A church board’s ability to accomplish its role well reflects its capacity for discernment. Possessing the right information, analyzing it well, understanding internal and external congregational dynamics, and engaging in critical discussion become characteristic practices of such a board. If a board chair fails to grasp this dimension of an effective board, then the ability of the board to make good, sensible, spiritually-wise decisions will be compromised.
Take a look at the last church board agenda that you used. What key decisions were you asked to make? Did you possess the right information sufficiently in advance to consider the issue prayerfully? When the board members discussed it, did they come prepared? Was there serious, analytic engagement with the issue? Was it clear how the decision achieved would advance the church’s vision? Were different views voiced and respected? When the meeting ended was there some time given to review the board’s work and to consider whether it was done well? If only one or two of these elements were demonstrated, then perhaps your church board needs a tune-up in this area of its work.
What can a board chair do to help his or her board operate at a high level of spiritual discernment?
1. Give adequate time in the first part of the board’s agenda to engage those decisions which are most critical. You will have to exercise some judgment in this, but you probably are well aware of the relative importance of the issues coming to the board meeting.
2. Ensure that whoever is responsible for gathering the information that explains the issue and possible outcomes and their implications has put that material together at least a week before the board meeting. This enables you to circulate it to the board members so they have enough time to read, reflect, and even do some additional research about the issue. As chair you might adopt a simple rule — nothing comes to the church board for decision that does not have appropriate documentation and which the board has not seen in advance of the meeting. Poor board discussions and decisions occur because the information has not been circulated in advance and people feel rushed into making a decision. A church board has to make the time to process key decisions well. It is violating its trust with the congregation if it fails in this duty.
3. As chair you can stimulate effective discussion by using various techniques. For example, if there are three options from which it is proposed the board choose a direction, then divide the board into three groups and have each group prepare the best case of one option. Have them present it to the board. Then switch the groups and have each group take an option and outline the risks and downside to that option. Such a process will engage the whole board, require the members to look at all options very closely, and have clarity about the possible risks that each option entails. With this information in hand, the board then can debate and discuss, arriving at a very informed decision.
4. Sometimes a board faces an issue about which it has very little understanding. In such cases a good strategy is to locate a trusted resource person who would come and give the board a short (perhaps 60 – 90 minutes) introduction to the issue and its implications for a congregation. This accomplishes several things:
a. it adds another, informed voice to the discussion, who will have some objectivity;
b. it educates the board in ways that a one or two page report could never do;
c. it helps board members discern that big issues are complex, filled with ambiguities and uncertainty.
d. it gives board members an opportunity to ask their questions in a less pressured context.
5. A church board’s ability to exercise spiritual discernment will require each board member to be spiritually mature and vital. Key decisions will be a matter for personal prayer, as well as prayer with the entire board. Sometimes reading and reflecting upon a biblical story will reveal some commonalities with the current issue. Occasionally it is helpful to refer to board documents that define the congregation’s theological values and vision, helping the board to orient itself to the decision appropriately.
6. As board chair schedule some time in each board agenda for the board to reflect on how well it has done its work in that meeting. Conscious reflection will often generate greater discipline within the board.
The board chair plays a significant role in enabling the board to improve its capacities in spiritual discernment. Helping the board members make good, spiritually-wise decisions will reap significant benefits for the congregation. As well, such processes motivate the board members, because they see how they are advancing the mission and holding the congregation’s trust well.