134. Board Chairs — The Dangers of Being Too Controlling

Frequently those who study governance assert that the role of the chairperson is to serve the board. But once this is said, the verb “serve” has to be defined and given some clothes to wear. This creates a challenge that has similar dimensions for lead pastors who constantly are being urged to act as “servant-leaders” because this is what Jesus commanded (Mark 10:43-45). Yet for many pastors the juxtaposition of the terms “servant” and “leader” remains confusing. So they tend to navigate to leadership and become assertive or see themselves as “servants” and supportive, caring agents of the congregation, not “leaders.” So how does this work for a chairperson, to serve, but also to provide insightful, disciplined leadership for a church board?

Some chairs will resolve this dilemma by becoming quite controlling in their leadership. If the board has selected and appointed them to chair, then they will chair! In their minds this translates into a license to act in a controlling manner. They are the boss of the board and they act this way literally.The discretionary power that a chair exercises can define the sandbox of a boardroom bully.

What does controlling behaviour look like when acted out by a chairperson? One manifestation would be a refusal to let dissenting board members have appropriate voice in decisions.Body language and demeaning humour send strong signals of disapproval when a board member expresses a contrary opinion.

Agendas can become controlling devices. As chair you may think you know the proper decision and succumb to the temptation to manipulate board proceedings to accomplish that goal. For example, the chair may put a particular item on the agenda when he knows a dissenting member will be absent.

Chairs can also use “rules of order” to dominate board operations. When Joe offers a contrary opinion to the direction preferred by the chair, perhaps the chair rules him out of order or listens politely but quickly moves on to let Frank, who supports the motion speak at length. Or, the chair can push prematurely and “call for the question” before the board members have completed their discussion. Conversely, if the decision seems to being going in a direction the board chair does not like, he can suggest that the item be deferred to the next meeting for some specious reason.

Chairs also in many ways control the information that flows to the board. As well, by their comments they can colour board members’ perceptions of that information and its relative value.

So how can a chairperson provide strong serving-leadership for a church board in a way that is not controlling, but will be disciplined?

I would suggest that a primary way to provide such leadership is to ask the board to define in a principled way key board operational guidelines. For example, discern how the board members desire to have input into the agenda creation. When it comes to decisions, invite the board members to define what kinds of decisions could be achieved by consensus and which need formal vote. Let the board members determine how many times a board member in a particular discussion can speak to the issue, so that one board member cannot dominate the discussion. Establish a process by which the board evaluates the work of the chairperson, giving opportunity for the board to address behaviours which they consider controlling.

Keep a tight rein on your emotions as you serve in the role of chairperson. Undoubtedly the responses and behaviours of board members will challenge your leadership. Work hard at not taking these things personally, but keep yourself disciplined to the primary task of facilitating the board to advance the congregation’s mission. In the heat of a discussion it is easy to lose sight of the larger picture. You are “the designated driver,” to use a current metaphor, for the board and you cannot afford to respond emotionally in your leadership.

Motivations need frequent checking. I find that this aspect of chairing tends to be the most challenging. The chairperson is also a board member and will have opinions and perspectives about the issues the board is discussing. Some issues the chair personally wants the board to approve and others will be less desirable. The chair brings these motivations into the board meetings. Yet, the chair is supposed to be somewhat neutral so that the board’s discussions can proceed without undue influence. Sometimes, however, the chair wants to speak to the issue. That is fine, so long as the chair explains to the board that the comments being made are as a board member and not as chair. If the discussion is quite formal, then the chair may need to relinquish the chairmanship to the vice-chair, in order to speak directly to the question.

Keep focused on the congregation’s mission. Advancing the congregation’s mission stands at the centre of a church board’s mandate. A chairperson’s responsibility then focuses upon enabling the board to achieve this goal. Keeping this central to your thinking as chairperson provides a check upon personal ambition, wrong use of power, and inappropriate behaviour. It’s not about you, it’s about advancing the congregation’s mission for God’s glory.

Remember that a church board is a ministry team. Do you pray for the members of the church board? Are you conscious that board time is worship time, i.e. time for board members to dedicate themselves to discerning and obeying God’s direction? Do you facilitate the board meetings with a sense of dependence upon the Holy Spirit? You are accountable to the board members for your leadership, but ultimately your accountability is to God.

Be fair, gracious, but firm in your leadership.

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