Building consensus forms a great challenge for church board chairs. This issue is not unique to church boards, but affects all boards. In the August 2014 Brown Governance Letter the author analyzes various causes of dissent in the board room and suggests some strategies that board chairs can employ to move beyond dissent to consensus. In the next several articles I will be discussing various causes of dissent and how, within a church board, a chairperson can assist board members to reach consensus. Sometimes it is not possible and so alternative strategies have to be used.
A church board generally operates on the assumption that the members, followers of Jesus, are one in Christ. Unity then becomes a significant value, a measure of spirituality. Words of Paul in Phil. 2:1-2 echo insistently — “being like-minded and of one mind.” The disagreement that Paul and Barnabas have in Acts 15:36-40 is viewed negatively. Dissent often becomes a sign that things are not well spiritually within the board or in the life of a particular board member. This clear-cut analysis obscures the fact that dissent occurs for many reasons and a church board chair needs to discern why a board member may be expressing dissent quite legitimately for spiritually sound reasons, and how to help the board reach consensus.
It is also the case that theological beliefs and values can conspire to stifle legitimate and healthy dissent within a church board. Some board members might feel that any dissent is wrong or disrespectful or a failure to submit to pastoral authority or to heed the direction of the Spirit. However, within a church board some dissent is healthy and normal as board members evaluate decisions and direction. They cannot do their due diligence without at times expressing dissent.
So a church board chairperson often is caught between the need to help a church board reach consensus and the importance of enabling healthy and constructive dissent. And when harmful dissent finds expression, often it is the chairperson who has to intervene in some way to sustain board unity and help a dissenting member find a way to support the emerging consensus.
We should also distinguish carefully between unanimity, consensus and unity. Unanimity describes situations where all board members are on the same wavelength and fully-endorse a decision or direction. Consensus arises after discussion and members, even though some may still harbour some diverse opinions and concerns, nevertheless consent to move forward. Unity, agreement to move together, arises from unanimity or consensus and probably in most cases the best a board chair can hope for is consensus and not unanimity. Sometimes boards have to make serious decisions when consensus cannot be achieved. Votes are taken and the board is split. In such contexts the board members have to determine together, preferably before the vote is taken, whether a majority vote should be decisive. Board members in the minority may in such cases ask for their votes to be recorded in the minutes to protect themselves in case of future litigation arising from the decision.
The Brown Governance Letter article suggests six different reasons why board members may be dissenting. These include information gaps, knowledge gaps, agency direction gaps, strategy gaps, political gaps, personal gaps. I think there at least two others that should be considered, namely cultural gaps and ethical gaps. We will consider these causes of dissent and strategies to respond to them in the next several blog articles.
Individual board members carry considerable responsibility in discerning how to resolve their dissent. In other words the initiative to seek resolution and consensus does not lie entirely with the board chair or other board members. The individual board has a duty to articulate as clearly as possible and with transparency why he/she is dissenting on a particular issue. Board members have an obligation to help the board collectively reach consensus. Failure to act in good faith in this regard can be considered obstructionism or a passive aggressive stance that is unhealthy.
Expressing dissent then requires respect for the board and its processes, careful evaluation of conflict of interests (i.e. am I dissenting because the board’s decision will have implications for a family member or a business arrangement with the congregation, etc.), and a sincere desire to pursue what is best for the agency. Your motives for dissenting should be as pure as possible.
Dissent, when properly expressed, can be incredibly helpful in a church board’s search for wisdom and discernment. However, dissent for the sake of dissent should be avoided. Sometimes board members get tagged as dissidents because they always seem to be dissenting. In such cases other board members may come to devalue such contributions because the individual is viewed as ‘negative.’