136. Board Chairs — The Dangers of Being Too Passive.

In blog #134 I reflected on the problems an aggressive, controlling chairperson inflicts upon a church board. Conversely, a laid-back, timid, uncertain, passive chairperson will also lead to a dysfunctional church board. There are times in the life of a church board when a board member, passionate about a particular idea or ambitious for leadership, exerts undue influence. If the chairperson is passive and laid-back, that board member will dictate the board’s direction, for good or ill. Or consider the situation where the financial reports indicate that the congregation is facing some desperate decisions, but the chairperson, perhaps too timid or too uncertain, does not challenge the board with the need to give leadership to the congregation in the midst of crisis. The frog is in the water, the water is on the stove, and boiling point is coming, but the frog does nothing. As you can discern, the motives for doing nothing can be quite varied, but sometimes the passivity of the chairperson exacerbates existing conditions, resulting in failure of leadership on the part of the church board.

The personality of the chairperson undoubtedly affects the way he/she approaches and carries out this responsibility. Some people naturally are more outgoing, aggressive, and focused in their leadership style. Others want to be liked and desire the approval of others. So they lead in ways that will generate this approval. When they serve as chairperson, these traits can be strengths or become detrimental. Other people are more laid-back, less confrontational, and less sure of themselves in their leadership. Probably this kind of person will be appointed chairperson less often, but it will occur for various reasons. If this represents how you tend to act in roles of leadership, then you will need to pay particular attention to such tendencies lest they prevent you from facilitating good board operations.

As well, experience in the role will determine to some degree the confidence a chairperson expresses. Sometimes passivity reflects lack of experience. The chairperson may never have filled this role before. While there may be a position description for a chairperson, nevertheless the new role can be intimidating, particularly when weighty issues are on the board’s agenda. The chair may struggle to discern when the board is ready to make a decision, calling for the question either too soon or failing to do so at all.

We have to remember also that boards operate as human systems and relationships are key to their effective operation. Board members can be intimidating. Sometimes it is a lead pastor who overwhelms a board chair with his forcefulness, passion and vision — or other less desirable traits. Keeping a group of high-powered, spiritual mature, church leaders all moving together in the same direction over an extended period of time is a remarkable challenge. The relationships within the board  and particularly between the board members and the chair become crucial elements in doing this successfully. Passivity can become a default mindset when this leadership role gets too heavy or when the challenges are becoming too much to handle.

A chairperson truly does serve the board and facilitates its work. He/she does this by discerning the big picture in which the congregation is operating and helping the board select the right issues to be discussing and deciding. This is a question of prayerful discernment, constant self-learning, continually listening, and a deep sense of how to advance the vision of the congregation.

While a lead pastor has considerable influence in shaping the agenda of a church board, the board has to own this responsibility for itself and relies upon the chairperson to hold carefully this responsibility. The agenda belongs to the board. A passive chairperson too easily may allow a lead pastor to set the board’s agenda.

The board relies upon the chairperson to ensure that it is receiving correct, full and timely information about the state of the congregation and the issues it is facing. This will require a lead pastor to be providing necessary reports on time, along with the financial officer. The chair, on behalf of the board, works with the appropriate staff to get these reports published well in advance of the board meetings. A similar responsibility occurs with the board secretary regarding minutes. If the secretary becomes undisciplined in this matter, the chairperson needs to act on behalf of the board and encourage greater consistency. Again, passivity in such matters will only damage the board and its ability to operate well.

I think, though, that passive leadership tends to show itself in a lack of enthusiasm for leading the board to improve its game. All too often the assumption is that our board is doing quite well, thank you very much. Our system has worked for twenty years, so why change? Such chairpersons fail to see the subtle but real connection between board self-development and effective leadership. Rarely is there any substantial evaluation of the board and its work, i.e. a chance to step back and reflect together on how to do the Lord’s work more effectively. The chairperson needs to be one of the strongest voices in the congregation for the vision and one who is urging the board to improve its “serve” because the congregation can only advance as the board does its work well.

Perhaps you discern something of yourself in this comments. Take courage, change is a choice and God’s Spirit delights in bold transformations.



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