Most of us recall the unfortunate, terrible tragedy of Jonestown (1978). Members of the People’s Temple committed suicide by drinking flavoured water laced with cyanide. “Drinking the kool-aid” (‘kool-aid’ is a name for flavoured drinks) in the United States has come to mean “knowingly going along with a doomed or dangerous idea because of peer pressure” or to refer to a “group holding an unquestioned belief, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.” Church boards sometimes find themselves “drinking the kool-aid.”
At times this will occur because church board members respect the lead pastor and do not challenge his ideas or proposals. Perhaps the church board feels the lead pastor is working so hard that it is unreasonable to require a performance evaluation. Or maybe the board members, looking around at other congregations, feel extremely blessed to have their lead pastor and so extend “unconditional love” and acceptance to everything he does, not wishing to “rock the boat.” In other contexts a church board can be dominated by one of the board members, who for some reason feels entitled to “call the shots.” Other board members for a variety of reasons are hesitant to challenge that board member’s expectation that the board will follow his lead. However, when church boards operate within these perspectives, a wrong turn is inevitable. At some point a bad decision will be made by the board because it did not have the right information, or it failed to ask the right questions, or it neglected to evaluate the risk, or perhaps it believes its own press that everything is all right when in fact the congregation’s mission has become stale and stalled.
One of the significant roles that a church board chair plays involves guiding the board to discern reality. The church board will fail to serve as the strategic leadership ministry team for the congregation if it cannot or will not perceive reality. To assess the state of the congregation and its future development the board members need information, they require the Spirit’s discernment, they must have confidence to ask tough questions, and they must have the courage to define what’s going well and what is not and deal with it. The chairperson may have to point out to the board members when they are “drinking the kool-aid” and thus neglecting their primary responsibility.
Sometimes a church board will develop a set of “dash-board” indicators to let it know when risk is looming. For example, in the quarterly or monthly financial statements the board members may discern a deteriorating financial situation. When this becomes apparent the board members can respond in different ways. Some might want to explain this change as a minor deviation and urge the board members to “have faith” and “pray harder.” Board members always need to use these spiritual resources, but they also have to tell themselves the truth. Others might want to explain the change based upon some unusual external circumstances, e.g. such as the 2008 financial crisis. So what can one church board do in the face of such a global situation? And some board members will want to tackle the problem on the spot and propose releasing employees or taking other drastic measures.
None of these responses are probably the most helpful. However, the board must take some action in order to protect the congregation and the welfare of the employees. So perhaps it will act to defer some expenses, or mandate the board finance committee to evaluate the situation and come to the next meeting with some options. It may also decide to inform the congregation of the situation, asking them to consider their responsibility in this matter. Perhaps the resulting inquiries of the finance committee will uncover some fraud (yes, this does happen even in churches), or maybe it will discern that the financial situation of key donors has deteriorated and they can no longer give at previous levels. Whatever the reason may be for the financial crisis, once the board knows the truth, then it has the power and information necessary to act. However, failing to act is not an option.
I think “drinking the kool-aid”becomes problematic particularly when things are going well in a congregational setting. The board members are engaged and excited about what God is doing and it seems like nothing can or will go wrong. They have the “church formula” figured out and if they just continue to do the same things, then perpetual success will result. When this thinking pervades the board, the members can become blind to indicators that significant change is imminent and must be addressed. Church board members need the humility to expect and anticipate that change will occur.
Perhaps the most frequent cases of “drinking the kool-aid” arise because we rely upon traditional practices and perspectives. We come to believe that the tried ways are the best and only ways for a congregation to flourish. We forget that our surrounding context is changing. We ignore the fact that the congregation itself continually is changing. Traditional ways often express good values, but these values may need to find expression in new and different ways, not just the traditional ones.
Dan Aleshire, Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools, in his book Earthen Vessels (111) notes that one of the problems that seminary boards “may experience is boards paying too little attention to the critically important issues….It is important for the board to pay attention, ask hard questions, and both support the administration and hold it accountable.” These principles apply equally to church boards, exercised appropriately within congregational culture.