When was the last time your church board displayed any interest in how other church boards or not-for-profit charity boards operated? Does your church board have the attitude that they know how to do things and need no external “interference” to guide improvement? When was the last article or blog or short book circulated to your church board members to read and discuss concerning board governance? If your answer to all or most of these questions was no or not in the last two or three years, then your church board is probably developing a culture of board insularity.
Church boards often get so enmeshed in the struggle to maintain their work, i.e. keep their heads above water, that they have little time, appetite or energy to look over the fence and see what is happening in the larger world of church board life. Sometimes this attitude of insularity occurs because of arrogance — we know what we are doing and want no external person messing in our patch! Alternatively insularity is an expression of ignorance — we never thought to ask other church boards or church leaders about their initiatives. In some Baptist circles it reflects a misperception of what “local church autonomy” is all about. And some do not regard church board work as all that complex and are happy to muddle along.
I think insularity might have been a significant issue in the emerging churches of the New Testament era. They were new, they were somewhat isolated from other house churches, and they were making it up as they went along in some instances. It is Paul’s interventions that serve to break down this insularity and help them recognize their own perversity and discern better ways to proceed so that Christ would be honoured.When each does “what is right in their own eyes,” spiritual progress becomes difficult.
Of course, you do not want the opposite problem, namely constant change and innovation with all of the upset and uncertainty that goes along with that. So there is a balance to be struck between complete introversion and unbridled faddishness. I would suggest that perceptive church board chairs soon discern what the rubbing points are in their church board operations. Letting such issues fester without resolution will only result in board frustration. A more productive approach is to suggest to the board members the possibility of getting some external help to discern better ways for the board to function. The goal would be enhanced ministry leadership and ministry satisfaction.
There is a price to be paid for continued board insularity:
1. dynamic board members may lose their passion to serve on the board. When board operations get bogged down and dysfunctional, board members who know what good board practices look like will soon lose interest and no longer be willing to serve. Board insularity can result in the loss of effective board members who have much to offer in terms of time, talent, wisdom and treasure.
2. bad habits of board interaction may create unnecessary conflict. When a board gets trapped in a continuing cycle of conflict and controversy, its insularity probably will compound the problem. No one knows what to do and the cycle continues. Potential, external assistance is ignored.
3. the board may be focusing its energies on the wrong things and not getting its necessary work accomplished. Boards, like humans, adopt bad habits and often these are reflected in the agendas. Reports and minor issues get initial and majority time in the agenda, while the most important issues rarely get the attention they need and deserve. Without external perspective boards may be quite blind to this reality.
4. the lead pastor may regard the church board as an obstacle to congregational advancement, rather than the engine of mission advancement. When church boards become dysfunctional and seek no remedy, pastoral leadership will become cynical regarding the value and purpose of the church board. Instead of viewing the board as a wise and strategic ministry leadership team, the board becomes an obstruction because its ways of operating are dysfunctional and there seems to be no heart to make changes.
Board insularity eventually will limit mission advancement. It may take a while, but it will happen for a variety of reasons — some of which have been mentioned. All church boards can benefit from the wisdom of other church boards, denominational leaders, church board coaches, and published resources. A church board chair plays a significant role in encouraging church boards to seek the information and guidance that will lift them to new levels of strategic ministry leadership.
Some ideas that you might use to break through your board’s insularity:
1. develop a short case study based on a recent board discussion or decision that seemed to go sideways. Invite the board to reflect on what went wrong and what might be done better next time. Of course, do not mention specific names in writing the case study.
2. When you know that the board will need to discuss a significant issue in one of the upcoming meetings, try to locate a short article that you might share with board members to help them process the issue.
3. At the end of the next board meeting take five minutes to get feedback on how the members felt about the meeting, whether they advanced the mission, what might be done more effectively. This might begin a productive conversation towards change.
4. Ask two board members to observe one of the board meetings and then offer some observations on how they thought the meeting went.
Whatever strategy you choose, the point is to find some way to open the board to consider wiser ways of working together.