Facilitating board decisions becomes in many cases an exercise in conflict resolution. The issue itself may be controversial, but the process for decision can also generate conflict. Board chairs must have some good conflict resolution skills, graciousness, and a bit of “thick skin,” as well as Spirit-generated courage and discernment. Often I find as board chair that my creativity gets severely challenged when the board is enmeshed in a controversial discussion. While I should not personally feel responsible for enabling the board to reach consensus, I discover that the board’s continued confidence in my role as chair is related to the achievement of good resolution.
Good chairmanship recognizes that an agenda presents the board with a series of decisions that in some way it must make, if not in the current meeting, at some future point in time. So in one sense every board meeting operates with the assumption that decisions can be made, if the members come with heart and attitude seeking good solutions. But chairs particularly sense the risk in each meeting that conflicts will arise and not get resolved.
But should a chair expect every conflict to gain resolution? While I approach each board issue with a sense of optimism that resolution of various viewpoints will occur and consensus will be achieved, I also am sufficiently realistic to know that this does not always happen. The history of unresolved conflicts affects ongoing board operations — people do not forget such matters. The degree of heat generated in such discussions will often set a pattern for future interaction, particularly when egos get bruised. So as chair I need to sense when relationships are strained and initiate action for healing and reconciliation.
In posing the question about conflict resolution, I realize it is tightly linked with passion for the mission, board member relations, process for achieving decisions, timing of decisions, and board education. When board members are passionate about the mission of the congregation, this generally is a good thing. Such passion motivates serious engagement and vigorous discussion because the issues are deemed important. Usually the priority of advancing the mission enables board members to reach consensus about issues that contribute to fulfilling the mission. Or conversely if a decision does not seem central to mission advancement it will generate less conflict. It is also the case that passion for the mission can create significant conflict if board members are divided as to whether a proposed direction will in fact advance the mission. The other kinds of discussions that often generate diverse opinions relate to finances and personnel, because their specific relation to mission advancement is not always clear.
Conflicts affect board member relations. Board members bring into every meeting interest in specific projects, people, and theological concerns. They are affected as well by what they have experienced in their personal lives in recent days. Not every board member will be functioning with a high level of spiritual energy. A wise chair seeks to know something about the personal situation and perspective of each board member so that as particular issues arise the chair has some sense of how particular board members may respond. These insights may lead a chairperson to meet with a board member privately to help him/her work through the issue and gain a more balanced perspective about the decision. However, once a serious difference of opinion has surfaced and even though a decision finally is achieved, it may not sit well with everyone. If this situation is cast as winning and losing, this stance may deepen the hurt and upset. Learning how to express opinions strongly, but be content with the final result, whatever that may be, becomes a mark of board member maturity.
I find that conflicts often arise because board members have not understood the process for reaching a decision, timing issues or whose input is necessary. In the case of major decisions I take considerable care to outline the process and to ensure that board members are in agreement with the process before allowing the discussion to proceed. I will remind the board where we are in the process. And once the board has made its decision review what further process may be necessary to bring the matter to completion. I do not want the board discussing both process and issue simultaneously — this gets too confusing for everyone. One of the important process questions is whether the board has received the information necessary to make a good decision. Sometimes conflict occurs because the board’s information is incomplete, biased, or poorly prepared.
Finally, once the board makes a decision it sometimes is helpful at a later meeting to take a few minutes and review with the board what they learned through that process. Encouraging the board members to think consciously about the process, their personal involvement, the way the board operated, etc. can be very educational. It may lead to some significant person testimonies of the way God dealt with a board member in that discussion. Mutual understanding and respect can be enhanced.
Does every conflict have to be resolved? I would say that the board has to make decisions, but they will not always be unanimously endorsed. If a board member remains fundamentally opposed, once the board has reached a decision, then that board member may need to help to consider whether they should resign. I think that every board member, as their term progresses, will accumulate experiences in which their perspective did not match that of the board majority. In most cases board members realize that this is part of the ebb and flow of board work. So long as they have had opportunity to express their views and been heard respectfully, most board members can live with the results.