185. Improving Church Board Dynamics — Who’s Talking With Whom in the Boardroom?

Board chairs know from experience that some board members are talkers and others — well let’s say they speak quite selectively. By virtue of their role lead pastors speak frequently within board meetings, with direction of communication generally being from the lead pastor to the board members. From this conversational maelstrom a board chair has the responsibility to bring the board to decisions, hopefully good ones.

We know that allowing one or two people to dominate board conversation is not healthy and counter-productive to effective board operations. But perhaps equally important is encouraging robust conversation between board members, not just between board members and paid staff, during the meeting. We should not expect the lead pastor to do most of the talking.

The lead pastor frequently is both the expert who speaks as a primary leader of the organization, as well as a member of the board. And so the chair has to exercise wisdom during the meeting to provide enough opportunity for the lead pastor to speak to issues as primary leader, but not to allow this person to dominate the conversation. This can be a tough thing to manage because the board members will defer to the lead pastor as expert, assuming that his views will be the right views. And usually they will be. However, for the board members to fulfill their due diligence requires them to talk with one another about the decisions. They need to know what other board members are thinking as they evaluate the pros and cons of an issue. To be in the position of being “told” what is the right decision means that they are failing in their responsibilities.

For example, often within the board agenda will be a proposal from the staff regarding a specific issue. Because communications between the board and the staff normally come through the lead pastor, this person presents the report. It is natural then that the lead pastor present the proposal, answering questions and clarifying issues. However, once the board members believe they have gathered the necessary information to understand the proposal and its implications, they still have to make a decision whether to accept it or not. The lead pastor, both as staff person and as board member, needs to discern when the discussion in the board is shifting from information gathering to the processing of the decision. Presumably he will be wearing his board “hat” during the decision discussion. The board members as well need to perceive when the discussion shifts from information gathering to decision-making, because in the decision discussion they need to be talking primarily with each other, i.e. board member to board member, not with staff.

It would be an interesting exercise to have one of your board members quietly track the  direction of conversations during a board meeting. Who talks to whom? What percentage of the conversations are between the lead pastor and a board person and what percentage of the conversations occur between board members. This exercise could also track which board members have those conversations. It would be wise to track this over several meetings so that the issues on the agenda do not bias the results. It is probably also prudent to keep the results confidential because the goal is not to embarrass anyone but to understand the current board dynamics.

If the results show that most of the conversations happen in one direction — from the lead pastor to one or several board members, then some changes probably need to occur. If the results show that little interaction is occurring directly between board members, again some encouragement towards such two-way interactions would probably be a good thing. When the discussions include dynamic, informed, interactive exchanges between board members, it means they are working hard to process the issues. They are taking their stewardship role seriously. If this is not occurring then perhaps they do not have the necessary information or maybe they feel they do not have permission to speak to the issues.

What can you as board chair do to encourage board member to board member discussion? Perhaps one strategy would be to distinguish more careful in board discussions when the board is transitioning from information gathering to decision-making. The board should be able to ask questions of anyone when gathering information. However, once the board transitions to decision-making, then as chair you need to keep the discussion among the board members, unless some issues emerge that need more clarification.

Another strategy would be to have the board break into cluster groups of two or three and analyze the possible decisions in terms of which one will advance the congregation’s mission most effectively.

Whatever strategy you select as chair, the important thing is to make sure board members are talking with board members about the significant decisions. Without this occurring board members cannot fulfill the stewardship of their role.



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