103. Case Study #2: Fixing Leaks: The Significance of Confidentiality for an Effective Church Board

[In all case studies the names and incidents are fictional and have no connection with any specific persons, board or congregation.]

As chair person you facilitated a difficult church board meeting last month. The board’s discussion about a proposal from the pastor to hire a new staff person ended in a split vote. Last Sunday after the service you were having coffee in the church lounge area and chatting with several friends. None of them were church board members.

Just as things were wrapping up, one of them asked a seemingly innocent question about the split vote at the recent church board meeting. This caught you totally by surprise and you were stunned for a few moments as you scrambled to form a coherent answer, but not reveal your concern. At the same time your mind was going in circles trying to figure out how the board’s commitment to confidentiality for some reason had been compromised so quickly and so completely. You wondered how many other people knew about the board’s dilemma and the impact that this information might have upon the congregation. How would it affect their confidence in the board’s ability to provide strategic leadership? But even more significantly, you became quite concerned about what this meant for the board as a ministry team. What board member or members had done this and for what reason?

The next church board meeting was two weeks away. You figured that other board members and the lead pastor would soon discover this breach. You had never encountered such a situation as church board chair before and you struggled to discern what your response as board chair should be? You did not know who had compromised the confidentiality — although you had your suspicions. But even if you knew, what should you do? Information like this would spread quickly through the congregation. You were not sure how various board members would respond when they discovered this breach and what action they would want to take against the board member(s) who were responsible. What if it was the lead pastor who was guilty? Would the church board survive this challenge?

But then you took a deep breath and asked yourself whether the board had ever discussed the matter of confidentiality in any extended way?  While you as board chair may operate with certain expectations, did all the board members share your understanding of the need for and the extent to which confidentiality should be practiced? Were all things discussed at a board meeting “confidential” or just certain ones? Who arbitrated this? Should the board itself at the close of each meeting affirm what matters were confidential and what were not? And if some were not, what were board members authorized to say about them? Did this event provide you with an opportunity as board chair to raise the issue, do some educating with the board, and review policy or even develop new policy before any significant harm might be done? Was this a wake-up call?


How would you advise this chair person to respond to the various issues this breach of confidentiality would generate?

1. As chair you might review board operational policies (in whatever form they exist) and discern what exactly the board has said about this matter. Perhaps no violation has in fact occurred, because the board has not spoken about this matter. You are just operating on the basis of some personal assumptions or the awareness of some undefined tradition. So now might be the best time to raise the issue with the board. This could be done in the form of a discussion brief in which you define what the board has said about the issue and raise questions as to whether or not it is adequate. This enables a good discussion to be held without pointing fingers and getting all the board members on the same page.

2. If your church board already has developed clear policy on the issue of board confidentiality and all members were aware of it, then the problem may be one of clarifying exactly what matters discussed in a board meeting are confidential. Some board members may be parsing this matter differently. If you do not have a blanket statement that essentially regards everything that transpires in a board meeting to be confidential, unless the board members determine otherwise, then the chance for confusion among the board members will exist. So here again the review of policy and some discussion among the board members may be necessary. It is easier to have a uniform statement that everything is confidential, unless otherwise exempted by board decision, then to try and define in advance what should or should not be regarded as confidential. At the end of the day whatever is placed in minutes approved by the board should be consider public information, apart from minutes of in camera board sessions.

3. If your board policy on confidentiality is clear and communicating this information about the vote is a violation of that policy, then as chair you have a responsibility to raise the issue with the board members. Again, how you do this will be as important as the fact that you do it. So you will need to share with the board what occurred and remind the board of the policy regarding confidentiality. If the breach is considered significant, then the board should warn the offending member(s) and note that if it is repeated, their resignation from the board may be required. Perhaps also some apologies may be necessary. This is a serious matter. Once the matter is dealt with, however, you should as chair seek to move forward, expecting that all board members will work in compliance with the policy.



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