In my part of the world it is now seven weeks since governments imposed stringent restrictions to try and deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Whether these actions have in fact produced the desired result will undoubtedly be the stuff of many subsequent studies. These restrictions have affected the ability of religious organizations to pursue their missions. How soon churches and other Christian charities might resume their ‘normal’ functions remains unknown.
Many church boards and their chairs have spent the past few weeks working with their lead pastors seeking to make emergency alterations to their operations in order to survive and to assist their members and clients. Considerable stress has accompanied these discussions and adaptations and in some cases it has taken its toll on board and board-staff relations. It is difficult to sustain good personal relations when people only come together in ‘virtual’ meetings.
With the continued existence of the organization somewhat stabilized, church boards and their leaders have to consider “what next?” Should they expect that with surprising elasticity operations will simple bounce back into the pre-pandemic mode? Or is the pandemic creating fundamental changes that will require serious and perhaps drastic changes in the organization going forward? If so, what ‘picture’ of this new future can give some reliable guidance to help a church board come to grips with “the new normal?” Does the crisis present the opportunity to drastically reshape the organization? When a ‘restart’ occurs, what adaptations can the board prepare in order to strengthen the organization and its capacity to fulfill its mission?
Heidi K. Gardner and Randall S. Peterson (“Executives and Boards, Avoid These Missteps in a Crisis,” Harvard Business Review, April 24, 2020) suggest three board behavioural dangers that may hinder a board from discerning the best way forward after this crisis. In the face of the temptation to hunker down and retrench into a very rigid operational mode, only relying on responses used in previous crises. They urge openness to innovation.
First, they counsel that leaders avoid “narrow thinking.” Studies show that anxiety hardens the cognitive arteries, reducing capacity to think outside of the box and causing the board to default to tried and true remedies. However, the nature of this pandemic and resulting crisis has features not present in previous “black swan” events. Are there aspects of the emergency response plan you adopted that do not fit the current crisis and must be adjusted? They urge leaders to discern what other, leading Christian leaders, organizations, and congregations are doing in response. What different ideas can you gather in order to stimulate fresh thinking within your board?
Second, be careful of “deferring to the leader” completely. Church boards naturally defer to the advice and direction provided by their lead pastors or perhaps solutions suggested by the more ‘senior’ board members. However, with respect make sure the whole board has access to alternative points of view and is using all of the capacities, expertise, and resources present among the various board members.
Third, group think can blind board members to better options, so be careful of “conformity.” Because of the urgency for decisions created by the crisis, board members may experience discomfort in challenging the consensus lest they slow down the process. Or the majority of board members who are supporting a direction may become impatient with dissenters. Church board chairs should make sure that all board members receive all of the information and have sufficient opportunity to ask tough questions. Gardner and Peterson warn against accepting “the first plausible solution,” because it may not be the best one.
I would add another element that may be specific for Church Boards, namely the challenge to sustain commitment to Christian values even as tough decisions have to be made. The pressure to act in order to salvage the organization’s future may cause some board members to overlook key values that create and shape the identity of the faith community. If these values are compromised because of urgent risks, then the ends may justify the means, but in the process cause the board to forget their value commitments. Crises become the context in which the nature of our individual and collective faith will be tested most severely.