237. Addressing Dissent and Building Consensus in Church Boards (Article 2)

In article #236 I introduced the challenge that dissent within a church board presents to a board chair. Based on analysis proposed by the Brown Governance Letter of August 2014 I enumerated several causes for dissent. The premise is that if a church board chair can identify and address the reason why a board member may be dissenting from general board direction, then there is opportunity to build consensus.

Information gaps foster dissent. If all church board members cannot access the same information, then those “not in the know” may feel that they lack the data upon which to make a truly informed decision. So their response to a proposed direction or initiative is negative. It should be a fairly straightforward matter to remedy this deficit and to ensure that in the future all board members are treated equally in the distribution of information. However, even when all the board members have access to the same information, some board members may believe that the information provided does not address specific issues or misrepresents reality. In this case the chair should direct those proposing the matter to do more research and provide that information to the board members. With this in hand consensus might be achieved. One could view this as a form of risk management.

It is a chairperson’s responsibility to ensure that the board members possess the right and sufficient information so that they can exercise their due diligence in making good decisions. Sometimes boards have to communicate to those making proposals what kind of information they require in order to reach a decision. Not everyone will be aware of the board’s needs in such matters.

Some board members will experience knowledge or expertise gaps that may generate dissent. I suspect that one area in which this commonly occurs relates to financial matters. Board members whose professional life is in the field of accounting have little discomfort in dealing with financial statements and understanding how funding mechanisms work. Those who lack this professional competence often struggle to make sense of such statements, wondering what in fact they are telling the board about the financial state of the congregation. The result is that board members who lack this expertise on the one hand may be much more conservative or cautious when it comes to financial issues. On the other hand, the lack of such expertise may cause some board members to propose actions which financially would be unwise. Dissent occurs in each case but for different reasons, but it all boils down to knowledge gaps.

Another area where this occurs frequently among church boards relates to theological issues. Church boards often have to discern theological direction for congregations. When such matters hit the board agenda, some board members automatically will defer to whatever the pastor says, regarding him as the “theological expert.” Others, however, will feel that they have to understand the issue clearly so that they know the board will be acting in obedience to God’s Word. Deficits in theological understanding can create significant dissent. Bringing the board to consensus on such matters often requires careful and extensive discussion.

Agency direction gaps can generate some of the fiercest and protracted dissent. Agency direction relates to key ends — what should be the agency’s key focus and how should resources be expended to accomplish these ends. Consider how often such matters come to a church board in the form of proposing a new ministry, or adding a new staff position, or making significant decisions re facilities. These all relate to agency direction and entail the use of significant resources. Dissent will arise as board members discuss the wisdom of such an investment and whether in fact it possesses the priority that the initiators claim. This is especially the case if funding for this initiative is not currently available. The risks attendant to such decisions should not be underestimated.

I think dissent in such cases can be difficult to resolve. It may be necessary for the chairperson to suggest to the board that such a decision be based upon vote with a pre-set margin of majority for approval. This prevents one or two board members from preventing implementation, but also requires the board members to discuss the matter thoroughly and make sure objections are addressed as completely as possible. Such decisions will usually require congregational approval or ratification at some point and so getting answers to objections raised in the board meeting prepares the board to present the case to the congregation.

Resolving such matters often will require careful consideration of options, evaluation of each option’s merits, reflection on the mission and vision and what is necessary to advance it at this time, and assessment of the congregation’s ability to sustain the new initiative over time.


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