If there is one constant in board meetings it has to be decision-making. Every agenda will include some matters that call for the board members to say yea or nay. Decisions require a chair to exercise the greatest skill in order to fulfill his role well and enable the board to accomplish its responsibility effectively and efficiently. Getting to yes — or no — involves recognition of different kinds of decisions, strategic prayer, discernment of decision risks and implications, specific decision-making competency, and ability to facilitate ‘fierce conversations’.
1. Different kinds of decisions. Not all decisions are equal! Some might feel routine, i.e. approval of the consent agenda for each meeting or a decision about the schedule of the board’s meetings. Others, while not routine, are viewed as straightforward because the issue is clear, there is a high degree of compatibility with the congregation’s values, and the recommendation fits well within the vision and strategic plan of the church. Such decisions might include approval to increase missions-giving in the next budget by 10% or agreement about vacation policy for staff. And then there are those decisions that are exhausting because the issues are so weighty, the risks great, and perspectives among the board members are significantly varied. Biblical guidance may be ambiguous, traditions are being challenged, and trust is being pressed.
A chair can help the board by identifying the nature of the decisions which the board must address. Some will be strategic decisions, others will involved policies to guide employees, and others will be financial or facility-based. The “theological” decisions and those that relate to specific people (whether employees or matters of member discipline) usually generate considerable angst. As well, clarity about the pathway to a decision can be extremely helpful. Who needs to speak into this decision? What information will be required and is it present? What is the time frame? Can the board make this decision or will it require congregational vote? Is this an administrative matter that the employees should be making? So as chair, if you know an item on the agenda will be particularly challenging, then talk it over with the lead pastor and discern together what the best process should be and share that with the board. It might be important for the board to vote formally on the process so that later a board member cannot complain that the process was faulty. It is always difficult in the emotional moments of debate to sort out process. In the structure of the agenda put the most important decisions early in the meeting, when people are fresh and there is adequate time to interact. If an immediate decision is not required, then introduce the matter for discussion at one meeting, but signal that a decision will be required at the following meeting.
2. Strategic prayer. All the work of a church board is spiritual work and one way that you as chair can reinforce this perspective is by inviting the board members to pray together or individually at specific times in a discussion. Perhaps as the board begins the discussion of this item, you can remind them of one or two examples in the Bible where God’s people, faced with tough choices, prayed, sought God’s help, and this was provided. Or, if the debate has become vigorous and robust, declare a five minute recess and invite the board members to take individual prayer walks, asking God’s Spirit for calmness, wisdom, courage, and discernment. Once a decision has been taken, perhaps take some time in the board meeting to ask God’s help in its implementation or for grace and wisdom in communicating it to some in the congregation who may disagree with the direction.
3. Discernment of a decision’s risks and implications. I think a key responsibility of a chair involves the board’s assessment of risk. While the chair does not perform the assessment, he does need to remind the board that risk assessment is a critical element in good governance. At some point in a debate the chair should invite the board members to analyze the risks apparent in each decision path. Use a whiteboard to list them. This should be done for each possible solution proposed for the issue under debate. This process often will generate considerable clarity as the board assesses which decision will advance the mission of the congregation with the least risk. If the board decides to take a course that does incur considerable potential risk, then the board must determine in advance, how it will manage that risk. For example, if the decision is to spend $1,000,000 on facility improvements, but the church only has $50,000 in its building fund, then the board has to discern and bring to the congregation a plan to secure the resources so that the project does not jeopardize the entire life and testimony of the congregation. Time devoted to this exercise will preserve a board and the church leadership from considerable grief.
4. Specific decision-making competency. Some decisions are simple and require only basic direction for a board to reach their decision. However, more frequently today decisions have a complexity about them that can be unnerving. As chair you wonder whether the board has enough information and the right information, or you question the legal implications of the direction being proposed. Perhaps one board member or a staff person is pushing the board to take a certain direction and the board reluctantly seems to be acceding, but as chair you are very uncomfortable with the proposal. It is possible as chair to help a board following good process by injecting into the debate at critical points a suggestion that the board pause and consolidate its progress. Perhaps take each proposed resolution and ask the board to analyze its good and bad features. Note these things on whiteboard. Do it for each proposed outcome. Once this is done, ask whether any other decision tracks should be considered. Often in the course of this exercise some clarity emerges and the board is able to isolate the two most appropriate decision solutions. At that point, further debate may lead the board to a focused and defensible decision. A website that describes some of these decision-making tools is http://decide-guide.com/six-thinking-hats/.
5. Fierce Conversations. Complex decisions will generate some fierce conversations within the board. This is not a bad thing. However, as chair you might encourage the board to develop a set of guidelines to govern such debates. For example, such guidelines might include:
a. courtesy is required of all board members at all times;
b. a board member should only speak to an issue once, or at most twice;
c. the debate must focus on the merits of the decision and not involve personal attacks.
If these can be agreed upon as basic elements of a board’s operations, then as chair you have some basis for managing inappropriate behaviour that may occur during a board discussion. Reminding board members of these principles again helps to set a good tone for the discussion.
If you as chair have develop good, personal decision-making processes, then probably these ideas make sense. If you struggle personally to make personal decisions, then learning how to apply some of these principles in your own life might give you confidence to include them in board work.