26. The Chair and New Board Member Orientation

Orienting new members to a church board offers a wonderful opportunity for a chairperson to encourage, celebrate and mentor.  If a new board member starts well, with good information, an understanding of basic process, and assurance that he or she can fulfill this role by the Holy Spirit’s help, then the board as a whole will be blessed. As well, your role as board chair will be easier. So investing a couple of hours with new board members is time well spent for a host of reasons.

People come onto a board with widely varying expectations about the work of a board and how it accomplishes that work. If your board has a covenant that explains how the members have agreed to work together, then you have a great foundation upon which to begin the orientation process. Other documents that would be helpful to review in an orientation would include:

a. the minutes from the last two or three board meetings.  The minutes inform the new board   members of current discussions, the way in which the board makes decisions, and the general flow of the meetings;

b. any policies that the board has approved.  The new board members need to know the guidelines which the board has established for the operation of the ministry;

c. the church constitution and bylaws.  Because these board members are already members of the church they probably have some familiarity with this material. However, it is good to refresh their memories and draw their attention to the sections that define congregational and board relations;

d. the most recent financial statement (and annual financial report). Board members have fiduciary responsibility to preserve the assets of the organization and finances form a significant part of this treasure. This also brings the new board member up to speed regarding current risks, the shape of the church budget, and how the budget is structured. You will also quickly discover whether or not the new board members can actually read a financial statement and identify risks;

e. if there is a ministry plan for the church that the board has adopted, then this too is a vital piece of information for new board members to possess;

f. if the church is engaged in any legal issues, then the new board members also have to be briefed fully on such matters;

Recently a board chair shared with me a situation he experienced with a new board member. They were reviewing the board covenant and the new board member said that he did not agree with one part of it. The covenant stated that once the board has made a decision, the board members will support the decision of the whole. If unable to do so, then the board member should resign. The new board member felt he had the right to voice his dissent to board decisions in congregational meetings. In fact, he thought this was his obligation to some members whose votes probably had led to his appointment. Orientation to the board would give a venue to talk through such differences of opinion.

In this case several issues surfaced:

a.  the new board member did not appreciate that people who serve on a church board have to give attention to the church’s mission and not to any special interest group in the church. Each board member has an obligation to make decisions that are good for the whole, not just a part of the congregation;

b. dissent will occur in board discussions and decisions. A board member will not agree with everything that the board ultimately decides to do. Dissent can be noted appropriately in board minutes. The board in its reports to the congregation can, if it chooses, indicate that in some matters the board was not unanimous and explain, should it be helpful, the complexity of the decision and why the board reached the decision it made. However, board members should not voice their dissent outside of the board meeting. If that happens, trust is broken and the ability of the board to function is damaged. Board members have no obligation to report individually to the congregation how they voted on each and every issue;

c. The chair could also address the positive, namely that the board needs to hear all points of view in debate. Informed decision-making requires this and if the board does not support such a process, then it is neglecting its duty. However, once all of the points of view have emerged in debate, then the board must also sift, evaluate, and eventually decide which view is in the best interests of the church — enabling it to fulfill its mission, be true to its values, move towards achieving its  vision, and advance the spiritual welfare of the people. All of this must happen in a context where prayer is active.

So as board chair, work with your board to develop an orientation process that will help new board members to embrace their new roles well. If you ask the current members about their experience in joining the board, enough information will emerge to motivate the board to support this direction. From their collective wisdom you will be able to discern the kinds of things that the new board members most need to know. It is also possible that some of the board members who have served for a considerable period of time might be willing to assist you in this process.

A practical tip. Make sure you develop the orientation materials in electronic format. This will enable you gradually to develop a set of orientation materials that easily can be updated, put in powerpoint form, and placed on the church’s website. In this way you can develop a legacy for the next board chair.

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