The more consulting I do with church boards, the more I discover that good communications is key to effective board leadership. It may seem to be a small element in the larger world of church board work, but if a board does not manage well its communication with board members, with the congregation, and with the staff, then all of the good work conducted within board meetings may be lost. Often I think board members think they are communicating well, when in fact the observations of others in the congregation or staff are quite different. This is one area in which an annual board evaluation can surface issues that easily can be addressed for the good of all concerned.
Three factors seem to hinder good communications. Board members first of all are heavily invested in issues, becoming conversant with many different aspects of a particular issue. Sometimes they have lived with the issue for many months. However, they forget that congregants may be hearing about the issue for the first time at a congregational meeting and so the board members come to such a meeting far ahead of the congregation in terms of familiarity with the issue. Board members become frustrated when the congregation asks questions and seems to hesitate to follow the board’s lead. Usually the congregation is just seeking to catch up to the level of information that the board has so that they can make an informed decision.
In the second instance some board members feel that the congregation should just trust them and follow. After all the congregation appointed them to make decisions, so why do they need to know all the details. This attitude can be compounded by a sense among some board members that they are not accountable to the congregation and so do not need to explain their actions.
And thirdly, some board members do not understand the concept of “shared governance” which insists that while the board is responsible to ensure that good decisions are made, it also has a responsibility to include in that decision-making process those that have special knowledge about the issue and those who are going to be affected by the decision — whether as implementers or clients. As a result the board may seem to operate in secretive and autocratic ways.
Whatever the factors might be the result is the same — poor communication which breeds mistrust and creates division. Once a culture of distrust becomes entrenched it is very hard for a church board to overcome.
First, consider communications within the board itself. As chairperson you have a responsibility to ensure that all the board members receive the same information in a timely way. If this is not occurring regularly, then some board members are not able to exercise their responsibilities appropriately because they lack information available to other board members. If the lead pastor is a voting member of the board, this person often is privy to information that other board members do not have. In such a case the lead pastor as board member has to work hard to ensure that the management of information does not become a conflict of interest.
In the case of board-employee relations, secondly, the board chair has to make sure that the decisions of the board are being communicated in a timely and accurate manner to the employees affected by such decisions. This might relate to employee policies, program decisions, or financial matters. Further, as the board develops vision and goals and affirms strategic plans, these need to be shared with staff. They should be involved in the process in some way so that their viewpoints are understood clearly by the board. Once the board has made its decision, this also needs to be communicated to them. An oral presentation accompanied by a written document is a good combination to use.
And then thirdly, there is the world of board-congregation communications. I think this is the one over which board chairs must exercise their greatest care. It is a challenge because a board chair’s attention is almost wholly consumed by what occurs in a board meeting. Only secondarily is due attention given to communicating board decisions and other information to the congregation. Specific opportunities for communicating orally and in writing occur regularly in the annual rhythm of the church year. Take full advantage of these congregational meetings to make sure that you, as chairperson, are speaking with the congregation about key issues the board is considering. As well, take a personal hand in working with the lead pastor in developing the written materials that will be shared so that you know the right information is being communicated. Ensure that good minutes of the congregational meetings are being kept and made available before the next congregational meeting so that members can be reminded of decisions made or issues discussed.
Good communications are key to successful board leadership.