198. “Tripwires” Signalling Unhealthy Board Dynamics

According to Wikipedia, the fountain of all knowledge, a “tripwire” is a “passive triggering mechanism” detecting some kind of motion or movement. Within small groups of people such as church boards certain behaviours when observed can serve a chairperson as a “tripwire,” signalling that the board generally or a board member in particular is losing effectiveness. The reality is that despite our hard work to achieve a good level of board effectiveness, things never stay in steady state for long. Too many changeable factors in the life of church boards conspire to erode board capacity.

You might imagine a situation in which the composition of your church board changes by 50% in one year. As chairperson you suddenly discover that the well-functioning group that gave the congregation excellent governance leadership last year no longer exists. Some of the best board leaders have completed their terms and the new members, fine people one and all, have very little past board experience. The board dynamics have suddenly taken a dramatic tilt and it will take several months or more to rebuild board effectiveness to previous levels.

Some “tripwires” surface immediately; others may take a year or two to become evident. Some are quite subtle; others are very overt, recognizable by most board members.

What might some of these “tripwires” be that signal a loss of board effectiveness,  particularly within a church board context?

1. When the board passes key decisions without significant discussion, hard questioning or any dissent. If this is happening it may suggest that the board has become complacent, following the lead of the church administration without sufficient evaluation. Or, perhaps the board members have lost interest in the proceedings.

2. When one or two board members are dominating discussions. Such an occurrence would indicate that some board members are not pulling their weight. Perhaps they feel intimidated or are not coming prepared for the board discussions. Conversely those who are dominating may feel somehow privileged or that their voice should carry more weight. They may also be operating on the misapprehension that as board members they are representing some part of the congregational constituency and feel compelled to present those particular views vigorously.

3. When board agendas arrive the night before the meeting and no minutes are available. In such cases the fault lies squarely in the lap of the chairperson. He or she is failing to give the board the opportunity to be effective. When chairpersons act in this way, it may signal that they are overwhelmed with their responsibility or lack experience in good board leadership or have lost motivation to lead the board well.

4. When board members are asked to make decisions in the absence of necessary information. Boards members who allow this to happen are assuming significant risk. They cannot exercise due diligence in their decisions. They are failing to steward the trust granted to them by the congregation to provide the strategic leadership. Or it may be that the church administration lacks respect for the board and does not think the board has the right to interfere in the administration’s leadership.

5. When conflict of interest situations are passed over and ignored. Sometimes church board members recognize quite clearly that another board member is voting even he/she has an undeclared conflict of interest. Yet no one challenges the activity. Different factors may be operative, but at the end of the day the entire board loses effectiveness because no one is acting in the best interests of the board.

6. When the board’s expectations of the lead pastor are not defined carefully in writing, delimiting this leader’s authority and responsibility. This situation is a classic breeding ground for board-pastor conflict. Lack of clarity in this matter generates confusion, eviscerates accountability, and creates enormous frustration on the part of the lead pastor. No one knows the ground rules and chaos easily erupts.

7. When the board conducts no annual performance evaluation of the lead pastor for at least two years. If this is happening in your board context, then you know that accountability is deteriorating and board discipline is under siege. If the lead pastor is not pressing the board to fulfill its responsibility in this matter, then your board is moving into dangerous territory. When the board does decide to conduct an evaluation, the pastor will begin wondering “why now?”

8. When church board meetings begin without prayer and worship. Everyone knows when this is occurring. If this represents a sudden change from previous practice, then board members need to challenge the chair’s arrangement of the agenda. If conversely this has been a continuing practice, then it signals that the spiritual awareness of the board members regarding their collective work is at a low ebb. Without this spiritual ethos functioning at a high level, a church board is just another non-profit board, but cut-off from its values-base.

9. When some board member breaks the code of conduct in regards to confidentiality. This is probably one of the most evident indicators of serious church board dysfunction. The board member(s) involved is violating the trust of the other board members and indicating his or her own lack of trust in the processes of the board. If such a matter is not addressed, then the board’s ability to make tough decisions will be compromised.

10. When a board member does not support the board decisions publicly. A church board has to speak with one voice if it is retain the trust of the congregation. When the voice becomes fragmented, the congregation does not know where the board is leading or what the board may be saying. Unhealthy conflict generally ensues.

Not every observed “tripwire” is as serious as others. However, when they persist or multiply, their effect is corrosive. Once observed the chairperson needs to think and pray about the underlying issue that is causing this behaviour and discern the best way to advise the board to remedy it.

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