Charles Olsen in his chapter on discernment (Transforming Church Boards into Communities of Spiritual Leaders, pages 95-97) offers the outline of a process that will enable a church board to engage “the practice of faithful listening.” As part of the process he encourages board members to pray alone, “seeking the weightier good” and suggests that some might pray “I am indifferent to which choice God will choose in this issue.”
Normally we might consider indifference to be a negative attitude, displaying a lack of care and thus disowning any stake in the outcome, but this is not what Olsen is talking about. Rather he is referencing a Jesuit practice in which leaders faced with key decisions were trained to become indifferent, i.e. free of prejudices and attachments and therefore free to choose any course of action (Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership, 119) which they discerned represented God’s will. One is liberated to pursue one goal — serving God, and not beholden to any particular personal attachments.
Paul in 1 Timothy 3:9 says that one of the qualifications for spiritual leadership and service in the church is “keeping hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.” I think he comes close here to this idea of indifference — pursuing God’s purposes above everything else. Or perhaps Peter’s advice in 1 Peter 5:2 when he urges church leaders to exercise their pastoral responsibilities “willingly” and not out of any motivation for personal gain, touches this issue.
When church board members convene, they bring into the meeting a whole mass of goals and desires they want for the church or maybe themselves — and many of these might be very good in themselves. Some feel they have to advocate for a specific decision because of their relationship to a particular group in the church. Other kinds of conflicts of interest get in way as well. Cultivating a mindset of “indifference” is one helpful strategy to control our egos and the pressures we may feel from external groups. Again, indifference does not mean church board members do not care about the outcome, but rather the only thing they truly care about is discerning God’s will in the matter and pursuing that with energy, wisdom and passion. They jettison personal whims and cling doggedly to the pursuit of God’s will.
Church board chairs have to exemplify this perspective in their leadership of the board. A chair’s singular motivation is to assist the church board to accomplish its work in ways that add to God’s reputation and advance the mission of the congregation. As various proposals and issues move across a church board’s agenda, the chair may or may not have particular interest in any of them. However, a chair has to retain a certain ‘indifference’ to the specific item in order to help the board members achieve a consensus as the best direction. If as chair you feel strongly about a particular issue and desire to speak to it, then it would be wise to turn the chair over to the vice-chair for that part of the meeting so that after the decision there can be no criticism that you were steering the church board in a certain direction.
What other ways can you as chair help the church board members “cling doggedly to the pursuit of God’s will?” You can make sure that the process for all board decisions and actions intentionally is integrated with a deep sense of the spiritual work in which the board members are engaged. Help the board members understand that “conflicts of interest” are not only financial, but involve the pursuit of personal agendas at the expense of the good of the congregation. Always be concerned that the board members have the right information to make the best decision. As the board is about to act, remind them that all of their actions should serve to advance the mission of the congregation and are they sure that they have discerned “the weightier good” among the various options? Perhaps in the context of a particularly significant decision you as board chair might relate a biblical and/or congregational story that reminds the board of God’s faithfulness or the need for spiritual courage or the importance of making difficult, but right decisions.
When people are so wedded to past solutions, become passionate advocates of a particular point of view, or respond only as ‘yes-men’ to someone’s recommendation, then they “operate at the mercy of [their] blind spots because [they] cannot prepare for what [they do] not see” (Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, 33). The practice of indifference enables people to consider options that they had never thought about previously. People become more creative and adaptive, and discern better solutions. Prayer can be a significant spiritual discipline in helping church boards practice indifference to everything but God’s will and find consensus based upon their shared values.
Indifference, when properly understood and practiced, enhances a person’s spiritual intelligence and controls emotional attachments. To put it in biblical terms, it enables us to “walk in the Spirit” together. But it often takes time for church board members to reach this point of indifference. I have led enough church board meetings to observe the members work through the following stages of a decision:
a. each person presents their perspective — some more ardently than others. Various possible directions are placed on the table;
b. in stage two the board members develop a more objective consideration of the “goods” that the various options offer and a ranking of the possible outcomes begins to emerge;
c. stage three involves one or two board members working through the possibility that the option they championed may not be the one the board is discerning to be the best. They struggle to reach “indifference” and trust that God’s is speaking through the other board members;
d. stage four occurs when the board members achieve consensus about a particular direction. It may take three or four meetings for this stage to be gained, but it is worth the wait.
Church board chairs will find it helpful to be discerning about the development of ‘indifference” and not to press for decision too soon. I have also observed situations where the voice of one board member eventually has convinced the entire board that his or her option does in fact present “the weightier good.” If the board had closed discussion too soon, the board would not have recognized this and made a poor decision.