Church board members have significant investment — spiritually, emotionally, and eternally — in the decisions they make collectively as “the board.” From their wealth of experience, wisdom and expertise board members work hard to achieve good decisions that promote the health of their churches. The chair plays a particularly significant role in facilitating the board’s ability to achieve spiritually-wise, ethical, strategic decisions.
Yet in the midst of every important decision a church board engages lurks a myriad of biases that batter the process like turbulent winds. Every board member brings these biases into the room, including the chair and lead pastor. Biases are human realities, but some can be beneficial, while others have potential for serious harm.
People’s biases emerge from culture, from experience, from their domains of expertise, or from influential individuals or groups. In the case of believers, there is the additional challenge of theological diversity. Where and how a person matured as an adult will embed certain biases. If a person has had a bad experience in working with a specific product, she will be very reluctant to support a board decision to use it in church matters. Or, the accountant who also serves as a board member will bring to financial discussions, and rightly so, the professional biases shaping that domain of expertise. And then some board members may feel that they ‘represent’ in some way the interests of a particular congregational segment and so they engage board discussions with a bias towards the interests of that segment.
Probably the most difficult kind of ‘bias’ board chairs have to work with is theological diversity. One can expect that on the basic theological issues considerable unity is present, given the faith-based nature of a local church. However, often the spiritual or ethical issues that church boards consider are not directly addressed by scripture or historically the church has developed various responses. A chair will require significant spiritual wisdom in such cases to help the board reach consensus.
How then does a church board chair help the board control or balance out its biases or assumptions? First, the chair should realize that a person’s bias can motivate him or her positively to advocate for a certain direction, to have boldness in speaking within the board, or to share significant insights. Second, the passion that often accompanies such a bias needs to be controlled lest it provoke the board member to speak inappropriately. Passion’s good, but needs to be directed well. Third, the chair should help the board to find ways to discuss various options, but not to rush to a conclusion too quickly. The chair might work to assemble the insights board members have regarding the options, but urge the members not to reach or communicate their conclusions too soon, because it will shut down discussion. Make a list of what’s good and bad about each option before a judgment is sought. This encourages the board to function as a unit, evaluating the merits of an option and not engaging in debate about the conclusion that one member has proposed. Fourth, as chair, keep your observations and conclusions to yourself until the board has opportunity to express their views. If you think it is important to share your opinion, carefully distinguish it as “your” opinion, not the opinion of the “chair” of the board.
As chair you have the authority and responsibility to make sure that the board’s deliberations proceed with spiritual maturity. Often one board member will call to account another board member if he or she thinks the boundaries of propriety have been breached. Building sufficient trust among the board members is critically important to foster and enable such “fierce conversations.” Here again the commitment on the part of each board person to maintaining confidentiality is essential.
One last note — when bias threatens to lead the board to act illegally, unethically, or imprudently, then the chair has to warn the board that it is acting inappropriately and call it to account.