I am not sure who coined the expression “Leading through Conversation,” but it is an apt expression to define an important tool that board chairs can use to fulfill their role. In a summary of her dissertation entitled “Leading Change One Conversation at a Time” Dr. Kathy Cowan Sahadath suggests that leadership conversations can be “strategically intentional” and “a catalyst for change,” develop “mindful awareness,” build “shared commitment,” and guide change. Significant innovation becomes possible through the many, various conversations that leaders engage on a daily basis.
I would argue that the leadership exercised by board chairpersons essentially and consistently occurs through conversations.Consider the common function of facilitating board meetings as chair. In a meeting the board members have engaged an issue for 20 minutes. There is a bit of a lull in the dialogue and as chair you know that the time allotted to this item in the agenda is almost expired. So you decide to exercise leadership by gently probing and discerning whether the board members are ready to make a decision. By your action as chair in making such comments you are “leading through conversation.” Or perhaps the board is discussing what key issues the congregation may face in the next twelve months as they update the strategic plan. Several good suggestions have come forward, but one or two items that you as chair think the board should give attention to have not surfaced. So as chair you ask several “leading” questions: do board members think that the financial resources of the congregation will advance or decline over the next twelve months? Is there greater capacity within the congregation to give? Your question is prompted by your scan of the financial reports over the last six months which indicate that giving has plateaued. Yet, the board members eagerly are anticipating implementing several new programs and hiring two new employees. Your questions as chair are intended to prompt a reality check and you “lead by conversation.”
Sometimes as chairperson you notice things happening within the congregation or the larger community environment, but you sense that the lead pastor may not have discerned these things. In your monthly meeting with your lead pastor you ask whether or not he has noticed the shifting demographics that seem to be occurring during the Sunday morning service. More people in their fifties and sixties have being attending. He says, “Yes.” And then you probe a bit further by wondering out loud what this changing pattern may mean for future ministry. Or, to put it in theological terms, what is God telling us by this change? By your conversation you are being a catalyst for change and seeking to orient your lead pastor to impending change, as well as encouraging him to consider new possibilities for ministry.
Board chairs do need to meet occasionally with board members one on one outside of the board meetings. These informal conversations can be one of several strategic avenues for “building shared commitment.” For example, you can use such occasions as an opportunity to share your passion for the congregation’s mission, what is encouraging you and what is generating concern. As you engage the board member and invite him (or her) to share their vision for work of God in and through the congregation, you are “building shared commitment.” Simultaneously you demonstrate personal accountability to God and the congregation for the trust they have placed in you to provide ministry leadership. You take this seriously and the way you converse about it demonstrates this sincere passion for God and his work.
I think one of the most significant ways in which a chairperson can “lead through conversation” occurs in the course of board meetings. Perhaps the board has been discussing budget formation for the coming year. John, one of the board members, makes a seemingly offhand comment about ministry being done by several of the women in the congregation to single parent families, foster children, and children struggling with various issues. As you reflect on this, you suddenly realize that a number of the new people coming to the church are in fact a direct result of this emerging ministry initiative. However, you have not heard any of the board members asking whether the next budget should provide some resources to support this initiative. You feel prompted as chair to make special mention of John’s comment and ask the board whether God is doing something fresh here which needs to be resources properly. Your question is guiding change, allowing you to help the board discern significant change that is occurring.
I think an often overlooked pattern of leading through conversation exercised by a chairperson are the reminders to the board about its policies. A chairperson has a particular responsibility to be aware of board and congregational policies and ensure that the board is operating in harmony with those policies. Board actions can easily trend in ways that may violate its policies because board members forget or do not understand the implications of those policies. When the chairperson brings these policies into the board discussion, he or she is leading through conversation the direction of the board.
Conflict resolution often surfaces as an important need within board meetings and the chairperson has to take to the lead in guiding the board to maintain unity while encouraging and respecting truthful expression of differences. When things do become heated — and they do — the chairperson has the responsibility to lead through conversation. Sometimes the chair will call for a brief recess and then re-engage the discussion with a brief summary of what he (or she) believes the issue to be and acknowledge the diverse opinions held by board members. Perhaps the chair call for a period of prayerful discernment or recommend the matter be tabled until specific information can be gathered to help the board discern the answers to its key questions. Appropriate humour can be a great tool to defuse tension and bring emotional and spiritual balance into the discussion.
A church board chairperson is not just a functionary, someone chairing a committee. The board chair is a key ministry leader and exercises leadership in many ways within the congregation. Significant conversations offer an important venue by which a board chairperson can guide, influence, and enlighten the board as to good practice, significant change, and new opportunities. A chairperson filled with the Holy Spirit brings significant wisdom into the context of the board and is enabled to speak truth through the conversations engaged.