’s role. Without their engagement with the board’s work at this level of commitment, the board’s culture, i.e. “the way it does its work,” will be enmeshed in mediocrity.
Productive board culture depends upon each board member becoming a productive part of this strategic leadership team. Each board member needs to contribute to board operations in ways that will add true value to the life of the congregation. The place this starts is with the recruitment and appointment of board members that are willing to learn, embrace, and practice effective boardmanship. A chairperson should not try to manage this personally. However, influence of a good and appropriate kind can be exerted to encourage the appointment of people who have the capacity to contribute well. For example, a chairperson could work with the board to develop a board member’s position description, a statement that defines the role and responsibility of the board collectively, and the development and implementation of a good orientation process for new board members. It is also possible for the board as a whole to discuss whom among the congregation membership they see as emerging potential board members. This list of possible names could be forwarded to the nominating committee for their consideration.
If people are key to forming and sustaining an effective board culture, then evaluation processes will help the board members measure progress individually and collectively. Evaluation enables the board to discern the advances it has made in effective operations from year to year. As well, it will often produce consensus about board issues that the board needs to address within the congregation. A board that sees no need for improvement in its own work is a board that is struggling to be effective.
A third critical factor that advances productive board work through developing people involves the continuing education of board members regarding their role, particularly their responsibility to ensure that the congregation’s mission and vision are advancing. To assume that all board members understand their role and take it seriously would be a mistake. Normally board members want to do a good job and are motivated to help the congregation advance. This education begins with a good orientation process and ends with an exit interview. As chair, then, you can use this good will to propose relevant, in-house training that will “raise the game” of the board members individually and collectively.
In this “people development” project chairs often overlook the importance of building social and spiritual relationships among the board members. Are board members praying for one another, for the pastoral team, for the collective work of the board? When this is occurring regularly and consistently, then the interactions among board members will be more truthful, honest and strategic. Often a chairperson assumes that board members know each others stories, but this assumption should be tested. If it is not the case, then invite board members over the course of the year to share their journeys with Christ. Try to host one or two social functions for the board members and their spouses during the year. Again, do not assume that board members are building relationships outside of the board meetings. The goal here is not to build an “old boy’s network,” but rather to create a confident, trust-filled network among the board members that encourages and withstands robust discussion and can tackle the hard questions with a deep spirit of unity.
Changing the way people think about their work and ministry as church board members is the only way to change fundamentally a board’s culture.
Sometimes when a church board appoints a chairperson they think they are just appointing someone to moderate their meetings. There is little or no recognition that the board chairperson has responsibility to guide the board to be as effective as it can be in fulfilling its spiritual and legal leadership responsibilities within the congregation. A church board is not just a committee or a council. The chairperson is not merely the referee, maintaining civility within board discussions. The chair exercises responsibility on behalf of the board to ensure that board members know and practice the right behaviours, particularly those that arise from clear understanding of values, the exercise of appropriate leadership skills, and an awareness of the human factor, i.e. the people involved.