324. Chairing “Virtual” Church Board Meetings

Without doubt the current pandemic (Co-vid 19) is creating many different challenges for church boards and their chairpersons. However, non-profit boards are not exceptional in this regard. Some of their challenges might be of a different order or kind than those experienced by corporate boards. For example, not all church boards have the resources to purchase the most advanced computer technology or IT systems. And so their options for using computer technology to respond to some operational and board challenges may not be as diverse or up-to-date as those used in the corporate world. Another example would be that the experience of church board members in dealing with crises and risk management probably is much less extensive than that of corporate board members. Nonetheless, non-profit and corporate board members do face many of the same issues.

One of these challenges is developing the capacity as a church board to sustain the mission of the agency and the board’s work when face-to-face meetings cannot occur for health reasons. Government officials forbid public meetings involving more than 2 or perhaps 5 people and this means that most church boards cannot continue meeting as normal. They must find ways to continue their responsibilities using on line technology. If church board chairpersons have limited experience with these technologies, particularly conducting board meetings using this modality, this can add significant anxiety to the chairperson’s already high level of concern in times of crisis.

What factors should  church board chairpersons consider when shifting board operations from face-to-face meetings to virtual meetings. First, you should review your church bylaws to see whether they permit your board members to make decisions without meeting together in person and under what conditions. If your bylaws make no provision for this, then perhaps the first item of business is drafting a motion that gives the board authority in this emergency situation to use computer technology in order to conduct board business. When the church board has relief from the crisis, it might then recommend an amendment to the church bylaws that permit the board to make decisions in this manner. 

Second, you should probably have a conversation with the lead pastor and the employee or volunteer who manages the congregation’s IT network. It is important to choose an on-line virtual meeting platform that will be compatible with your IT network, be usable without additional expense, and enable the virtual meetings to be held without unnecessary computer complications. Remember that not all of the church board members will be equally adept at using the selected software platform. It might be helpful to choose virtual meeting software that will allow the meetings to be recorded (in the cloud) so that you have a record of the business transacted, alongside of the official minutes. This might be useful for the first two or three meetings as a backstop. In addition, if the lead pastor will be making a proposal for decision, discuss with him how this will be processed in the virtual meeting, and how the information will be disseminated to the board members.

Thirdly, recognize that the virtual meeting software you choose will affect the way you as chair conduct the meeting. You will need to make sure that all of the board members know what is happening, can access the virtual meeting software, and can operate this software. This may require you to host a short preliminary meeting experience to test the system and give the board members confidence that they can use it. Nothing is more frustrating for you and board members than to initiate the first meeting and discover that 1/3 of the board members cannot participate because of technology issues. Recognize that the give and take that board members enjoy in face-to-face meetings will be more limited. Although on line meeting software is quite amazing, it has some limitations. For example, board members will have to learn to let one member finish their speech before they begin to interact. And several board members may try to interact at the same time. I think the plan for the meeting, i.e., the agenda, has to be simplified so that the essential work can get done in the time allotted. You may want to include draft motions related to specific items of business in order to facilitate discussion. You or the board secretary may have to learn how to use software functions that enable all board members to read the motions on line and allow the secretary to process amendments or minor changes as they are being proposed, for all to see and consider.

Fourthly, on line meetings generally will be shorter and more compact than face-to-face meetings. It is hard to keep everyone’s attention in a virtual meeting if the session extends beyond an hour. So you may have to shorten devotionals, prayer time, etc., in order to get the board’s work done in a timely way. 

Fifthly, you will need to remind board members about the confidentiality of the meetings. When board members are in on line meetings at home, it may be difficult for them to find a spot where they are not disturbed or where other family members cannot overhear the discussions. A gentle reminder about this might be important.

Finally, when you call for a vote, you will need to require each board member to confirm their vote orally so that you as chairperson know who has voted and in what manner. Tracking attendance at a virtual meeting is a related necessity. 

Good communication always contributes significantly to effective board chairing. In planning for and conducting virtual meetings on line, good communication becomes even more critical. Some board members may lose motivation because they enjoy meeting face-to-face and the camaraderie that occurs as they work together. Something of this will get lost in on line meetings and so board members will have to work a little harder to find new ways to connect and encourage one another. 

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