In a well-known article published ten years ago Leon Panetta (Board Leadership, Winter 2003, 17ff) argued that in the case of boards with reference to trust and transparency “it’s not just what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” If boards are to sustain trust, then they have to demonstrate that they are leading in a trustworthy manner. We can come at this issue from another direction. Key voices in the literature on boards and their culture continually affirm that as important as good policies and processes are, it is the character of the board members ultimately that makes the difference between good governance and uninspired, substandard governance.
Church board chairs have to be discerning about the character and spiritual maturity present among the board members. Building a board culture of trust, transparency, and integrity requires board members that are committed to these values. While a chairperson might assume that people appointed by a Christian congregation to serve as board members will embrace these values, this is not always the case. A board member’s behaviour and decision-making will reveal the heart of that individual over time.
Trust, transparency and integrity have to become collective values, owned by all. The courage and costliness that such values require, can only be sustained where all the board members are committed to their expression. Board members have to trust one another, as well as senior staff if they are to progress together. As well all involved in governance need to execute their responsibilities with transparency, i.e. without ulterior motives and in the best interests of the agency’s mission. These values also need to be evident in a church board’s relationship with the congregation. Too often I hear stories about church boards who make foolish decisions, contrary to stated procedures or to previously affirmed commitments. When people in the congregation learn about these things — which inevitably occurs — they feel betrayed and confidence in the board diminishes. Sometimes the very ability of the board to govern is compromised.
Trust, transparency and integrity are essential in a church board’s relationship with a lead pastor. This is a two-way, mutual commitment. When a lead pastor decides to go around the board and appeal directly to the congregation for a decision, that pastor has lost all credibility with the board. When the board acts without consulting the lead pastor, it compromises the lead pastor’s trust in their confidence and support of his leadership. Regardless of the felt justification for these kinds of actions, they are always damaging to the life of the congregation and the advancement of the agency’s mission. In several articles I have noted that trust in the lead pastor does not mean that the board members do not question. Robust trust requires that the board members feel safe in asking tough questions and requiring accountability. Conversely, the lead pastor must know that the board members in asking the tough questions have at heart the advancement of the mission, the success of the pastor and the fulfillment of their responsibilities as board members. The chairperson’s role occupies this place between the board and the lead pastor.
In the board’s relationship with congregation the chairperson also is the key person who communicates on behalf of the board. What the chair says and how he/she says it to the congregation influences trust and reveals commitment to transparency and integrity. Can you as chairperson in the board’s annual report affirm that you have operated as a board to the best of your knowledge in compliance with the congregation’s bylaws during the past twelve months? If not, can you explain why? Can you describe on behalf of the board how the board’s actions have advanced the mission of the congregation and where over the next twelve months the board sees further development? When congregants inquire about issues, board decisions or other matters, do the board members listen well and respond with good answers? When they do not have an answer, do they seek the wisdom of the board in order to develop a reasonable response? Communication is always a two-way process.
The church board chair serves the board by holding it accountable to operate in a trustworthy manner, transparently, and with integrity. Similarly, if the chairperson senses that the lead pastor is violating these values with respect to the board, a serious conversation will be required. When these matters are ignored, only bad things result for the board, the lead pastor and the congregation. When violations occur, confession, repentance, and remedial action are necessary — the sooner the better.