Do board members in your congregation look forward to or dread church board meetings? Boring, disorganized, focusing on minor things, catering to one interest group, too long, too frequent, members unprepared, no agenda — the list of faults seems endless and probably you could add a few from your own unique experience. The good news is that it does not have to be that way. And as the chair you are in a position to do something creative and stimulating about this perennial board member’s gripe.
As church board chair, what is your vision for “mighty meetings” of the board, meetings that enable the board to engage serious issues, discern Spirit-filled solutions and in the process enable each board member to fulfill his or her ministry with passion? Your expectations might not match mine exactly, but I suspect they come close. Now this issue of good board meetings affects every board member and so you might want to take ten minutes at your next meeting to solicit the key elements that create a “mighty meeting” for them. You might be surprised how much consensus there is about this.
Preparation forms the foundation for good board meetings. This includes your preparation as chair, the preparation of the lead pastor, the preparation of the other board members. However, the model you set as chair will undoubtedly influence and encourage others to come prepared. Getting the agenda formed and circulated a week in advance is a good place to begin. Ensure that the agenda is structured in such a way that the most important decisions are dealt with first. Work with others in the board, staff and church to have reports and other important information circulated so that board members can ponder and pray about the best response. And do not forget your own prayers that God graciously will enable you to lead well and be perceptive and wise in your facilitation of the meeting. “No surprises” is a good maxim to work by, because when you or the lead pastor or board members are surprised by items, usually that disrupts the board’s ability to operate well. Make sure the board is dealing with substantive issues, as well as the necessary business. Help the board members know whether an item is being merely up for discussion, or requires decision, or is informational/educational.
Processing decisions and discussions within the board well has to be a key responsibility of the chair. You need to know how the board has stated it will operate (internal policies) and what are the board’s boundaries of authority so that you can guide it in developing the appropriate pathway for final decisions. Be attentive to what is actually happening in a board discussion and ensure that the dynamics remain positive and do not become spiritually toxic because of the poor behaviour of one or two board members. If someone is not participating in the discussion, make sure you draw them in and get their input. Stick with the approved agenda and the expected time frame for the meeting unless the board officially determines otherwise. As chair you have to be fair in guiding the discussions so that every board member feels respected and valued.
Prioritization of the board’s time on the most important questions is critical because board time is a scarce resource. Often so-called “urgent items” are not really as urgent as presented and they get inserted into the agenda without proper preparation. The church board then spends precious time trying to figure out what the issue really is and how to respond because they have had no opportunity to prepare for the discussion. As a strategy, when something unplanned does come to the board table, let the board discuss it for a few minutes and then ask “what process does the board want to develop to address this issue?” Once process is discerned, then you can move back to the agenda. Keep resisting the temptation that some board members will have to micro-manage the staff, unless a specific situation has deteriorated and requires such close attention for a short time.Discussing an important issue at one meeting and then coming to a decision at the next meeting provides a good rhythm for keeping the board moving forward.
Positive attitudes among all board members are conducive to great meetings. Sometimes as chair you do not know what a board member has been experiencing in that day and what pressures he or she may be enduring. Scheduling time at the beginning of the meeting for some sharing, updating, praying and worshipping, provides opportunity for each member to decompress, focus and recalibrate their minds and hearts spiritually upon the Holy Spirit and his direction. Humour is a great tool to use to defuse otherwise difficult discussions. Sometimes calling for a short, five minute stretch break in the midst an intense debate will break tensions and bring people to some surprising consensus. As you end the meeting, summarize the good things you accomplished, make sure action items are clear, and pray again. Let the board members themselves evaluate verbally whether they “advanced the mission” through their meeting and whether the marks of a “successful” meeting were present? It will keep them focused on the main thing.
Participation of every board member in the activities of the board builds cohesiveness and trust. The church board is a ministry team and the board requires all of their collaborative wisdom, skill and loyalty in order to advance the mission and keep the trust placed in it by the congregation. Ensuring that the annual board retreat occurs, that there are informal occasions for board relationships to develop, and that board members share something of their personal testimony so that other board members get insight into their spiritual journey can be important means to encourage participation.
Planning ahead requires the board to be discussing what the future holds and how the mission of the congregation can be achieved given the trends that are developing. At least once a year as chair you should ask the board members what must they learn more about in the next twelve months that will help them fulfill their responsibility well. What risks are emerging that the board should address? What policies or bylaws or processes need to be reviewed? What programs should be evaluated?
Prayer has to envelop the entire board meeting. A church board’s work is spiritual work, it is worshipful work, it is ministry. We know as Christians that all ministry has to be supported with prayer. As chair you need to model this and encourage each board member to be placing the board, its members and its work high on their personal prayer agendas. Dale Dauten says that “a meeting moves at the speed of the slowest mind in the room. (In other words, all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind underused.)” I would modify this in the context of a church board and suggest that the work of a church board “moves at the speed of prayer.” Where board members are “prayed up” for meetings and spiritually engaged with the ministry responsibility they carry, board meetings will be motivating, effective, and tuned into the future.
Board meetings are your meetings. They do not have to be excessively long, poorly led, or ill-prepared. As chair you have a choice and you have a responsibility to steward the board’s time, capacity, and energy as effectively as possible. A website that you might find helpful include effectivemeetings.com.
One tool that facilitates a good board meeting is the Decision Profile. It is a one (or at the most two) page summary of a decision that a board needs to make. While it can take various forms, the one I am familiar with has five sections:
1.Decision Required (concise statement of the issue and the board’s mandate regarding this issue)
2.Strategic Relevance of Issue (concise description of the relationship of this issue to the mission and vision and why now)
3.Background (very brief outline of the process to this point)
4.Alternatives Considered (two or three possible directions that the board might take, worded in the form of possible motions. Perhaps each might have very concise, perhaps in note form, key pros and cons)
5.Recommendation (what the person or group is in fact recommending given the information available)
The board should have a very clear understanding that a Decision Profile does not direct the board in any way. It is only designed to be a helpful summary of very pertinent information to assist the board in reaching a good decision. The person or group who is presenting the issue should be tasked to developing the decision profile. Presenting key decisions in this way enables the board to make good use of its time and wisdom.