238. Addressing Dissent and Building Consensus in Church Boards (Article 3)

This is the third in a series of articles addressing the causes of dissent within a church board and possible ways to remove it and develop consensus. In this blog article we consider three additional factors generating dissent — strategy gaps, political gaps, and ethical or values gaps.

It is often the case that church boards have to choose between several different strategic options because they face various constraints. These could be financial, theological, limitations of facilities, lack of personnel/volunteers, etc. Sorting out which strategic option to pursue generates at times some ‘fierce conversations.’ Sometimes conflict of interest issues interfere because one option may have ‘benefits’ for someone a board member knows. At other times a board member may feel that a particular option would be more acceptable to the ‘constituency’ in the congregation that he or she thinks they ‘represent.’ Or perhaps a board member has a deep commitment to certain ministry in the congregation and believes that one option will advance that ministry to a greater extent. Whatever the motive might be, discerning which strategic option should take priority generates dissent.

In such cases a chairperson might suggest to the board members several options. They could stage the implementation of various strategic options so that the decision is to defer and not decide against a particular direction. The board could conduct a more in depth evaluation of the two leading options and seek to define as clearly as possible the benefits and risks associated with each, as well as their respective fit with the agreed mission and vision. Sometimes taking a break in the discussion, letting board members have informal discussions among themselves, and then reconvening for a time of prayer and decision can encourage consensus. If the board member(s) dissenting continue to maintain this position, then the board will have to decide whether to call for a vote and simply record the dissenting voters. The chair will have to watch how such members act subsequently when the strategic direction comes up for further discussion. Do they continue to resist and object or do they act in good faith to assist the board in implementing its decision.

Political gaps happen when a board member dissents for the purpose of making a point. The presenting issue probably in itself is not something the board member disagrees with, but the member believes he has to dissent for other reasons. The board member may have had some issues with the board chair and wants to make things difficult for the chair’s leadership. Or perhaps something has been said by the lead pastor to upset the board member and so he decides to oppose the lead pastor’s proposal to ‘teach him a lesson.’ The motives might vary, but the behaviour tends to be self-interested. The board member in acting like this has lost sight of his or her responsibility to be loyal to the agency’s mission. If a chair perceives that a board member is dissenting for such motives, then he or she will need to reach out to the board member and seek to repair relationships.

Another potential reason for dissent are ethical or values gaps. Even though the board members may have a written description of the values that they support, how board members interpret the application of those values statements may differ. For example, a stewardship committee of the board may propose a means to raise funds for a certain project that one or more board members consider questionable in terms of Canada Revenue Agency regulations covering the kinds of gifts for which a registered non-profit charity can provide a tax-receipt. Despite assurances that the proposed fund-raising scheme is ‘legal’ the board members continue to oppose it because to them it flirts with potential illegality. Or perhaps the congregation is in a rough patch financially and the board has to consider reducing staff. When a proposal is brought forward, several board members dissent because they believe the actions recommended violate verbal commitments made by the board when the affected staff members were appointed. Although the changes proposed might be legal under labour laws, the board members believe they violate the moral position of the board.

In such cases the chairperson should encourage the entire board to re-examine the proposition to discern whether or not it is legal as well as ethical. If the majority of the board continue to affirm its appropriateness and call for the question, then those who continue to dissent should ask that the minutes show that they voted in opposition by naming them. If the decision subsequently creates liability, then at least the dissenting board members have record of their opposition. If the dissenting members feel strongly enough about the issue, they also have the option of resigning.

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