In my church board experience getting good information at the right time always is a challenge. The ability of board members to make missionally-appropriate decisions depends upon the information they can access. When that information is not available or comes in a form that is incomplete or biased, it hinders the board’s ability to make the best decision. In some cases it may lead the board to choose a very harmful direction. When the information flow to a board is being intentionally manipulated, this becomes information abuse. Whether it is information withheld, information misrepresented or misinterpreted, or information tsunamis, church leaders can use the flow of information to control a church board’s decisions. This in my view is an abuse of power and a dangerous practice that can threaten the stability of the congregation.
I would suggest four common ways in which the flow of information to boards becomes an issue and has potential to inhibit the board’s ability to fulfill its responsibilities.
1. Information is simply not provided. I think this is the most common type of information abuse. How often are church board members asked to make a decision without receiving necessary information before the meeting or only based upon a brief oral presentation? I daresay it happens all too frequently and board members struggle to make a wise, ‘informed’ decision. Eventually a motion is made, but board members do not feel good about it. And then a few weeks later new information arises that indicates their decision was ill-advised.
I think the board chair plays a significant role in ‘policing’ this aspect of board-management relations. Usually this type of situation arises because the church management wants the board to make a decision. They feel it needs to be done immediately, but neglect to provide the board with the necessary information they require. For some reason the church management expects the board to “trust them” and just say yes. In some cases the decision will probably be all right, but in other cases the end result will harm the congregation and prevent the board from pursuing the congregational mission appropriately. So the board chair needs to guard the board from this kind of abuse and pressure. Here is where the chair’s relationship with the lead pastor can affect things in positive ways. A simple conversation describing the reason why the board members need the right information in a timely fashion can help the lead pastor work cooperatively with the chair. Both leaders want to facilitate good decisions in the interests of the congregation and working collaboratively to ensure the board gets the right information on time enhances this process.
2. Information is provided selectively. Unfortunately at times the information flow to a church board is manipulated. The reasons may be varied, but the result is the same — a board decision that ethically is flawed. If church board work is worshipful work, then such manipulation injects wickedness into the very heart of the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Such activity cannot be overlooked, once it is discovered. It destroys trust in the church leadership and potentially causes the board to make decisions that violate its fiduciary responsibilities. Whether the issue is financial or employee-related or programmatic in nature, the outcomes are harmful. Such manipulation is deceitful, no matter what “good” the perpetrator may feel might be achieved.
Here again the board chair serves the board and guards the board’s ability to make good decisions and fulfill its fiduciary responsibility. If the chair suspects that information coming to the board is being manipulated in this fashion, he/she needs to address this with the lead pastor. How that is done may require considerable wisdom.
3. Information is provided too profusely. This kind of information abuse is more challenging to address. In this case the board gets reams of information, but has to do management’s job of sorting through and discerning what information is relevant to the decision. Sometimes church leaders adopt a strategy of overwhelming a church board with information and the board’s response is to feel that the issues are too complex or that only a professional such as the lead pastor has the competence to make the decisions. And so the board feels it has to follow the pastor’s direction in such matters.
The board chair can consult with the board and discern what kinds of information the board members think is necessary for different kinds of decisions. Such a framework can assist management to provide the right kind of information. The framework can also specify appropriate timelines for the board to receive the information. The board may want to take the position that no decision will be proposed without required information in hand and on time. While such a position may seem harsh to management, sometimes such a policy is necessary to develop good practices within the management team.
4. The wrong information is provided. In such cases the management team may think that it has provided the correct information that the board requires to process the decision. However, the board as it deliberates may realize that key pieces of information are missing. Without that data in hand the board feels it cannot make an informed decision. So the matter is deferred with specific requests made for certain data. The management team may not be at fault in such cases, rather the board has discerned that the nature of this decision requires a different set of data than that which the management has prepared.
Church boards often operate under pressure from church management teams to make decisions even though they may lack the information required to make a responsible, informed decisions. Boards must resist such tendencies. Decisions are the currency of board work and if that currency is squandered because of poor decisions, the board’s trust and credibility sustain serious damage. The accumulation of poor decisions over time will severely blunt the board’s ability to sustain the congregation’s mission.
The board chair plays a critical role in managing this information flow. This role must advocate on behalf of the board for the right kind of information delivered on time. When the management team lacks the resources to gather the right information, the board may have to step in and ensure that they can access additional, perhaps external resources, to achieve a good decision.