Church boards are fragile things. The constant change in personnel, the personal involvement of members within the congregation, and the diverse issues that must be considered can easily rend the relational fabric. When strife happens, the church board’s effectiveness diminishes significantly and quickly. Effective church boards carefully cultivate internal relationships and consciously reflect on ways to improve their internal operation. Perhaps company boards or boards leading other kinds of non-profit agencies might be able to do a reasonable job without fostering good internal relations, but the spiritual dynamics of congregational life and the calling that Jesus Christ gives to his followers does not permit church boards to overlook such matters. Church boards form an essential ministry team in a local church and how they model Christian leadership impacts everything within that congregation.
Cohesiveness, inclusiveness, and intentional peer quality and respect need to be fostered if a church board is to become an effective working group. Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team, namely absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results, are frequently resident within a church board’s life and each in its own way corrodes good working relationships. A board chair must give attention to these matters if he or she is to help the board operate effectively and embrace the trust given to it by the congregation.
Several specific strategies can be implemented as part of the normal board meetings and annual schedule. If followed consistently, they can help a board take a quantum leap in effectiveness and, at the same time, build greater motivation among the board members for the ministry work they are doing.
1. Require courtesy and respect in all board member interactions.
Paul identifies “kindness, goodness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) as fruit of the Spirit. The spiritual maturity that characterizes ministry leaders (1 Timothy 3) should enable a church board chair to facilitate meetings with the expectation that board members will demonstrate mutual goodwill and respect. The board’s ability to engage in worshipful work depends upon this, lest rancour and strife debilitate its ability to function as a key ministry team in the congregation. Helping the board observe common norms of constructive discourse, engage in spiritually mature conflict and resolution, and complete the meeting in a spirit of genuine “unity in Christ” sits high on a board chair’s agenda.
2. Ensure that all board members have equal chance to engage questions and equal access to all information.
When a church board chair ensures that all board members know they have equal voice in all discussions, this goes a long way to develop a cohesive, effective board. Inevitably some board members will speak more than others because this is how they process decisions — they have to talk them through. Others will process information and reach decisions with less need for group interaction. However, all members need to be engaging at some level in the decision-making. Sometimes the chair must deliberately go around the table and require board members to declare their position. Equal voice requires equal access to all information. If some in the board have information related to a critical matter that others do not, this inequality will distort and disturb the board’s trust quotient. While board members will be plugged into the congregational network in different ways, at the board table all members must be able to make decisions having had access to the same pertinent information.
3. Foster relationships through occasional, but consistent social gatherings for the board members and their spouses.
One of the best ways a board chair can facilitate effective board operations focuses upon fostering good, social relationships among the board members. The more board members know one another, usually the better the board is able to function collectively. Occasional social gatherings become important means to open up communications within the board, develop friendships, and nurture trust. Including spouses in these events signals that the board is thankful for the time and energy the board members are giving to their tasks and the cost this represents to the family. During these events the chair can share the vision of the board’s work, invite prayer support, and build the team dynamics so essential to effective board work. An annual board retreat can provide a significant context for building such relationships. New surroundings can create fresh opportunities.
4. Encourage a worshipful spirit, but also an atmosphere of friendly repartee.
The work of a church board involves serious issues, affects people’s lives, and, most importantly, carries divine accountability. It is serious, but worshipful business. The chair, however, would be wise to moderate the intensity of discussions and help board members deal with the emotions that inevitably get engaged by using humour and other means. Allowing some friendly repartee among the board members during discussions and also in between agenda items can be a wonderful way to grease the board’s machinery. This will be important particularly during board retreats. In a completely different way, calling the board to prayer as a significant discussion is reaching its conclusion provides an opportunity for board members to centre their minds and hearts on Christ as they come to decision. It becomes a significant reminder of the sacred context of their discourse and interaction.
5. Build a sense of group identity.
As board members work together advancing the congregation’s mission, God’s Spirit can nurture an amazing, productive group identity. Within a congregation a board does not want to create an “us-them” dynamic. However, a church board needs to cultivate a significant group identity and trust if it is to weather severe storms of congregational life that inevitably come. Group identity requires unity, even as diversity of opinion and perspective is valued. The ministry staff often develop a very creative synergy which enriches the congregation’s life and nurtures its vision. The same thing needs to develop within the board so that it can reap full benefit from the giftedness God has placed within it, and it is able together to achieve what none of the members individual could accomplish. When the chair speaks within the congregation and is able to say without hesitation that “the board” is united in recommending a course of action, this speaks volumes to the people and models the kind of unity that Christ expects within his body, the church.
If you are a church board chair and are reflecting upon these things, you probably are wondering how you possibly can keep all of these things in mind so that you facilitate your board’s effectiveness. Perhaps I can suggest two or three things to help you:
1. Have the board appoint a vice-chair, if it has not done so, and work with this person to assist you in monitoring and implementing some of these things. As chair you sometimes get caught up in the moment and another person can observe things happening and suggest a course of action to help the board achieve resolution. Involve your vice-chair to assist you.
2. Some advance planning can assist. For example, as you prepare the agenda, make some notes on your copy as to when in the flow of the meeting you will seek to foster this or that element of board “life”. Preparation in advance can help you be intentional.
3. Ask the board for some evaluation at the end of each meeting. Such brief discussions, led by wise questions on your part, can guide the board members to become more conscious of their work together and how their effectiveness increases as they work collaboratively.
4. Celebrate when things go really well. Positive reinforcement of great moments encourages their repetition.
5. Above all spend personal time in prayer before each meeting asking God’s Spirit to keep you attentive to the board dynamics.