137. Keeping the Primary Leaders Honest — A Board’s Opportunity

It seems as if a day cannot pass without some new scandalous revelation about corporate leadership or governance behaviour. While lapses in the ethical practices of church leaders do not always receive the same press, they happen almost as regularly, despite our contrary expectations. The larger the church or parachurch agency becomes, the greater the opportunity for dishonest conduct to occur. It is also the case that subordinates rarely reveal the occurrence of such behaviour when asked to provide input into performance evaluations. Remember that lead pastors exercise considerable “power” within the church agency and subordinates are aware of this explicitly or implicitly.

Jack Zenger in a recent blog article entitled “Ethics in Leadership: The 8 Rules to Prevent Misuses of Corporate Power” (www.forbes.com (26/06/2012)) notes that Lord Acton in 1887 observed: “Great men are almost always bad men.” Biblical examples abound to reinforce this observation. Zenger reveals that in the decades they “have been collecting 360 degree feedback data about leaders….one of the curious things…is that while peers, direct reports (subordinates) and bosses are seemingly perceptive and honest about their colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses, when it comes to evaluating honesty and integrity, there is little dispersion in the scores.80% of the time people rate themselves between a 4 and 5 on a 5 point scale.” Yet, Zenger goes on to observe, “the egregious acts of dishonesty that destroy careers…have been generally executed by people who hold the most senior roles in their firm.”

Zenger’s observations come from his work in the corporate sector and so I would not propose a direct correlation with the degree of honesty and integrity practiced by church leaders. However, human nature being what it is and the various reports that reveal that dishonesty and lack of integrity also occur among church leaders, chairpersons of church boards ignore this reality at their peril.

So what can a chairperson do to help a lead pastor and church board not only put in place good policies, but exercise the due diligence necessary to enforce such policies? But perhaps more significantly, are there any practices that a chairperson might suggest to a church board that might encourage and sustain the moral and spiritual discipline of integrity, both among the board members and the key employees? As chairperson you do not want to lead with a stance of intense and continual suspicion, but along with trust has to come questioning and appropriate accountability. Honest leaders value integrity and will understand and endorse this perspective. Excessive protest by a church leader to the implementation of such measures may indicate a real or potential issue.

What polices and practices are important for a church board to develop so that the board members and key employees know and operate within appropriate boundaries? As your congregation grows, the organization becomes more complex and the ability of the board members to keep tabs on all aspects of the agency diminishes. As a consequence, more and more trust is placed in the key employees by the board for the managing leadership of the congregation. When this occurs, more authority has to be delegated to the key employees for the good operation and oversight of the congregation. With greater authority comes greater temptation to abuse or misuse this authority whether intentionally or unintentionally. New checks and balances become necessary.

a. Define carefully what the key employees have authority to do without gaining board permission and the circumstances under which they have to receive board approval before proceeding. I think Carver is probably right in suggesting that it is easier and more effective for a board to define what kinds of actions and behaviours are not acceptable, i.e. use negative statements. What remains undefined marks the boundary of authority the board delegates to the leadership. Board members have to remember, however, that delegated authority is not giving away responsibility for that authority. That is why consistent reporting about the right things is an essential part of the delegation process. And it is the board that defines what the reports of the key leadership should discuss.

b. Implement effective and consistent annual performance evaluations for all key employees. Of course there will be protests if this is a new initiative, but you have to be persistant. Without evaluation accountability withers. Fairness and due process are also important so that employees have confidence in the system. Similarly the board has to act upon the information it receives, otherwise employees will come to treat the evaluations with little seriousness. Implementing this well and consistently is one of the most difficult church board operations.

c. Implement a “whistleblower” policy. Essentially this means that the board guarantees that employees who reveal malpractice by leadership will be cared for and not summarily dismissed. In other words if a church board expects  subordinate employees to take the risk of reporting unethical or illegal behaviour, then the board also has the duty to protect the employee from abusive behaviour of the leader who is the subject of the accusation. This could include guarantee of anonymity.

d. If a church board gives the key leadership the authority to control employee perquisites that can be used for personal benefit, then the board should ensure that the leadership does not use these perquisites abusively.

e. It is wise for a church board to limit access by key employees to large sums of money without strict guidelines for transparency and accountability.

If you are the chairperson of a church board, ask yourself three questions:

1. Is the authority of the key  employees clearly defined?

2. Do the board members really know how the key leaders are executing their mandates?

3. Do the board members learn about serious problems within the congregation/employees directly from the lead pastor or from some other source?

If you cannot give a positive answer to all three questions, then perhaps your board needs to encourage honesty and integrity by “strengthening behaviours that correspond with ethical conduct.”

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