146. The Dangers of a “Cocoon Mentality” — Is your Church Board Getting the Right Information?

In several contexts recently I have noted increased emphasis on a nonprofit board’s need and right to know all pertinent information related to significant decisions. When the CEO is the only source for the board’s information, undoubtedly the board members can benefit in several ways from the filter through which the information is presented. However, it is filtered information and this brings the potential danger that important information is not getting to the board. As a result their decisions are not as wise or prudent as they should or could be.

I do not wish to impugn the integrity of every nonprofit CEO or lead pastor. That would be inappropriate. However, we all know that our perceptions of reality and evaluation of data suffer from subjectivity. When a lead pastor presents a decision brief to a church board, that brief will be based upon a selection of the data and address only some of the issues, no matter how careful or truthful the lead pastor may be in drafting the brief. As the Scriptures tell us, a multitude of counselors does bring wisdom. Multiple streams of information give access to diverse perspectives which can influence the discussion and decision in beneficial ways.

A chairperson’s primary duty revolves around facilitating effective board operations. This includes assisting the board to access pertinent information to make informed decisions. Boards who work together for significant periods of time with the same CEO can develop a cocoon mentality. All their information comes from the administration. It is this same administration that is asking the board to make certain decisions. The opportunities for conflicts of interest in this kind of situation multiply. Consciously or subconsciously the administration tends to select the information given the board members, anticipating the decisions that they believe the board members need to make (for whatever reasons). Their motivations may appear to them to be fully above board, but it is too easy for the information to be manipulated and skewed to achieve a pre-determined outcome.

If the congregation has entrusted to the church board the responsibility to advance its mission, conserve resources, and manage risk, then the board has the need and right to know all pertinent information that will enable it to steward that trust prudently. Whether information may be prejudicial to the outcome desired by a staff person or a particular group in the congregation is irrelevant. When a church board makes a decision based on incomplete, misleading, or out-of-date information, it cannot exercise appropriate risk management. As well, there is the additional issue of ethical misconduct on the part of the person(s) presenting reports that misconstrue the data.

How does a chairperson assist a church board to avoid this danger of information isolation and being misled in its decision-making?

1. Help the board members learn how to ask astute, probing questions. Such questions do not need to be offensive, but they do need to be ‘edgy’. For example, if the board is being presented with one remedy to a particular issue, then a board member might ask “what other options were considered and why were they rejected?” If a proposal seems soft in terms of defined outcomes, then as chair you might ask “how will the board know when we have succeeded and how will we measure progress along the way?” The chair needs to ensure that board members have a safe environment in which to ask such probing questions.

2. If your board does not have a whistle-blowing policy, then as chair introduce this as a topic of discussion and provide the board with a sample policy. Such a policy gives employees the assurance that should misconduct be happening in the agency and they feel an ethical obligation to report it, they have a safe means by which to inform the board.

2. In the case of particularly critical decisions, the chair may suggest that the board access external expertise in order to tap into broader streams of information. Alternative perspectives are useful in discerning the viability of perceived responses. The consultant may be able to link your board with another church that has worked through the same issue successfully. Or perhaps there are legal aspects to the decision that the board has not perceived.

4. Tap into board wisdom. In some cases board members will possess special expertise which you as chair might invite them to share in the discussion. Of course, it is their fiduciary duty to do so, but some board members may not see the connection between the issue under discussion and their personal expertise. It may well be that a board members knows more about the issue or some segment of it than the staff person presenting it. However, the board member may be reluctant to contribute lest he or she seem to be critical of the staff person.

5. When the board faces a major decision (e.g. whether to build a facility, whether to initiate a church plant or satellite campus, etc.), the chair may suggest that the board form an adhoc taskforce to give leadership to its own investigation. While respecting the input of staff, the board may feel it is important and necessary in terms of congregational credibility for it to demonstrate that it has done its due diligence in forming a particular recommendation.

Sometimes board members do not want to know more information because they already think they know how to proceed. For other board members efficiency is more important than effectiveness and they just want to make the decision without delay. In some cases board members are urged to make the decision because a crisis mentality is being projected. In all of these situations the board chair has to remind the board of its ultimate responsibility as stewards of the mission and the importance of making a decision that is in the best interests of the congregation, rather than any group or person within the congregation.

If a church board discovers that it has been misled intentionally by one or more staff members regarding a matter, how might the chair advise the board in its response? If the board determines that this is case of deliberate deception by someone, then direct action will be advisable. If it is a board member, probably resignation is in order. If it is a staff person, then a strong reprimand would be in order with a warning that a repeat offense will result in dismissal.

The board has to guard its ability to steward the trust of the congregation and its own effectiveness. The board looks to the chairperson to help it guard this trust effectively.

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