After seven years a chair of our church board I am beginning to serve just as a board member. The new chairperson started this morning, demonstrating good leadership. However, this transition caused me to pause and reflect on what a new chairperson might consider as he/she leads that first meeting. We all know that first impressions are important and can set the tone for a subsequent relationship. I think the same principle holds true for board chairs leading their first meeting. If you can start well, then you have the opportunity to build on a good foundation. Usually you have a bit of a honeymoon period to settle into the role. Board members will be forgiving and helpful as you exercise your leadership. However, this graciousness should not be an excuse for lack of preparation.
Already you will have invested considerable planning into the meeting because you have overseen the development of the agenda. The agenda gives you the road map for the meeting. However, the board does need to approve it by motion (as part of the consent agenda). You should expect that one or two items will come to the board’s attention for action, which are not on this agenda. Be ready for this and have some sense of where you might propose they be inserted into the agenda. As these items come forward, try to determine whether they need decision immediately, whether the board has the right information to make a good decision, and whether appropriate board process (i.e. has the proposal been vetted by the respective board committee?) has been followed. And consider how the board might handle this matter effectively and efficiently. By the way, do not be afraid to ask for advice from the board members on these matters of process.
Apart from these items that might arise at the board meeting, you should have considerable comfort about how the board will respond to each item in the agenda. I do not mean that you have a preset outcome that you want the board to achieve, but rather you discern which items will be problematic for the board to process and you will have given some thought to how you might help the board members reach a good decision. Remember process is as important as the actual decision.
Some time for prayer, Bible study and worship will already be in the agenda. If you are leading it, then prepare well for it. Perhaps use this time in the agenda as an opportunity to talk about one of the key elements of board work and engagement that you want to emphasize, basing your comments upon relevant scripture. Remember you are beginning to set the tone for the board and its work and an important element is the spiritual tone of the board as it works to provide strategic leadership for the congregation.
Hopefully you will have met personally with most of the board members prior to this initial meeting to discern their perspective on the board and its direction. But even so, you should plan to take about ten minutes some time early in the meeting to talk about how you anticipate your leadership in the board will play out. Remember that the board members probably have never served under your leadership as chair before and so they will be seeking to adjust to this new leadership and find out how best to work collaboratively with you. So if you can share a bit about what you might seek to do differently and new emphases you hope to press, then this helps the board members to orient themselves.
It is possible that some board members may seek to take advantage of your “newness” and try to assert their influence within the board. This may not become overt in the first meeting, but be prepared to respond to this as it may occur. This may express itself in dissent with one of the comments you make suggesting board process or in some other way. Hopefully other experienced board members will discern what is happening and support your leadership and direction.
The lead pastor will also be watching your leadership with considerable interest. His ability to function as lead pastor effectively depends upon a well-functioning church board and a good relationship with its chair. The lead pastor too will be evaluating what your leadership will mean because this individual has not worked with you in this relationship before.
If your board has adopted Robert’s Rules of Order as their guide to decision-making process, then you probably need to familiarize yourself with the basic principles so you can adjudicate questions of order and process which may arise. There may be someone else in the board who has considerable knowledge of these principles (the board secretary for example) whom you can turn to for more detailed guidance. Whatever the set of principles might be that your board has adopted to guide its operations, you need to become conversant with them.
So approach your new role with courage, trust in the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, a teachable spirit, and humbleness.